Is there a doctor in the house? What is your job and what is not your job?

What's Your Tool?

What’s Your Job?

Well, I thought I’d be writing an article on something completely different today, but I will share that with you next time. It has become more and more obvious to me that we need to discuss Scope of Practice. I know, I know…it sounds boring…but, as usual, I will attempt to make it a non-boring subject! Let’s go!

What is your job? Really. As a Pilates teacher, what is your job? What are you?
You are a personal fitness trainer.
A personal trainer of an extremely refined “phylum” of exercise.
You are not a physiotherapist (unless you’re trained as one).
You are not a massage therapist (unless you’re trained as one).
You are not a psychotherapist (unless you’re trained as one).
You are an exercise trainer in the modality of Pilates. Whatever style of Pilates.
You are extremely valuable in that role. Pilates proves itself over and over to be a very good form of exercise, especially when applying a quality education in functional anatomy/kinesiology to the movements/actions/exercises.
Physical activity/exercise is essential to the health of any human being.
You are valuable by encouraging healthy physical activity.

(Why is Shari saying this like that? What’s she getting at?)

It seems that both clients and Pilates teachers are starting to think that a Pilates teacher is something other than a high-end and very specialized exercise trainer. Just because we craft our sessions for the person in front of us; just because we can work around nearly all injuries and ailments; just because Pilates can often support a person’s system so well that healing occurs when nothing else seems to work…this does not mean that you bear the responsibility for fixing anyone.

Let’s make that clear: Your job is to exercise people working around their injury or ailment. Not into it. You do not fix or heal anyone. Hopefully, the work you do creates an environment (simply by providing a safe place for movement) that allows this person to be more healthy as an organism and that supports the opportunity for healing in an ailing area or system. You do not fix or heal people.

Why Pilates (and other movement modalities) seems to make this possible…?
That’s another article all together and the focus of my life’s work. (Join me in The Vertical Workshop Pilates Teacher Intensives or stay tuned for many more things…)
For the moment, let’s stick to this.

It seems as though Pilates teachers are feeling a lot of pressure to cure ailments. Your client has osteonecrosis in her knee. I see people all of social media forums asking what to do. I get emails asking what to do. I’ll tell you what to do: Work around that knee. Only do movements, exercises, ranges of motion (ROM) that will not even spark a bit of pain. Strengthen the rest of the body and work around that knee. Pick what exercises, versions of exercises, physical set ups and settings on apparatus to make sure that poor knee doesn’t have a negative experience at all. Choose wisely what to do and what not to do.
And that means you do not tell your client that you can “fix” her knee. You will not use Pilates to help heal that knee. You might say “Because in Pilates we work around your ailing joint, avoiding it at all costs, and strengthen the rest of your body so well, it appears that your body will have a better chance at healing itself.” You see…your client will heal herself. Or she’ll get an operation or go to physiotherapy or get an injection or live with the pain. But you cannot claim that Pilates is going to fix her.
Let’s play out another scenario:
Your client comes to you with a rotator cuff tear. Whether this is a new client or a client you’ve been working with for some time what do you do?
Right. You avoid that shoulder girdle and shoulder joint in the workout. You find out what  ROM of the arm this client has where there is no pain and work within the parameters of…no pain. Indeed, you ask if he has gone to the doctor, physio, etc. You ask if he is getting any treatment and doing any other exercise. Then you create a workout that works around that area. Is it going to be a lot of legs and lower torso exercises? Sure. Not ideal and imbalanced? Sure. And that has to be OK. Do you go in and try to teach this person good shoulder girdle mechanics? Not if the shoulder is injured and in pain. When this person is healed up enough to mobilize his shoulder girdle, then you can address the shoulder girdle mechanics, but…just avoid the area at first. Your job is to give this person a workout working around the area of injury.

It’s tempting, I know it is! It’s tempting to try to heal this person. However, you simply do not have the qualifications for it AND AND AND…it appears that very often just working around a joint really does help a person heal! I mean it! It’s holistic.

Now, the thing is, the Pilates teacher community is one of the most wonderfully giving groups around. We just want to help! We feel so deeply for our clients and want people to feel good…but the pressure that I see building up in the community is unnecessary and damaging. Release yourself from this pressure. It’s not your job to fix people. It’s your job to give them amazing exercise around their ailment so that they can perhaps heal themselves…which is better than you trying to fix them.

I will strongly encourage you to learn about each ailment your clients come to you with. You must educate yourself on whatever they bring your way. Why? So that you can figure out how to work around it. One way to learn? Google. Yes, our good friend Google. Then you have to be wise about what you’re reading when you search an ailment. Please just learn about the pathology. The anatomy of the ailment. Great websites for lay-people http//
National Library of Medicine:
Mayo Clinic:

Learn about the ailment or injury, take the pressure off of yourself and work around ailments.

Your job as a Pilates teacher is amazing! You are good enough and great enough doing what you do as a very high-end specialized personal trainer. You train people’s bodies to strengthen and heal themselves! Goodness! Pilates teachers are great!

***Do you need help figuring out how to work around different parts of the body or ailments? Reach out to me! I will teach you! I’ll share my tried and true, well-worked guidelines of how to educate yourself and work around anything! (That’s what my Injuries, Ailments and Imbalances  as well as my Mysterious Aches and Pains workshops are all about.) We can work in workshops or private workshops on Skype or video conference. I’m glad to help.

Any questions? Just ask!
Enjoy teaching!
– Shari

****Thank you for having taken he time to read this article and I hope it encourages you to move forward in your teaching and practice in this stunning way!

If you have any questions at all or want to share your thoughts in the comment section, please do!

****Workshops: Please view the workshop list in the side column/bar. I hope to see you soon!

****Skype Sessions: Let’s work together no matter where we both are! I teach Skype sessions all over the world each week! Email me to set up a session!

****Consultation: Are there clients you’d like to discuss? Issues in the Pilates studio of any sort: Pilates exercises, biomechanics, teacher dynamics, teaching tools…anything else? We simply set up a Skype appointment and work together! Again, email me at

February 23, 2016 at 12:47 pm 11 comments

Your Favorite Client




Do you have a favorite client? Who is this client? What do you love about this client? How do you treat this client?

Was your answer: “My favorite client is Me, of course!”?
Hmmm…why not? Why is your favorite client someone other than you?

Alas, I will share a guilty pleasure of the past with you that taught me a valuable lesson: Some years ago, my grocery store checkout people kept telling me that I looked like this model from America’s Next Top Model. I mean so much so that they didn’t believe me when I said that I wasn’t her. Now…this is pretty funny considering that I am outrageously short to be one of those ladies. We might think it’s funny for other reasons, but I will just pretend that it is possible to mistaken me thusly…

In any case…of course I got curious about this show and started watching it. I think this was Season 3. It is a ridiculous show. I mean horrendous…except for the fashion and this one tip (or maybe two) that I actually learned from it. What’s so ridiculous and horrendous? Do we really need to see a bunch of massively emotionally messed up girls wearing stupid clothing, fighting and complaining about their blessed lives? No…still…

When asked who she thinks should win this particular season of America’s Next Top Model, this one hopeful participant said something akin to “I think Leslie should win. She is incredibly photogenic…” and some other things. Well…don’t you know that the judge practically handed her derrière to her and said something like this “Why would you be in a competition and not choose yourself as the winner? How can you succeed if you don’t think you’re able to win? You just lost the competition for yourself because you do not believe in yourself!”

And there it was.
From America’s Next Top Model.
Inspiration comes from the most unlikely of places.

OK…what was so interesting? It’s that we have to want ourselves to succeed. This woman couldn’t possibly win if she didn’t consider herself the absolute winner already. If you think someone else is going to win…someone else will. If you don’t think you can be the frontrunner…you cannot be.

