Advancing to the Ideal: Modify and then Advance

November 23, 2010 at 10:49 am 14 comments

Mr. Pilates Teaser - unknown photographer

Mr. Pilates Teaser - unknown photographer

(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!


If you’re in NYC and want a Pilates session e-mail me at


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Pilates Teachers, what do you need? Anatomy – Where do I begin?!

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jen  |  November 27, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Hey Shari, I am signed up for a duet at the Pilates Studio Fairfield! I look forward to it. I also sent out the email to others. You may want to contact The Fitness Edge Pilates Director and Group Fitness Director too…(could get some apparatus instructors and mat class instructors).

    See you soon
    Jen P

    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  November 27, 2010 at 3:40 pm

      Hi, Jen!
      I’m so glad we’ll get to see and work with each other in Fairfield! And thank you for both the suggestion of reaching out to The Fitness Edge and for sending word out to your Pilates teacher friends. It can be very challenging to get Pilates teachers to take sessions. So, I appreciate all that you can do to get them in! I promise great sessions that will be more than a typical workout!

      See you soon, indeed!
      – Shari

  • 3. Alex  |  November 27, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    I have a Question,
    Advancement! What is it? Or more so how should it be?
    Because somebody can, does it mean they should, if not, why & when?
    Is it the exercise you are doing? Are you advanced because it says the exercise you are doing / performing is an advanced exercise?
    Is it how you are doing and exercise? The most fantastic half roll back? The most exquisite leg circles in straps, with not even a hint of a wobbly box?
    Or is it simply knowing what you are doing and understanding where you are going?

    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  December 2, 2010 at 10:01 am

      Hi, Alex!
      Thank you for your questions! I will address all of it in a separate article/blog post. Knowing how, when and why to advance our clients is utterly important in creating a successful Pilates career for our clients and for ourselves as teachers. Thank you for asking! Stay tuned!

      All the best!
      – Shari

  • 5. BC  |  December 1, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Hi Shari,

    I’m really enjoying your blog.

    I have slightly knocked-knees and so I’m in that group that can’t maintain a solid heel connection unless I externally rotate.

    Can I ask: Do you teach any of the side kick series in external rotation? I’m specifically thinking of exercises like, Up/Down Side Kicks, and Grande Ronde Jambe…

    Thanks again — keep up the great blog!


    • 6. theverticalworkshop  |  December 2, 2010 at 10:10 am


      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, comment and ask questions!

      I think I will write a separate article/blog post on how to work with knock-knees. You must, indeed externally rotate with a slightly “soft” knee that you can eventually hold strongly through your knee cap, but will not actually become straight because your bones are literally in the way. And that’s fine. You must work to make that heel to inner thigh connection when legs are together, though. Rather than leave feet apart with knees together, do heels together, toes apart only as much as needed and have only the least amount of bend in the knee as necessary to do this.

      As for Side Kick Series. I can also address this in another post, but to start: Ideally, eventually, Front/Back (the first of the side kick series) ought to be in parallel both in the front and the back. However…and this is a big however…it takes people a long, long time to get there. There must be great pelvic stability, lengthening up of the lower spine/lumbar and a square box to allow for this freedom in the hip when parallel. So, for a long time, most people need a slight bit of external rotation in the leg when it comes forward to help reach that leg’s hip away from the waste (basically, to help keep pelvis stable and square). Eventually, that client will be able to do it with a parallel leg in both directions. Its the same thing for Single Leg Circles (One Leg Circles). A tiny bit of external rotation on the circling leg to help keep hips square and release the rectus femoris. Eventually, such stability, balance of strength and stretch exists with great opposition that the circling leg can be parallel. It’s the same thing in The Tree on the reformer short box.

