Advancing to the Ideal: Modify and then Advance
(Before I get to this article: Friday, Dec. 10, Pilates Studio of Fairfield in Fairfield, CT will be hosting me teaching sessions from 11am-5pm. Afterward, from 5-7pm, we’re having a jewelry and art show/reception. Great gifts for the holidays. If you want a session there, please contact the studio at 203-255-1246. If you know people up in CT or close by who might like a session…please send them this information!)
OK…on to the post:
Some of the greatest tools available to us in Pilates are modifications of exercises. Modifications are great! They are necessary! However…we must make sure that over time, when appropriate and possible, we bring out clients closer and closer to the Ideal of the exercise…and eventually the Ideal…again, if possible. There are some common modifications that are often kept too long and not advanced to the Ideal. Let’s address a few of them:
Hyperextension of Knees – Soft Knees – How will we strengthen?
When you have a client with hyper-extended knees, it’s very obvious, of course. On Day 1, we often start telling our clients to “soften your knees”. An acceptable cue. However, I would recommend waiting a handful of sessions before giving that cue since your client needs a little bit of time getting used to the exercises, cues, studio and you. Once your client is getting used to coordinating abdominals and movement of spine and limbs, do encourage and cue her to soften her knees. This is great for beginners. They need to learn to not push backward through their knee joint. However, by the Intermediate level, we need to work to strengthen that joint.
If we remain in “soft knees” interminably, unfortunately, we miss the ability to strengthen the musculature that supports the knee joint. We must learn how to teach strengthening the knee joint in its extended position (straight). Keeping the modification leads to tremendous weakness.
How do you strengthen the knee joint? It’s really could be a subject for another article, but briefly:
- Have you client sit upright on the mat with legs outstretched in front of her.
- Ask her to hyper-extend her knees and take note of what that feels like in the front of her leg (muscular) and back of the leg (passive). Also have her notice how her knee cap is going down into the mat.
- Then ask her to soften her knees, like you’ve been asking her to do for so long.
- Keeping her knees soft, have her press her heels into the mat to activate her hamstrings.
- Then, keeping her heels strongly into the mat, ask her to reach her heel forward along the mat and her knee cap back up along her thigh…in opposition of each other. It’s the opposition that will work to stabilize and strengthen the joint.
- So…soften knees, press heel into mat, keep heel in and reach it forward along the mat and knee cap back along the thigh in opposition. This lengthens the leg truly straight with muscular and energetic opposition rather than the false and backward “straight” of hyper-extension.
Is it easy? No. However, it’s important for us to teach our clients. It’s not a beginner action. It’s an intermediate action. That is why we modify first with “soft knees” and work towards the Ideal of strong straight legs over time. With these complex actions, the muscles will strength and your client will learn how to find balance when doing exercises (even leg springs or reformer tendon stretch) and while standing or walking!
Get out of the “soft” joint modification. Teach strength!
External Rotation of The Legs and Feet when Parallel is the Ideal
While there are some exercises that were intended to have external rotation of the legs and feet, many or most were not. Often times, the external rotation is just intended to make a heel connection to strengthen the inner thighs (midline of the legs), but people forget or were even taught to keep that external rotation. I’ve written about it several times, but it’s worth mentioning again. You can read previous posts “” and “4 Pilates Stances – Deeper discussion on parallel vs. external rotation” for much more in depth information. However…
Most exercises in Pilates are intended to have legs and feet parallel and together with both heels and big toe knuckles (the bunion knuckle) hugging strongly together. Initially, it’s the heel connection that needs to be strong and primary before the big toe knuckle connection. Because of weak inner thighs/adductors, knock knees and/or collapsed arches, making the heel connection is often difficult. We can give a little modification of “heels together, toes apart” to help give that heel connection. The opening between the toes (or really big toe knuckles) ought to be no more than 2 finger widths apart. And, eventually, if possible, this should be closed up. Knock kneed people usually can’t close this external rotation because bones are in the way, but nearly everyone else can. Still…many do not…because they don’t get cued to…the advancement to the Ideal is often lost.
Where do we see this? On the mat: The Hundred, The Roll Up, Double Leg Stretch, Double Straight Leg Stretch (Lower Lift), Teaser. On the reformer: Footwork Tendon Stretch, Leg Circles, Running.
The external rotators do not need to be worked too much in Pilates. In life, they get plenty enough of a workout. In Pilates, it’s the smaller muscles we’re trying to connect and strengthen into. In terms of the legs, the adductor group is what we’re looking to strengthen. So, while exercises like Reformer Footwork Toes, Stomach Massage (all parts), Frog, Pelvic Lift and other exercises where the knees bend out shoulder with are all in external rotation with feet heels together, toes one fist width apart between the big toe knuckles, nearly all other exercises are meant to be parallel and together. The Teaser? Parallel and together. Short Spine? Begins in external rotation through the frog portion, then in the lift it’s parallel, then when you bend the knees…external rotation again. The Roll Up on the mat? Parallel and together. Single Leg Circles? Parallel. We often have to slightly externally rotate that circling leg to release the rectus femoris and allow the pelvis to square, but eventually (and it might take years), we ought to work to circle with a parallel leg. And that supporting leg? Parallel and actively pressing into the mat through the heel and hamstring.
If we don’t work out of the external rotation modification, we will never really strengthen the adductor group.
So, if you or your client must externally rotate to make a heel connection, do so just a little bit. But when that heel connection is strong and the adductors are really strengthening, start closing up that rotation little by little and get parallel. Eventually (closer to advanced level) hug heels and big toe knuckles tightly together! Remember, heels are primary, big toe knuckles are secondary.
Questions? Just ask!
Other modifications that we often forget to move forward to the Ideal?
Modification: In through nose, out through mouth like you’re blowing through a little straw
Ideal: In through nose, out through nose
Tucking/Posterior Tilt of the Pelvis when Neutral Pelvis is the challenge of the exercise:
Modification: Beginners don’t have abdominal strength to hold the opposition in the pelvis and lower back to maintain neutral pelvis and natural curve of the lumbar spine during exercises like The Hundred, Single Leg Circles, The Abdominal Series, Footwork on the reformer, etc. They “tuck” because they only have access to rectus abdominus. However…
Ideal: As they strengthen their abdominals in and up, by intermediate you must teach the opposition and challenge your clients (probably with higher legs in the mat exercises). That way they truly develop strength and opposition to stabilize their pelvis and maintain the appropriate space between the lumbar vertebrae. This is the path to great health! Not to mention remarkable lower abdominals!
Soft Elbows – How do we find a straight arm:
This is very much like the hyperextended knee…it involves opposition.
Modification: Beginners soften their elbows.
Ideal: Once your client has developed a strong abdominal connection and is truly developing a stable pelvis and shoulder girdle (Stable Box), then you can start teaching the opposition of shoulder blade back and hand forward to create stability in the center…the elbow joint. It requires strength, patience and vigilance, but is very attainable!
There are more…it’s time to go searching in your sessions and ask yourself “Am I advancing my client now that s/he has strengthened?”
***Please let me know if this sparks any questions, positive changes in your teaching, challenges in your teaching, etc.
***Thank you for taking the time to read and continue your education in this way!
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