Now…how does this relate to Pilates. Especially since those who know me know that I do not believe in competition. I say “Competition exists, but we do not have to be competitive”. In our world of Pilates, people always fear competition. Why? There are plenty of clients out there for all of us.

So…how this relates to Pilates is about how you think of yourself in Pilates…and how you treat yourself in Pilates. How you answer the question “Who is your favorite client?” is everything. If it’s Judy at 5pm on Tuesdays or Mark 3 times a week at 12noon…
Anyone who comes 3 times a week;
My celebrities;
That sweet older gentleman;
That young ballerina;
The football player;
The lady with diabetes and heart disease…
then you’ve got to reassess.
It’s got to be you. You must be your own favorite client.

Who should get the best workout of the day? You.
Who should get 3-5 sessions per week? You.
Whose injuries and ailments should heal because of Pilates? Yours.

Schedule in your workouts
Teach yourself with clear goals. You’re workout is FREE! Do it!
If your method doesn’t seem to help you balance out…ask for assistance from someone’s that does. I will help you! Just email me!

When you teach any other client, it’s always best if you have already had the best you can give…because you’re your own favorite client. That also means that you must treat yourself well in a workout. Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Work yourself out at your own level. Not some suppose’d teacher level. Meaning most teachers are not Super-Advanced or even Advanced. Could you be? If you’re consistent in your workouts and have a clear plan of development, then one day, but what if you’re not, right now. What if you work yourself out at the right level for you…like you would for your favorite client…who is now you?

So…that’s all I have to say about this. Really, it’s quite simple. Shift your focus of who is the winner; who is your favorite client. Why shouldn’t it be you? Why couldn’t it be you?

– Shari

****Thank you for having taken he time to read this article and I hope it encourages you to move forward in your teaching and practice in this stunning way!

If you have any questions at all or want to share your thoughts in the comment section, please do!

****Workshops: Please view the workshop list in the side column/bar. I hope to see you soon!

****Skype Sessions: Let’s work together no matter where we both are! I teach Skype sessions all over the world each week! Email me to set up a session!

****Consultation: Are there clients you’d like to discuss? Issues in the Pilates studio of any sort: Pilates exercises, biomechanics, teacher dynamics, teaching tools…anything else? We simply set up a Skype appointment and work together! Again, email me at

December 22, 2015 at 5:34 pm 17 comments

The Best Pilates Teaching Tool: What Once Was Elusive Is Now Available to Learn and Use!

The Rhythm of Life... The Music of Pilates...

The Rhythm of Life…
The Music of Pilates…

I knew what I was learning. I knew how special it was and simply assumed everyone else both learned it and saw the value in it, too. Growing from client to student to teacher, I realize, of course, that not everyone picks up on the same aspects of anything. It’s this way in all of life. Pilates, too!

What I’m talking about is the greatest tool we as teachers can use to help our clients and help ourselves in the Pilates session or class. It’s the rhythms of each exercise. I thought it was utterly obvious to everyone how vital the rhythms of each exercise in Pilates are…but it seems that most people did not recognize this. Some never heard them at all. Some discounted them as unnecessary, some couldn’t pick them up by rote and just tossed them out, some did pick them up but  cannot verbalize it to share.

You see…nearly all movements in life take on a rhythm…a pattern of beats within a particular segment of time. Whether it be a song, your heart beat, your walk, your speech, how you sweep the floor of the way you stir your coffee or chew your gum…let alone how you dance, lift weights, etc. We develop rhythms to help us be efficient in the way that we do these actions. Rhythms are consistent in the pattern and there are accents that highlight certain aspects of any action.

Now, each Pilates exercise is a set of repetitive movements; you do a series of repetitions or sets. With that, the pattern of accents, the rhythms ought to be consistent from one repetition to the next and, if we’re wise, they should highlight important parts of the accent helping us connect into the purpose of the exercise. They should assist and challenge.

As I teach people of all styles of Pilates all over the world, I find it interesting to see how very many styles do not use rhythm as this special tool and how even the style that I was trained in seems to have lost track of these rhythms. Yet at the same time, teachers and instructors of all styles share their frustrations of teaching a session or class…and it is clear to me that rhythms would help them. One of the great frustrations is keeping clients moving while they cue into the exercise. And keeping clients together in a group class. They say that it’s difficult to keep your clients working at the same pace. That often people stop when you cue. That you can never really get them “going”.

Does this resonate with you?


What I suggest is to discover the appropriate rhythm for each exercise. Teach rhythm as soon as you can in an exercise. If it’s a new exercise, the first repetition is really just the technique of an exercise. That is what body part is moving and where it’s moving to. By the second repetition of a new exercise, you can flow right into the rhythm of the exercise. That is the muscularity and feeling of the exercise; the accents, the drive of the workout (at the appropriate level for the client…of course it is different for all people). If an exercise is not new, but one your client does all of the time, after you call out the name of the exercise, just start the first repetition in rhythm already. Get your clients flowing into the way you are desiring.

With that, you must teach in rhythm for a few repetitions before you can leave that rhythm and start teaching out of the pattern. you see, if you set the rhythm strongly, then your clients will keep going even if you are quite…another great tool: Silence! However, silence is only useful if it’s supported silence. That means that the rhythm has been taught and kept, the cues are strong and necessary and your clients are “getting it”! So, speak in-rhythm for a few repetitions before you talk out of rhythm.

You keep clients moving by setting the rhythm!
You keep multiple clients moving together by setting the rhythm!
You drive the workout (at the appropriate level) by setting the rhythm!

Exercises practically teach themselves if you set the appropriate rhythm! Again, the accents in the pattern of beats in the repetition will challenge or support the body during the movement. Fast movements challenge stability. Slow movements encourage and support stability; they teach stability so that you can mobilize elsewhere.

It’s very tempting to make all exercises rhythm-less. Slow and smooth and all the same. We often feel that our clients can “get” the exercise better, but the truth is that they are not challenged by the movement when it is all slow and silky. It is predictable and easy to stabilize against…because there is no “against”. Life happens quickly and suddenly. Our actions in Pilates are to prepare us for the actions of life. It is rather unpredictable. We must play with different scenarios. Rhythms and the ensuing tempos (speeds) helps us!

It makes life so much easier! Teaching is easy with the right tools! Teaching is fun with the right tools! The pressure is off if we use what we have available to us!


For me, I teach Joseph Pilates’ exercises. He happened to created a particular rhythm for each exercise. He was very specific about it. In fact, I have interviewed many of his former clients and they have told me that rhythm was more important to him than breath. Yes! Rhythm! Once the rhythm is set, then the breath happens by itself. It’s remarkably efficient!

Whether you teach Joseph Pilates’ exercises or not, each exercise you do can be done to a rhythm that highlights and supports the client, the teacher, the movement.

Now, I mentioned tempo a moment ago. Tempo is the speed at which you do the pattern of beats or accents. You can do something fast or slow or anywhere in between…that is tempo. The time. Rhythm is that pattern of beats.

Let’s take a non-Pilates tune: Happy Birthday. Sing it in your head (our out loud) Don’t rush…imagine you’re singing it for a good friend…
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday, Mr. Pilates…!
Happy Birthday to you!

There is a pacing to it. There are accents (some parts are smooth and some are sharp).
You use your voice or the sound to keep the listener engaged.
You use your pitch (high notes or low notes) to high light different sections showing importance!

You could sing it fast or you could sing it slow.

Now, you could use this for The Hundred or Short Spine…but it is not the right song for The Hundred. It’s not the right song for Short Spine. It would do…but it’s not just right is it? Would it be great if you sand The Hundred Song? The Short Spine Song?

