In performing for a dynamic Pilates manly you need a calm and inspiring space to be effective. The last couple of weeks I have been hands on with my Pilates clients with a goal of helping them get better at their 100’s curl. In addition to the Hundred, many clients also want to get better with articulation of the upper back on exercises like the Roll Up, Teaser and Neck Pull. All of these exercises are challenging, especially for beginners.
If you watch participants executing any of the above Pilates exercises, you’ll either notice a smooth, sequential articulation of the spine – in which case the exercises are easy! Or the head leads, then the next place the body bends is almost at the waist! When this happens, the upper body is moving as a “chunk.” Instead of the back muscles releasing and breastbone softening to help the front of the body bend more.
When the whole chest muscle is rigid, it limits smooth movement thus making it hard to properly activate the abdominal muscle for efficient core support. I have a couple of fundamental, warm-up exercises and helpful tips that my Pilates clients use to free up their upper back and improve their ability to bend forwards and backwards with ease for the majority, if not all of their Pilates exercises.
1. Active Expansion and Contraction of the Ribs (rise and fall)
When breathing in, the whole ribcage fills with air and ribs spread apart. When breathing out, the ribs should compress, so there’s always pliability through the entire chest, both a rise and fall of the ribs with every inhale and exhale.
Put the effort on the exhale to discover and feel the top ribs (right underneath the collar bones and below the armpits) begin softening or actively come closer together when breathing out. Many people expand the ribs and chest, but don’t release these muscles upon exhaling.
This active rise and fall of the ribs stretches the spine and assists the shoulder to drop placing your back in a better position to articulate well as you are curling the head and shoulders up of the mat during workout.
Inhale to fill the ribcage from the bottom to the top. Exhale to empty the ribs from the top to the bottom.
Repeat 5-10 breaths. Incorporate this rise and fall rib movement into all your exercises.
2. Standing Roll Down on the Wall
Stand with your back against the wall, and legs either together or hip-width apart; Place the legs as far out to the front as necessary to get the entire back from your tailbone to the head firmly pressed to the wall.
The arms and shoulders remain relaxed during the exercise, also maintain the work and support from your core muscles lifting up, in, and back to the wall throughout the exercise to assist keeping the lower back firmly against the wall.
Stand tall by taking a deep breath in, as you exhale nod the chin down to your chest. Continue breathing in and out as you continue to bend forward. Keep your eyes on the breastbone as it slides down the front of your shirt and moves back towards the wall between the shoulder blades. Make sure the lower abs stay lifted, as you continue breathing bending forward to the bottom of the breastbone/bottom tips of the shoulder blades.
Take as many breaths as needed to roll down the wall peeling one segment of the back off the wall at a time to the bottom of the shoulder blades. Take as many breaths as needed to roll back up to a tall standing position one segment at a time. Lower back and lower abs stay firmly against the wall. The breastbone softens and slides down as you curl forward. The shoulder blades pull down and the breastbone slides up as you return to a tall standing position with the low back against the wall.
Repeat 5-10 times.
If chest and upper back tends to stay held tight as a chunk, place your hands on your breastbone to feel it soften back to the wall as you begin to roll forward. Then continue walking your hands down the front of your shirt to cue your abs to work, and spine to release for smooth one vertebrae at a time bending to roll down and back up.
3. Breastbone Slide Exercise
Start standing facing a wall and set both your hands on the wall in a “push-up” position. Hold the arms straight at shoulder height and keep the abdominal muscle lifted. Breathe in to stand tall and then exhale to slide the breastbone down the front of your shirt to flex the upper back. The bottom tips of the shoulder area should spread wide to generate room for the breastbone to relocate backwards in between the shoulder blades while bending the spine.
Breathe in and return to center – standing tall. Exhale to pull the shoulder blades down and start to slide the breastbone up and forward reaching it towards the wall in front of you. Keep the elbows straight and feel the upper back arch as the breastbone slides up, out, and forward. Inhale to continue sliding the breastbone up as the upper back moves into extension, exhale to return to center.
Repeat 5-10 times
There is a difference between pinching and spreading the shoulder blades, bending and straightening the elbows, and sliding the breastbone up and down to bend and extend the spine. Feel the shoulder blades move apart and together because the spine is moving. If the elbows stay straight you will get more movement from the breastbone and upper back.
The focus of these 3 exercises is to improve the rib, breastbone and upper back movement. Once you feel things moving more, take this body awareness and your new and improved movement habits back to all of the other Pilates exercises that need a forward bend. Hand support behind the head can help when starting to transfer these concepts to curling the head and torso off the mat. The Roll Down Bar and Push through Bar on the Cadillac can also be beneficial to assist forward bending and strengthening these new muscle habits.
Improving the flexibility on the whole spine can improve body alignment; this is most beneficial to every Pilates exercise that requires a C-Curve. These breastbone and upper back mobility tips and fundamental exercises are great to include in Pilates workouts, and also make great “homework” exercises!
Have Fun Focusing on Improving Your Forward Bending for a Healthy Spine!
Apply what you’ve learned with these 3 Simple spine bending exercises to all the exercises in your workout. Practice your Pilates Matwork with an easy-to-follow class on your iPhone or MP3 player. Get the Centerworks Pilates Audio CD/MP3’s – Basic, Beginner-Intermediate, Intermediate, and Magic Circle Matwork Classes available at: http://www.centerworks.com/store/category/pilates-cd-and-mp3-workouts/
Aliesa George is a Pilates, Foot Fitness, and Functional Movement expert. Founder of Centerworks, author of Fantastic Feet! and creator other wellness resources and workshops, she is committed to helping students & health professionals develop their belief in whole-body health, unlimited potential, and positive change.
To learn more about the Centerworks products, services and resources available to improve your whole-body health visit: http://www.Centerworks.com
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