      Now, that was Front/Back…the only Side Kicks Mr. Pilates created. The rest were created by other people. Primarily, Romana and her dancer students. With that, we must remember that Pilates is not ballet. If we chose to do other Side Kicks from what Mr. Pilates did (Up/Down, Small Circles, Inner Thigh Lifts and Circles, Bicycle, Hot Potato, Scissors), then we must do them in parallel with no external rotation…a la Mr. Pilates. If you do “Grande Ronde Jambe”…well, that’s flat out ballet…in which case…external rotation, but work as hard as you can to maintain and square and stable box, focusing on length and stability.

      Let me know if that makes sense!

      More soon!
      – Shari

      • 7. BC  |  December 6, 2010 at 12:12 am

        Hi Shari,

        Thanks so much for you reply. That does make sense. Keep up the great blog! I look forward to your future entries 🙂



  • 8. Alex  |  December 3, 2010 at 4:53 am

    o “Now, that was Front/Back…the only Side Kicks Mr. Pilates created. The rest were created by other people. Primarily, Romana and her dancer students. With that, we must remember that Pilates is not ballet. If we chose to do other Side Kicks from what Mr. Pilates did (Up/Down, Small Circles, Inner Thigh Lifts and Circles, Bicycle, Hot Potato, Scissors), then we must do them in parallel with no external rotation…a la Mr. Pilates. If you do “Grande Ronde Jambe”…well, that’s flat out ballet…in which case…external rotation, but work as hard as you can to maintain and square and stable box, focusing on length and stability.”

    There is still value in this?

    Do you think it started before he died?

    Where would bicycle slot in, that he did in a different context right?

    • 9. theverticalworkshop  |  December 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm

      Hi, Alex,

      Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner on this re: Side Kicks
      I don’t know if the other variations started before Mr. Pilates died or not. I’ll ask around a bit and let you know if I find anything out. What I do know, by heresay, is that sometimes Mr. Pilates’ trusted clients/assistants (Romana and the like) would try something out new that would help a client and Mr. Pilates would accept it. What were those things? I have no idea, but I gather that he was relatively accepting of input if it was effective and represented his method of Contrology. I also gather that those pieces of input were few and far between.

      Bicycel…fantastic exercise in the modernization of Side Kicks. It ought to be 100% in parallel; however, until the front portion can be done with nice stable and square hips and the like, a little bit of external rotation might be an effective modification of the reach forward of the leg (like in Front/Back or One/Single Leg Circles).

      Then, there is High Bicycle and Scissors (on the back of the shoulders with hips in the air)…those were part of the matwork created by Mr. Pilates, as far as I know!

      All the best,
      – Shari

  • 10. matx  |  December 12, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Thank you for sharing so many Shari!!!This blog is wornderful.

    My hips (and some of my students) make noise when bending and leghtening if i’ve not the legs rotated (for example in double leg stretch). It’s not painful but uncomfortable. And I’ve seen is quite common.

    Should I rotate? Or try not to? I wouldn’t say it could change with training…

    Thank you!

  • 11. Tracy Bloom, LMT  |  February 9, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Hi Shari,

    I notice I have goals for all my clients: safety, balance, coordination, strength, flexibility, feeling great, ability to function (functional strength, etc….) They also have goals (looking good, fit clothing well, clear the mind, etc) and usually develop more over the course of training. Both sets of goals are addressed simultaneously. Health dynamics also figured into this program.

    Progression, to me, is determined by these goals, absolutely. The sequence/routine adapts to the goals. Integration of all these is success. Other short term goals come and go. Most of us remember “can you do this?” from our childhoods. There is a sense of fun in meeting a challenge – extremely useful for motivation. It’s a balance, as someone said before. I would love to hear your thoughts….thanks!

  • […] Advancing to the Ideal: Modify and then Advance2010/11/23 […]

  • […] Advancing to the Ideal: Modify and then Advance2010/11/23 […]

  • 14. The Vertical Workshop's Pilates Teacher Blog  |  December 6, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    […] Advancing to the Ideal: Modify and then Advance2010/11/23 […]


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