This is what I call “The Music of Pilates”. It is the music you create with your voice to sing the song of the exercise. Sometimes you sing it quickly. Sometimes you sing it slowly. You sing it just enough that your client ultimately sings it to her/himself. She hears the music in her head whether she is with you in the studio or at home practicing. And yes, yes, we want our clients to practice at home on their own. We must encourage their independence.

Here is an example of The Backstroke and The Teaser on The Reformer. This is a video of my recording of “The Music of Pilates” downloadable workshop I will “talk” more about just below:

Originally, I had planned on writing this article for America’s Independence Day because this tool is all about independence. Your clients will still need you, but not to count, not to remember the exercise and certainly not not not to keep moving with the desired accents that make the exercise the exercise!

“The Music of Pilates” comes out of your mouth and plays into the speakers of your clients’ ears! It is some of the most beautiful music ever!

Again, it makes teaching effective and fun!
It makes Pilates easier to connect to and do!
It makes difficult things supported and easy things easier!


So how do you learn this? Can you just pull it out of thin air? Well, I do believe the way to learn it is to hear these rhythms over and over again and embody them (do the exercises to them). They become part of you and then you can teach them. However, most people don’t know how to teach them so where will you access them?

A couple of years ago, I went into the recording studio and created a very special recording called “The Music of Pilates”. It is a 3 PMA CEC workshop that you listen to. You don’t watch it. You listen to it. You learn by listening. You practice by verbalizing and by doing the exercises to the sound of my voice. What I’ve recorded are the Mat and Reformer at what are commonly considered the Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced exercises of the classical repertoire.

You will learn the following:
The intention of each exercise
The rhythm for each exercise
Why that rhythm
How to count that rhythm
How to verbalize/teach that rhythm

The Music of Pilates

The Music of Pilates

There are 3 modules:
Module 1: Introduction of why rhythms are important and how to use The Music of Pilates

Module 2: Teaching/Learning Module. This is where you will learn the following:
The intention of each exercise
The rhythm for each exercise
Why that rhythm
How to count that rhythm
How to verbalize/teach that rhythm
…and there is time to pause and practice.

Please listen to this audio clip from Module 2 of Backstroke on the Reformer:

Module 3: Practice Module
In this section, you either verbalize or exercise through the full matwork and then the reformer work. There is no pausing for teaching like in Module 2…it is just the work out. We do full repetitions of each exercise in full rhythm and flow. They are the advanced tempos (speed)…so…it’s a workout! Some people are shocked to see that the Advanced Mat is 18 minutes long. And then I say: Yes,  yes it is! It’s not a teaching moment for you for your clients…this is your practice where your focus, your theme is rhythm and flow!

Again, tempo is speed and you can always play with tempo by slowing an exercise down or speeding it up…but for the purpose of this program I’ve created…it’s rather brisk! Enjoy! Work yourself up to it!

And then there are the PMA CECs. If you would like to take the evaluation after you’ve gone through the recording…email me at and I will send you the evaluation. You fill it out and email it back to me. I check it over and offer suggestions if needed and send you the 3 PMA CE certificate!

To encourage purchase of this so you all can use this special tool, I’m setting a special price for a limited time of $50 for “The Music of Pilates” rather than the normal $99.

Now, again, it’s a downloaded workshop that you listen to. There is no visual. This is an important aspect of the learning. We often think we’re visual learners. Sure, part of you is. However, you must be a kinesthetic learner an aural learner and more.

Please go to this page on my website:
Listen to the samples and then go to the link to purchase.
Want to just purchase, go directly to

****Thank you for having taken he time to read this article and I hope it encourages you to move forward in your teaching and practice in this stunning way!

If you have any questions at all or want to share your thoughts in the comment section, please do!

****Workshops: Please view the workshop list in the side column/bar. I hope to see you soon!
****Skype Sessions: Let’s work together no matter where we both are! I teach Skype sessions all over the world each week! Email me to set up a session!
****Consultation: Are there clients you’d like to discuss? Issues in the Pilates studio of any sort: Pilates exercises, biomechanics, teacher dynamics, teaching tools…anything else? We simply set up a Skype appointment and work together! Again, email me at

August 1, 2015 at 5:05 pm 2 comments


Google Search Images Result for "Expectations"

Google Search Images Result for “Expectations”

I’m not sure if this article get’s filed under “Life” or “Pilates”. Or is this one where it is “Life Lessons from Teaching”? Likely this last one.

Life Lessons from Teaching: Expectations.

Whether your a Pilates teacher, professor, personal trainer, doctor, parent or, well…any human who works with other humans…we all develop expectations. Expectations are our imagined desired outcomes of any interaction. Expectations are our “goal-setting” plans whether they are realistic or not. Ah…there’s the rub! Expectations are best developed when they balance the reality of the situation and possible outcomes or results; however, especially as an American, often our expectations are not congruent with the results. What to do? What to do?

So many teachers reach out to me with their frustrations over their clients. I recognize this frustrations. Perhaps you will, too:

Why can’t my client do this exercise?
Why isn’t my client advancing after this many sessions?
My client isn’t making the lower abdominal connection! What’s wrong with her?
My client is still hurting after all of this time!
My client doesn’t work hard enough!
My client won’t stop talking to do the work!
My client only wants to stretch!
My client…
My client…
My client…

Your client has goals.
You have goals.
We have to align our goals together.

Let’s consider why your client comes to Pilates. Why do people come to Pilates?
To get fit
To help their aching back
To get better posture
To get that “Pilates Body” (Whatever that is!)
To be better in his sport (golf, tennis, skiing)
To get rid of chicken wings of the arms
To get a lifted bum
To get a flat stomach

Know your client’s goals. Remind yourself of his/her goals before each session. Work…work to help her reach an attainable version of her goals…relative to what else she does or does not do in life; relative to how viable these goals are; relative to commitment and desire.

And what about you? What are your goals in teaching?
To earn money
To help people
To do something you enjoy
To do something that is active rather than sedentary
To have a flexible schedule
To be able to have Pilates all day every day

Know your own goals. Remind yourself of your own goals before each session. Then seek to satisfy your goals within that session and each day.

Now, I think we can clearly recognize that our clients’ goals and our own goals are for the most part quite complementary. However…we have to make sure we keep it that way. Sometimes, especially in the teaching field (Pilates, PT, school/university, parenting) we want more for our clients (students, patients, children) than they want for themselves. Or…different. There are times, absolutely, where we need to encourage our clients to want more for themselves. However, that must be within reason and relative to what they already want for themselves. For example, we think a client can do The Teaser. She thinks it’s impossible; however, when she finally gives in and gives it a try, she realizes that it was possible all along! She didn’t trust herself and then she gave into her trust in you and then learned to believe in herself more! These are great moments. However…what I’m really talking about are the unreasonable expectations that I listed above when you want your client to be more advanced, more connected, more driven, more something than they want. The frustration builds in you! You know what I’m talking about! You get almost angry at your client and find her lazy or unwilling or difficult. What if…what if she is really just different from you? What if she is a slower learner? What if she is just weaker than you had expected? What if she is more uncoordinated that you realize? What if she doesn’t care as much as you do?

You see…that’s the reality. Very often our clients do not want the same thing for themselves as we want for them. And you know what? That has to be OK. That has to be 100% OK. We have to alter our expectation to be appropriate for the client in front of us. Of course we will encourage. Of course we will push a little bit more than a client would push themselves. That is our job. But we cannot change a person.

Now…this is where we get to Life Lessons via Pilates:

Each person develops at her own rate.

One person will be a beginner for 5 sessions and then race on!
Another person will remain a relative beginner for her entire Pilates career.

