Tag Archives: shoulders

New to pilates?

There is so much to take on board in the early classes that there isn’t always time for me as instructor to ‘say’ it all; I find it’s better to get clients moving and for them to embody the principles along the way. But it helps to have some background knowledge, so here are some tips for those new to pilates:

All about the deep abdominals

Getting in touch with the deep abdominals – especially the transversus abdominus (TA) – is the most important. This TA muscle is involuntarily fired up when you gently contract and lift your pelvic floor muscle. The pelvic floor muscle is the one you would contract if you had to stop urination mid-stream. When the deep abs are working, you are creating a very stable torso. Use every breath out (‘exxxxxhale’) as an opportunity to re-engage your abs and pull them in towards your spine with a little lift up though the pelvic floor.

Slow and with control

Doing things slowly and with control yields more results than rushing the moves. The Pilates method was originally named Contrology (the study of control) to emphasise this very concept. Slower pace means you’re turning on stabilising muscles and you’re creating more isometric contractions. Pilates is not a race.

Chin holding egg against chest
A series of abdominal exercises takes place in a typical mat class with the head held off the floor unsupported, as in Ab Prep, Hundreds or Single Leg Stretch. In these challenging moves, it’s common either to jam the chin down to the chest (leading with the head) or to stare at the ceiling with the chin jutting out.

The chin should be a little closer to the chest than usual (slight head nod) as if you’re gently holding an egg between these two body parts. This head and neck position also helps to round the upper spine. The head nod precedes the lift of the shoulders off the floor. When lifting your head and shoulders, feel like something is pulling your chest towards your knees. Eye line to knees.

If your upper abs are weak, the correct position will be challenging. Avoid neck tension at all costs! A very valid option is to keep the head and shoulders down or support the head with your hands.

About ‘imprinting’
In pilates exercises when both legs are off the mat, you will often be asked to round your low back (‘imprint’) and gently get your lumbar vertebrae to make contact with the mat. This protects your lower back when the load is great. However, think of it as using your abs at front of your body to lengthen your back rather than jamming your vertebrae to the mat. If you can stabilise you low back without imprinting, when your legs are in the air, that is even better. At all costs, avoid your low back arching away from the mat when your legs are in the air!

Where are your shoulders?
Your shoulders should be anchored down your back. It’s very normal to overuse the neck muscles and take the shoulders up towards your ears. Hunched shoulders create undue tension in the neck and upper body. Focus on the shoulder blades sliding down your back, giving you an elegant swan-ike neck. Think of your head as a helium balloon and of your shoulders melting down your back.

Not just while on the mat

Take the sensations, body awareness and posture cues you get in your class with you into your week. Lessons learned on the mat can help you walk, hike, bike and run better; they will also help you avoid back pain on long car trips and neck pain from spending too much time sitting at a computer.

pilates lift

Lift the crown of the head while dropping the shoulders

liftOne of areas of difficulty I regularly observe in my clients is in the shoulders and neck.

Many people are habitually tense in the shoulders. The head is often held forward, out of alignment with the cervical spine. All those hours staring at a smartphone, doing computer work – or slouching starting with the lumbar spine – take their toll.

Muscles at the back of the neck and shoulders tend to become elongated while others at the front get tighter and shortened.

It takes good focus and practice to release and drop the shoulders into a good place, while releasing upwards through the very top of your skull.

Carrying a weight on the crown of the head as many African women do out of necessity for essentials such as water is luckily not asked of us in our privileged lives. But we can learn from how these women move. Imagine you are carrying a basket of roses.

The disciplined shoulder and neck movements of pilates really help to rebalance our elongated and shortened neck muscles. Over time, pilates restores equilibrium.

Where pilates really helps is with getting an ongoing sense of your posture. It is not a quick fix but something that grows and becomes part of your everyday being.

Noticing where your head is becomes a habit

One of the best things about doing pilates regularly is that you develop awareness of your posture – and you improve it steadily and surely. As a pilates teacher, I am always proud when I see my clients stand tall and connected with their bodies.
Poor posture makes your back vulnerable to fatigue, strain, and injuries. Good posture makes you stronger, less prone to back ache; good posture also makes you look taller!
Changing your postural habits is a decision; you need to retrain your muscles, you need to tune in.
The first step is to become aware of the position of your body. Start to notice the position of your head. The head should sit over the torso, not in front it. The chin should be parallel with the floor. The chest should be lifted slightly but not jutting forward, the shoulders should be down and back but soft and relaxed. The ears, shoulders and pelvis should line up (when viewed from the side).
The pelvis should be in neutral. [What ‘neutral’ means deserves another post, but, briefly, tilting the top of the pelvis forward increases the curve in the lower back; tilting the pelvis backward flattens or decreases the curve in the lower back.]
Keep the shoulder blades back and down but don’t overdo it. The shoulders should be relaxed.
Check your own posture several times a day, take note of your posture. Is your head centred over your torso? Is your chest slightly elevated? Are your shoulders down and relaxed? Is the curve in the lower back supported while you are sitting?
Do this simple posture exercise several times a day! Release your shoulders away from your ears, lengthen your neck by feeling the crown of your head lift upwards, squeeze your shoulder blades together – hold for 10 seconds. This will strengthen the upper back muscles that keep your shoulder blades in a good position.
Remember that good shoulder position does not mean rigid posture. Soften those shoulders!