One person may lift her vertebrae apart from each other the moment you cue it!
Another person may take weeks and months.

One person will learn the names and set ups of each exercise on each apparatus quickly
Another person you might have to repeat it time and time again.

And this is how it goes. Everybody progresses at his or her own rate. It is we, the teachers, who must adjust our expectations.

So, your client doesn’t have the drive that you want her to have. That has to be just fine. You’ve got to find the value in what she is doing. Remember her goals. Remember before every single session what her goals are. Just keep working toward them with her…rather than against her.

Your client came for a while, his back got better and then you never saw him again. It’s easy to be frustrated. Why not be glad for him that he received what he needed? Remember, his goal was to just get his back better so he could go back to golf. Remember, your goal was that he stay as a client 3 times a week for the rest of forever. Oops! Inappropriate expectation.

Check in before each day: What are my goals?
Check in before each session: What is my client’s goal?

Do you keep client cards? Client cards are papers for each client that lists what exercises your client does, when she learned each exercise, your client’s ailments and your client’s goals. Refer to your cards.

Balance your expectations. The folly of man (one folly) is an inability to reconcile reality with imagination. Keep your expectations high for yourself and appropriate for others. No one is you. Your client deserves to have her goals considered. Gosh, you’ll have a much better time teaching and your clients will have a far better time learning if you keep it in balance.

– Shari

If you have any comments or thoughts, please do share them below!
And please check out the sidebar for Workshops I’ll be giving around the world. Remember, you are welcome to come to the seminars for all of The Intensives, one at a time, a la carte. They are open to you. You need not do the entire Intensives program if it is not possible for you!
Also, reach out for Skype sessions, consultations, Q&A.

info@TheVerticalWorkshop is where you can find me!


March 18, 2015 at 10:12 pm 24 comments

Abdominals. Spine. Why? and Biotensegrity.

Transverse Abdominis at The Vertical Workshop Pilates Teacher Intensives - Pilates Back Bay - 2013

Transverse Abdominis at The Vertical Workshop Pilates Teacher Intensives – Pilates Back Bay – 2013

Don’t you think that there’s a lot of mixed information out in the blogosphere about what to do and what not to do with abdominals? A lot of people saying that this or that action is bad, but very little information on what is good and what to do instead of the bad actions. Agreed? I’ve stepped back over 2014 and written very little; however, it’s time to step back in.

Let’s get into the abdominals: The necessary actions of the abdominals for all exercise/movement/life modalities…including Pilates (the focus of the blog). Which abdominals to focus on, How and why.

You see, a lot of focus on the abdominals, abs, powerhouse, core in Pilates and other exercise modalities, while well-meaning, miss the point. Even in Pilates of all styles it’s been breezed over, in my estimation. Yes, even the ones where some amount of biomechanics or functional anatomy education is present. If the abdominals, abs, powerhouse, core is so important…it must be the number one focus with true understanding and a devotion to cueing it both internally in yourself and to your clients. Pilates instructors are remarkably well-meaning, but the focus ends up getting dispersed to too many areas of the body before the most important actions are accomplished. Please let me share how it goes:

The inner workings of our bodies, the mechanics, the biomechanics, is based on chemical reactions and appropriate tension of soft tissues. If we just think on the musculoskeletal (including fascia, of course) system, that means that for us to move appropriately (in the desired ways) all of our most commonly recognized soft tissues (fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones) must have the right amount of inherent/built-in tension to be able to do the task they are required to do. The balance of and integrity of tension in our bodies is called biotensegrity. (See the marvelous website of Dr. Stephen M. Levin A healthy body moves and stabilizes (a form of movement) in all aspects via exchanges and alterations of tension in soft tissues in 3 dimensions. Long gone are the days of considering our bodies as full of levers, pulleys and springs with directional forces along the muscle, ligament, tendon, bone directions, balanced out with 90 degree angles like proper physics or mechanics. The living-body’s mechanics is not like that at all. That is how mechanisms work. We are not mechanisms. We are organisms. Our soft tissue comes in and out of all points in every aspect of our bodies in 3-dimensions. Everything literally connected to everything else with the remarkable elasticity of fascia and more. You’ve heard much about fascia over the past handful of years (it is December 2014 as I write this) and you will hear far more in the future. As analytic tools develop we will learn more and more. With that, take note: it is an inner web of 3-dimensional support that connects all parts of our bodies. Not separates…but connects. A completely reactive and adaptive system of soft-tissue tension. Through this we move, think, digest…everything. When the tension is unbalanced or imbalanced due to injury, movement habits, chemical imbalances and more, then dysfunction occurs on small or big scales Any dysfunction, no matter how small, creates a full-body response…because all is connected. You hurt your second finger on your right hand, the tensional web of soft tissues in your body respond to seek a new balance of tension. However, that new balance requires compensations. Those compensations are relatively unnoticed until an action is required affected by those affected areas. Perhaps from your second finger on your right hand, that has altered the tension through your hand to your forearm. The new tension in your forearm has altered the positioning of your radius and ulna. Not enough to hurt, but when you bend your elbow, there is a little click. No big deal. No pain. Just a slight click. Next week, your neck is tight. Maybe it was the bag you carried or maybe (more likely) it’s that finger and the new click. Then you feel your left PSIS. A little SI joint issue. Then your left hamstring seems tight. You stretch it out. You don’t realize that your hamstring is tight because your left side of your pelvis is not anteriorly tilted and when you stretch your hamstring you are straining it. Your left hip tightens, you get plantar fasciitis in that foot…

And around and around we go.

Life happens and compensations happen all of the time. They must. Still, we must work in ways; live in ways, that afford the ability to return to the most balanced tension. Avoiding complicated compensations that ultimately put us into compressive mechanics where leverage and friction are our only options (i.e. osteo-arthritis). The biotensegrity of our bodies is such that our joints are nearly frictionless. Bones never touch bones. Let’s keep it that way.

Wow…and you thought this was just a “Happy New Year” article! A simple: here’s how you should use your abdominals in Pilates.

How, oh, how do we seek a balance of tension? How do we maintain or return our bodies to quality tensegrity? How do we support our natural biotensegrity? We must seek the source of the tensegrity. In my work, I study the thoracolumbar fascia also known as the lumbodorsal fascia. My efforts are to understand the thoracolumbar fascia…I believe it is an invaluable “source” or center of our biotensegrity.. Never heard of the thoracolumbar fascia? Great! Let me be the first to share it with you. It’s been inside of you all along and it’s time to give it the value that it deserves. I like to call it “The Second Brain of Movement”. There will be far more that I shall share about why it is this, but today we will just start with what is most important for your practice and teaching:

Thoracolumbar Fascia

Fig. 1 – Posterior illustration. Thoracolumbar Fascia is represented by the white arrow head at the lumbar spine and sacrum. Then the shaft of the arrow up the spine to the cranium. Image from 3D4medical Muscle System Pro III

Where is the thoracolumbar fascia (TLF)?
The posterior and most superficial part of the TLF has been on every muscle chart you’ve ever seen, but most people have never mentioned it. (See Fig. 1) A primary portion of it is that while arrow-head you see connecting the lower thoracic spine, lumbar spine and sacrum. This area is referred to as the thoracolumbar complex (TLC…and, boy, could it use some more TLC!) that goes from lumbar spine to sacrum all the way under the ischial tuberosities. Now the complete TLF goes all the way up the spine into the cranium and is three-dimensional into the anterior portion of the lumbar spine, at least.

Our primary concern with be the TLF at the lower thoracic spine, lumbar spine and sacrum. You’ll see why in a moment. (Though it’s more TLC, you’ll see that I’ll refer to it as TLF as most do.)

You can see on the posterior side of the body in this illustration (Fig. 1) that multiple muscle groups connect into the TLF. You can see the gluteus maximus (GM), latissimus dorsi (LD), trapezius (T) clearly connect to it. As we delve deeper into it, we’ll see that in three-dimensions (Fig. 2), the TLF has multiple layers where erector spinae (ES), quadratus lumborum (QL), psoas (Ps) and the deepest abdominals (transverse abdominis (TrA) and internal obliques (OI – obliquus internus)) connect into the TLF. Oh…and the lumbar spine including the vertebrae and the discs. Ah…

thoracolumbar fascia transverse cut

Fig. 2 – An illustrated representation of a transverse view of the torso looking down on the cross-section at the L3 level. Notice the multiple layers of the TLF and the muscles that connect directly into it or are connected via the TLF in three-dimensions. Illustration from

So…all muscles (with their soft tissue) that connect into this TLF affect the tension on this remarkable structure of multi-dimensional fascia (with superficial and dense fascia that also includes a remarkable amount of myofibroblasts which actually create their own tension…remarkable!) and the TLF affects all structures that it connects to. Hmm…

A quality balance of tension across the TLF will affect all structures that connect to it and vice versa. Considering that the TLF connects directly to:
gluteus maximus (GM) – leg to pelvis/torso connection
latissimus dorsi (LD)- arm to torso connection
trapezius (T)- shoulder girdle to torso connection
psoas (Ps)- leg to spine/torso connection
quadratus lumborum (QL) – ribcage to pelvis connection
transverse abdominis and internal obliques (TrA & OI) – ribcage to pelvis connection
Lumbar Spine (and the entire spine up to the skull)

And that means that all structures that connect to those affect and create effects upon the TLF and vice versa…


Tension on the TLF

A broad representation of tension from superficial muscles and TLF working together. Green Lines: Shari Berkowitz Illustration:

And why do you care? As a Pilates practitioner why should you care? What does this mean to you? (And why do I devote my entire life the TLF and helping people understand it?!) Because when you make a lower TrA and OI connection, then there is a lateral pull on the TLF. That lateral pull/tension is resisted by the TLF (as all soft tissues resist expansion). This pull against each other creates a stiffness of the lumbar spine. Now, that word “stiffness” is desirable in the biomechanics world though in the fitness world it is considered a bad thing. Stiffness in biomechanics means support, stability, integrity. Something that the lumbar spine often lacks in modern world because the balance of tension is off/askew in modern humans. This is a desirable stiffness. This now intrinsic support (stiffness) from the TLF working against and thereby with the lower deeper abdominals (TrA and OI) allows all other structures that are connected to the lumbar spine to be efficient in either assisting in stabilization or mobilization of the lumbar spine. That means that the ES, QL and Ps can all be more efficient in their jobs! They can either help stabilize or mobilize! GM, LD and T will all be more efficient, too. We want these muscles to work more! We want them to work efficiently!

Often in Pilates we hear “don’t use your glutes”, “don’t use your back muscles” however, that’s not what is needed. We need to use them…but we must set up an environment where the muscles can just work naturally. We must create an physical scenario where our muscles work the way that they are meant to. And not just our muscles…all of the systems in our bodies. I’ll say that statement again as I have coined it and will use it time and again: we must create an environment where all parts of our bodies work naturally. At least that’s how I see it.

Fig. 3 - Illustration of an intervertebral disc. Notice the cartilage from the vertebrae above and below. The cartilage secretes fluid that the disc absorbs. That is how the disc maintains hydration. Illlustration credit: Unknown. My apologies.

Fig. 3 – Illustration of an intervertebral disc. Notice the cartilage from the vertebrae above and below (light brown continuous lines and background). The cartilage secretes fluid that the disc absorbs. That is how the disc maintains hydration.
Illlustration credit: Unknown. My apologies.

Now, all in all, we’ve got to care about space in between each vertebra. We have to take care of our nervous system. (That takes a lot: nutrition, rest, good emotional state and movement.) And what creates that space? Part of it is by the intervertebral discs. And what maintains the discs size and cushiness? Tensegrity (this balance of tension of soft tissues) and movement. (Movement? You thought I was going to say hydration.) What does movement? Directly: Muscles. (Indirectly, a lot of other things.) We care about keeping space between vertebrae for more movement of the spine and, quite importantly, so that the nerve endings that come from the spinal cord can leave easily through the foramen. Hydration of discs only happens with movement as the superior and inferior surfaces of the discs are connected to the vertebrae above and below, respectively. Those vertebrae have a bit of cartilage on these superior and inferior faces that through movement release fluid that is absorbed into the disc. That is how discs get hydrated. All parts of the disc must receive hydration which is one great reason why we need balanced movement of each vertebra segment appropriate to its design (i.e. lumbar vertebral joints can sustain only a limited amount of rotation without damaging shear forces whereas cervical vertebrae allow for and require far more rotation without damage…all within limits, of course). We need forward flexion, back extension, rotation and lateral flexion/side-bending of all joints of the spine. All while maintaining a maximum amount of space between the vertebrae, yet still affording that movement.

That’s mighty refined movement: move while maintaining space. And it has to happen in a flash..all of the time. It’s going to take a lot of practice with the right “Order of Operations” to be able to do that in our modern world that truly does not prepare us to move appropriately. Sitting and looking at a computer or handheld device does not a mover make. Even as a Pilates teacher…there’s got to be more! So…we must practice this sort of movement; this coordination. And that is what Pilates is all about. At least that is how I see it.

Again…how does this apply to you?

When you ask your client to pull her abdominals in…what are you doing and why? How? Which ones? It’s got to be the lower, deep abdominals. The ones that connect to the TLF. So…we need to encourage a lower deep abdominal connection. Transverse abdominis and internal obliques. The lower ones will connect to the TLF. Not the upper. The upper that so many Pilates teachers get caught up in with “close the ribs”, “soften the ribs”, “knit the ribs together”, “melt the ribs”…that is primarily external obliques (OE – obliquus externus). Quite important, but they are secondary to the primary actions of the TrA and OI which are what connect to the TLF that set off a remarkable chain reaction of tension across the TLF that supports the entire body! In a over-simplified statement: the upper abdominal fibers, the OE and rectus abdominis (RA) will be informed by the lower deeper abdominals.

Try this: on yourself, with your abdominals released, place your finger tips on your hip points; your ASIS. Wrap your fingers toward the inner side of them as though you can get in there and feel the inner part of the bone as though you could get to your iliacus (go lightly though and rather superficial) Lightly pull your abdominals in. Do you feel a tug of the tissues under your fingers? Like a theraband/elastic band pulling across from hip point to hip point? This must be accomplished with a stable pelvis; without any movement of your pelvis. If so, that is TLF. Of course, all muscles work all of the time and you cannot isolate any one muscle (you can not isolate any one muscle), but you can do actions that highlight a muscle. And there is TLF. If you don’t feel that tug or your pelvis moved…fear not. That just means that this has to become your focus. How? Not by sitting there with your fingers on your hips trying to make it happen. Rather, when you do your Pilates work, you must seek out those muscles. You will feel them below your navel from hip point to hip point all the way down to your pubis. Indeed, TrA is also above your navel and across your sides to the TLF, but this lower section that connects to the TLF is where you will concentrate your action.

That’s the first action: deepen your lower abdominals. And why? To make a great back muscle connection. Deepen your lower abdominals and separate your lower back bones. Remember this article: “Lift Your Lower Backbones Like Your Life Depends On It…Because It Does“?  If we get that horizontal/lateral tension on the TLF from the deeper lower abdominals (TrA and OI) and the vertical-like tension on the TLF from the muscles of the lumbar spine (ES, QL, Ps) and eventually upward throughout the entire spine, then the tension across the TLF will afford more efficient GM, LD and T and all that they connect with…which means all aspects of our body can be more mobile and able! This is what it’s about!

Well then…how must you cue and “use” the abdominals (which is why I am writing this and why you are reading this):
“Pull your lower abdominals in and up and lift your lower back bones apart” in all exercises at all times.
You see there is no “navel to spine”. That wouldn’t make the correct lateral tension on the TLF
There is no “scoop your abdominals in and up”. That also won’t make the appropriate tension. Though it is a reasonable image when the spine is in light forward flexion. And images are really important. But…it misses the important action of the spinal soft tissues.
There is “no close the ribs”, “soften the ribs”, “knit the ribs” as those would also skip this vital tension on the TLF and always hinders the diaphragm from working efficiently (remember “The Lock Down:  Abdominals…How Much and Which Ones to Engage?“)

It’s likely less stringent and deep feeling at first than you had thought. It’s a muscular, soft tissue and mental coordination that will be light, at first, and develop into something powerfully strong while always remarkably mobile. Like all things: if you get it right away, you simply haven’t gotten it. It takes time to develop. And once it does, freedom of movement with great strength is the result!

How will you develop this? Practice in every single exercise that you do by seeking out that deeper set of lower abdominals on both side (right and left or right left and center) and follow that connection with an upward lift of the lumbar spine. Then keep that going: deepen lower abdominals + lift lumbar spine + deepen lower abdominals + lift lumbar spine + deepen…+ lift…
Until the coordination develops and you delight in the seek to maintain it.

Once the deeper lower abdominals and lumbar muscles pull on that TLF so well that the TLF has great tension to be able to affect those muscles that come at an angle (GM, LD, T)…the entire body can gain efficiency.

This is different than what you’re used to. This is refined. With that, this will be frustrating at first…but will be more satisfying than you could imagine later on. This is the way to achieve your and your clients’ physical goals. First things first. And these are them.

In every single exercise at every level of proficiency: pull your lower deeper abdominals in and up and separate your lower back bones…and all back bones. If you or your client cannot make that lower deeper abdominal connection in an exercise…it is simply not the right exercise for you or your client. That means either a modification is required or eliminate it until that connection develops. Without the lower deeper abdominals, you won’t get to the TLF, the lumbar muscles…and the rest of your body. Efficiency is the name of the game. Nature is efficient. Why wouldn’t we work the way we were designed? Let’s redevelop our natural biotensegrity and our natural coordination or as I refer to it: order of operations. That’s what it’s all about. We’re setting up and environment where all systems of our bodies work naturally. With movement…that means the lower deeper abdominals for the TLF for the lumbar muscles for the rest. Enjoy!

Now…that was a considerable brain-ful. Take your time. Reread. Seek to understand. Practice. And, as always, reach out when you have questions.
– Shari Berkowitz

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– Shari

January 1, 2015 at 3:49 pm 32 comments


Pilates ComPassionCompassion is a heavy word…it is about humanity…being a true human. Feelings and actions of sympathy, empathy, virtue and consideration. Compassion is a human action of thought and feeling. Other animals seem to show compassion, too. Isn’t it about being, then? Existing in harmony with ourselves and others.

Why consider compassion?

As Pilates teachers or pilates enthusiasts, we must consider compassion for those you are working with and compassion for yourself. I’m not talking selfless vs. selfish or being a good teacher or a well-mannered student, though these are important things to consider. I’m talking about seeing humanity in others and yourself. I’m talking about putting yourself in another’s shoes (empathy) and caring. Stepping outside of yourself to see yourself…as someone who deserves care, too.

Let’s begin with compassion for others.
As a Pilates teacher, we must develop our hearts for our clients. Our clients come to a session to learn, to achieve a goal (physical, emotional or other), to move… Do they always find the task of Pilates easy? No. Our dear clients can often feel awkward or confused. Learning and growth happen best when we as teachers anticipate the needs of our clients by catching awkward or confusing moments before they happen. You  know how it feels to be confused. It’s doesn’t feel good. You feel diminished and powerless. Some will be scared. Of course, you don’t desire this for yourself then in turn, you will not want this for your client. Ah, the compassionate teacher will work hard to avoid confusion. Being a positive teacher means more than saying “good” and being encouraging. A positive teacher also works to teach in a way that is clear, well structured and avoids confusion.

With great import, let’s seek to remember what it was like to be a client ourselves. Each new exercise might have been exciting to you! However each or some might have been scary for you. And, let’s also recall that no two people are the same. In the act of compassion, we must be empathetic and seek out what our clients are feeling…which may be very different than anything that we might have felt. Fun and thrilling to you might be very frightening to your client. Easy for you might be difficult for her. Obvious to you might be completely shrouded in mystery to him.

It’s OK to share with your client that perhaps you used to have a difficult time with a particular exercises, too. I recall being a student and feeling downtrodden that my teachers didn’t seem to show any kindness in my struggles. Negative cues and demeaning phrases. One in particular that I found really rude from a famous teacher “You have a power-studio {as in studio apartment}, not a power-house.” and that was when I was just learning. That was diminishing. Why not say something akin to “You are getting stronger…and one day will be far stronger!” or don’t say anything at all!

Another place you can practice your compassion with your clients is in the way that you think about them or talk about them with other teachers. I have spent time around teachers who talk  down about their clients or gossip about them. How weak a client is or how uncoordinated a client is. The teachers often roll their eyes or make snide remarks. There doesn’t seem to be any room for this behavior in the book of humanity or compassion. People are trying hard. They want to achieve. Your negative thoughts are nasty. These people are coming to you for help and are paying your rent. You can show greater kindness to their efforts.

Along with this, I see notes on forums all of the internet where people laugh at clients who fart or who have difficult times doing what seem to be basic exercises. Again I ask: where is your heart? Some clients will fart or sweat excessively or have bad breath or bad body odor. This is going to be. That doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve your best. Maybe they deserve even more of your kindness. Do they deserve your cruelty with gossip in the teachers room or teachers forums? No…of course not.

Let’s broaden our opportunity for teaching with compassion for our clients. Our clients whether clearly open for anything or seemingly shut down lie on a mat in front of us and seek our assistance. That is what they are doing. Even those who challenge you and make seeming-steam come out of your ears…even that client is on the mat asking you for aid. Open your heart, remember why she is there and your promise as a Pilates teacher. Remember why you are teaching in the first place.

Compassion for our clients.

Now…what about compassion for ourselves as teachers? That is vital, too. We are often hard on ourselves. Too hard. Perhaps in all of life, but we’ll talk of the Pilates studio here. I have received messages from many-a-Pilates teacher sharing a hard day and asking if it’s OK that this horrible session happened or a difficult mat class or any number of things. Of course it’s OK. We all have bad days. We all make mistakes. We’re only human. If we don’t see the humanity in ourselves…we have very little we’ll be able to share with our clients.

As much as you’ll seek to anticipate issues, you will run into problems big and small. You must forgive yourself for this. Immediately. If you’re not used to being kind to yourself, it does take practice. You deserve it.

Though my rule is that we must anticipate issues and never have even one repetition of pain for a client…well…that doesn’t always happen. We must do our best, and if we certainly have, release ourselves from guilt if we do not succeed 100% of the time. While we work for a 100% retention rate of clients, we also must do our best and then, again, release ourselves from guilt if we do not keep all clients all of the time.

Are you changing your schedule and cannot accommodate everyone? That has to be OK.
Do you need to put more people into semi-privates and not all into privates? That also has to be OK. (Not to mention it is better for them and better for your business. A topic for another article:  teaching-mixed-level-semi-private-sessions-guidelines )
Did you have to cancel a day because you were sick? That has to be OK.
Did you just have a bad day? That has to be OK.

With practice and great self-awareness, each session, each day can be extremely successful no matter what is going on in your personal life or in the moment, but even the most practiced can have a hard day or moment. It has to be OK. We must release ourselves from the pressure of “every moment has to be perfect”. Nothing is perfect. All is practice. It’s a practice this life.

Compassion for yourself.

Now…there is another compassion that we must discuss. That is compassion for your fellow teacher. There’s a lot of chit and chat across the web with people cutting others down. Personal attacks. Why? Certainly because they are insecure to such an extent that they attempt to raise themselves up by trying to discredit others. It’s difficult to find compassion for people who are hurtful to you in these ways. I can speak for myself and tell you that I am pained when someone attacks me in one way or another. I see it for what it is: that attacker’s fear and self-loathing. My compassion is limited for those people, it is true. Hurtful actions are not-ever OK. Still, it brings me to recognize the need for some sort of compassion. I will not reach out to that person to try to see eye to eye, but I will remember that this person is hurting and sad…deeply. I will not fight the person who is trying to bring me into her own personal struggle, but I will recognize that this is his struggle, not mine. I will not engage, but I will attempt to humanize this person rather than demonize. Oh…it’s difficult. I tell you. It is difficult. However…let’s seek to humanize.

Let’s be true teachers. Let’s see our clients, ourselves and our fellow teachers as humans. Let’s practice Compassion.


***Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you have any comments, please feel free to post them below. And if you ever have any questions related to any aspect of Pilates or biomechanics, know that you can always leave them in the comments or email me directly at ***

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Thanks for taking the time to read!
– Shari Berkowitz
Shari Berkowitz & The Vertical Workshop

August 10, 2014 at 2:47 pm 16 comments

Fear Not the Foward Flexion of the Spine…Just Seek to Understand…

Spine Stretch Forward - Forward flexion of the spine...evenly with length.  Photo Credit: Andrea Bonalberti and IdeaPilates

Spine Stretch Forward – Forward flexion of the spine…evenly with length.
Photo Credit: Andrea Bonalberti and IdeaPilates


Are you beginning to fear forward flexion of the spine? Let’s take a step back. Fear is not a great educator. Study is. Fear not forward flexion of the spine. Let’s just seek to understand what it’s all about and how to do it in Pilates and other modalities in a way that our bodies were meant to do it and in ways that are appropriate relative to our modern lifestyles.

Well, that sort of said it…”our bodies are meant to do it”. You are meant to do forward flexion of your spine. You absolutely are. If you were not, your body literally couldn’t do it. Can’t do forward flexion of the femur mid-femur can you? Of course not…there is no joint there. But there are joints in  your spine…that’s a huge part of why you have a spine.

Spinal Nerves relate to body parts and organs - Thank you for this image.

Spinal Nerves relate to body parts and organs – Thank you for this image.

Many Back Muscles - Thank you Gray's Anatomy

Many Back Muscles – Thank you Gray’s Anatomy

Let’s review the purpose of your spine (or many of them):
Your spine provides:
1 – Protection for your spinal cord
2 – Muscular attachments
3 – Pathways for your nerve endings to leave the spinal cord to the rest of the body
4 – When vertical, it aids in vertical support, the ability to be upright
5 – When vertical, it provides some shock absorption
6 – Because there are joints in the spine (your separate vertebrae to each other), it allows movement of the torso

Are there more purposes of the spine…sure, of course…but let’s go with these for a moment.



What is the “localized spinal system” comprised of? (Yes…I’ve just coined that “localized spinal system”. It is a valid image for the moment, though, it is clearly part of the whole you.)
This “localized spinal system” is comprised of:
1 – Bone – vertebrae
2 – Ligaments – connecting bone to bone
3 – Tendons – connecting muscle to bone
4 – Muscles – creating force to move bones
5 – Discs – providing easy gliding motion of vertebrae, shock absorption, space as the nerve endings leave the spinal canal
6 – Fascia – (We’re going to have to lump all different types of fascia together here. There is not nearly enough space in a “brief” article to write about the intricacies of fascia. However…) fascia: providing easy gliding motion and support of all tissues (soft and “hard”),
7 – Nerves – not just the spinal cord and nerve endings…but the ones who are feeding the muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, bones and all with information of what to do and what not to do
8 – Blood vessels – feeding the bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles
9 – Cartilage – at the superior and inferior faces of the vertebral bodies aiding in gliding actions of the vertebrae and hydration of the discs
10 – and even more than this list

That’s a lot of “stuff”. What an interesting part of you…this “localized spinal system”. When you move…do you see some of that or all of that? And then, can you see all that acts on it and how your body works? If you see all of it…then you will move like the organism that you are.

So…what creates or encourages movement of the spine?
1 – The localized muscles, ligaments and tendons act on the spine via nerves and fascia (Not just back extensors…but what about quadrates lumborum, posterior serratus, diaphragm, intercostals, etc., etc….)
2 – Other muscles, ligaments and tendons act on it, too. For example, the abdominals who are not even connected directly to the spine…they are connected to the spine via the thoracolumbar fascia.

What limits movement of the spine?
1 – Soft tissue that acts on it properly (abdominals, psoas, back extensors, quadrates lumborum etc.)
2 – Soft tissue that is imbalanced (like weak muscles or stiff discus that are improperly hydrated because of a lack of varied movement…it’s varied movement that fully hydrates discs)
3 – Posteriorly, the spinous process limits the back extension
4 – Longitudinal ligaments…oh, the remarkable anterior longitudinal ligaments…anterior and posterior…

Spinal Ligaments (some, not all) - Notice the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament and the Anterior Longitundal Ligament. Illustration Credit: M. Headworth via

Spinal Ligaments (some, not all) – Notice the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament and the Anterior Longitundal Ligament. Illustration Credit: M. Headworth via

Yes…the special longitudinal ligaments! Let’s take a look at them shall we?

Anterior Longitudinal Ligament provides both support and intrinsic stabilization to the vertebral column with most obviously the anterior portions of the bodies of the vertebrae and discs attached. A continuos structure along the entire front of the spinal column, it provides support to the vertebral column during spinal extension. Thereby limiting…or helping support an end-range of spinal extension. In spinal extension as discs appropriately bulge anteriorly, this anterior longitudinal ligament provides a stopping zone of sorts for the discs. A limit. However, the greatest limiter of spinal extension are the spinous processes. They are the great limiters of motion…on purpose.

And what of Posterior Longitudinal Ligament? Special structure! This one, like its anterior match provides both support and intrinsic stabilization to the vertebral column with the posterior portions of the bodies of the vertebrae and discs attached. It is continuous, again, like its anterior match. So, we see that it provides a stopping zone for the discs during forward flexion like the anterior. However (…and this is a big however…), are there spinous processes at the front of the vertebral column? No…no there are not. So, that means the range of motion for forward flexion is greater in the spine than back extension. OK…this is important because we need a lot of forward flexion in our lives. Most of what we physically do requires action at the front of the body. Our greatest abilities are in the front, though, of course, we have a range of actions in the back…but our greatest strength and versatility of movement occurs in front of us. So…we require greater range of motion. Just like in the shoulder girdle versus the pelvic girdle, greater flexibility of in forward flexion of the spine means less stability.

Stability of what? Many things, but most obviously the vertebrae and discs. Well, then, we’d better strengthen all back muscles to have posterior support of the spine during forward flexion. That eliminates the old phrase of “Don’t use your back muscles…only use your front muscles…abdominals, “Powerhouse”, whatever your style of Pilates calls them. We actually need to use our back muscles during forward flexion to assist in limiting forward flexion…because remember, there are no spinous processes in the front of the spine to limit movement. And…because that is a major action of the back muscles. In fact, all soft tissue works all of the time…and that means in forward flexion the back muscles work. Please don’t try to make them not work.

Not to mention, we have thoracolumbar fascia (TLF) and thoracolumbar complex (TLC) that will tighten/stiffen the lumbar spine to limit forward flexion if…if…if we keep the TLF and TLC healthy. (How do we do that? Another article another time…and a book. We can’t do it all in one article.)

Wait! Why do we even care to limit movement? Well, one reason, and the one most are concerned about, is that we need to protect the discs from protruding back into the spinal canal…into the spinal cord. Oh. Right. That is one major function of the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament. Oh!

And what happens when the discs are constantly jammed into the posterior longitudinal ligament (PLL)? That ligament has to try to continue its job of not letting discs go into the spinal canal and cord…it thickens up. Well, because we need movement of the lumbar spine (including forward flexion), this PLL (it’s time to abbreviate…this is a long article) is actually thinner around the lumbar spine than in other areas. So…if it thickens it will either limit movement or if it thickens far too much that leads to narrowing the space for nerves to leave through the foramen and can even impinge the easy flow of the spinal cord through the spinal canal: Central Spinal Stenosis. And ultimately, if you keep forcing a disc against a thicker and thicker ligament, the disc has to give weigh…and then we have herniations.


Wow…there’s a lot of forward flexion in Pilates and in life. A lot. What do we do?! Do we just not do forward flexion because we’re afraid that the discs might push back into the PLL? No, no, no…of course not. We just make sure that we use all of our bodies’ natural tools to ensure good movement. That means movement with support. Do we need to collapse or crush into a rounded shape? Can’t we be rounded yet lifted?

It’s not difficult to move with support when you realize that you body is meant to move with support anyway. That is what biotensegrity is all about. Biotensegrity? Yes…your body is set up with a balance of forces: soft tissues resist expansion and bone (“harder” soft tissues) resist compression. This allows a really easy system where your bones are suspended in a web of soft tissue that moves your bones, creates support for your bones and all tissues. (Bones are really soft, by the way…just not as soft as other tissues and their chemical make up resists compression rather than resisting expansion. Amazing what a bit of calcium [and more] will do to a group of cells.) So, if we are moving well and as nature intended, then we already have great support.

However…we don’t move as nature intended, do we? No..and that is where trouble exists. In Pilates we’re supposedly seeking actions to restore our natural physical environment. We note that life is full of forward flexion and collapse in the spine. Weak abdominals, weak and overstressed back muscles, weak psoas, hip flexors and hip extensors and gluteals. Man…we’re a mess in modern life! And we lose our biotensegrity…our innate balance of tension, our natural balance of expansion and compression. We must seek to restore.

Spinal Curves - Vertical And Space for Organs1When we forward flex, there is a tendency for collapse. That collapse is possible because we don’t have those anterior spinous processes, modern life has weakened our back bodies and because we have so-called “hinges” at the transitions of the curves of our spines. As the curves alternate (a big part of being an upright being so that we have spaces for our organs and then still maintain our vertical alignment and perhaps some shock absorption built into the inherent structure of any vertical alternating curves with gravity acting upon it…but I digress…) as the curves alternate, the transition joints are hyper-flexible. They need to be, but we need to be aware of this and support the hyper-flexibility if we care about PLL and discs and spinal cords. Sure we care.

That means…we have to be wise in our repetitive movement and exercises (even Pilates has repetitive moves and exercises). Mindful! When seeking balanced movement of any joint or joints, we seek to mobilize the stiff and stabilize the hyper-flexible joints. Relative to the forward flexion of the spine, that means…move the stiff parts and support the flexible parts.

And…what sort of ideal forward flexion are we seeking in Pilates? Well…I strongly suggest that in forward flexion of the spine we are seeking a long and even curve of all vertebrae into a long and even curve of the entire spine. Oh…and that would be the same in full spinal extension, also in lateral flexion of the spine (side-bending). Evenness! That will be the ability to mobilize and stabilize. Balance!  Stretch, strength with stability and stamina. This is sounding great!

Now…that was a lot of information. How does it relate to your Pilates work?

Forward flexion of the spine:  Spine Stretch Forward


The magenta line is attempting to trace the curvature of the spine...not just the silhouette. See into the curvature of the spine. The top two photos are a harsh curvature of the spine that hinges at the tops and bottoms of the curves.. The bottom two photos are seeking a long, even curve of the spine. Spinal flexion with space. We're trying for that. Curved, but not collapsed.

The magenta line is attempting to trace the curvature of the spine…not just the silhouette. See into the curvature of the spine. The top two photos are a harsh curvature of the spine that hinges at the tops and bottoms of the curves.. The bottom two photos are seeking a long, even curve of the spine. Spinal flexion with space. We’re trying for that. Curved, but not collapsed.


Back extension of the spine:  Swan Preparation

The magenta line is attempting to trace the curvature of the spine, not the silhouette. See into the curvature of the spine. The first two stacked photos show an almost flattened spine. They don't even show enough of how the thoracic spine is still rounded outward. The 2nd two stacked photos show the attempt to reverse the curve of the thoracic spine while stabilizing the curve of the lumbar spine. The effort in the 2nd stack develops strong back muscles rather than a compression. Let's match curves and then increase curves later on...with balance. Notice...lumbar curves are different in both people. Top photo vs. bottom photo. Everyone has different curves of the spine.

The magenta line is attempting to trace the curvature of the spine, not the silhouette. See into the curvature of the spine. The first two stacked photos show an almost flattened spine. They don’t even show enough of how the thoracic spine is still rounded outward. The 2nd two stacked photos show the attempt to reverse the curve of the thoracic spine while stabilizing the curve of the lumbar spine. The effort in the 2nd stack develops strong back muscles rather than a compression. Let’s match curves and then increase curves later on…with balance. Notice…lumbar curves are different in both people. Top photo vs. bottom photo. Everyone has different curves of the spine.


What about Rolling Like a Ball?

Rolling Like a Ball with markings1

Now, we can find this in many and every exercise. Can you flex/round, extend/arch, side-band and rotate with space and support. Can you seek evenness. Is it contrology or a crap-shoot?

So…you don’t have to round into the tiniest ball or arch backwards into a fold or sideband in half. Big hinges happen at hips, knees, ankles, toes; shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers. Smooth curves happen in the spine. Or at least that is what we can achieve and thereby achieve great strength, flexibility…support…stamina…movement!!!

Please move…in all directions…just with support and understanding! You don’t need to be afraid to forward flex or back extend. You just need to know what’s going on and why you don’t want to crush your discs into the PLL and/or collapse at your hinges.

You’re a mover! You’re a teacher of movement! Now…move and keep educating yourself with balance. You get scared when someone teaches an extreme statement of the body and it travels all over our social media and workshops. Extremists help with awareness, but…they are extreme. Until we are educated, we follow extremists because they are colorful and loud and then we believe and fear. It’s education and understanding that will eliminate fear. You don’t have to go all the way into biomechanics as a scientist like I am. No. But you are working with human bodies…so you have the responsibility to study. I will keep encouraging your study. Study and become a critical thinker.

Thank you for reading this! It was a lot of information. Please reach out to me when you have questions! Seek me out at workshops and such. You’ll see them listed on the sidebar of this blog page and I always list them on my website. And we can do consultations or sessions together in person or via Skype and workshops at your studio. Let this be the start of a conversation, not the end, as I am wont to say.


May 14, 2014 at 9:06 pm 19 comments

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