Lock Joints? Don’t Lock Joints? What Do We Do?!

July 17, 2011 at 7:57 pm 11 comments

Strong, straight legs! Photo thanks to olympicdivingfans.com.

If you’re going to have strong arms and legs…you’ve got to be able to work with straight arms and legs.  In Pilates, it’s common to “soften” the elbows or knees…but that’s only a modification for beginners with hyperextension or forced “quadding”, as I call it (when some pushes the kneecap backwards fully from the quad with no resistance from the hamstrings and popliteus.  Eventually, we must take our clients out of “soft” joint modifications and get them to fully straighten their elbows and knees.  True strength comes from working our muscles completely.

Now, does this mean they “lock”?

Yes and No.

We actually do want our clients to lock their elbows and knees, but how they do it is essential.  They must lock with strong muscles balancing each other around the joint.  We need to teach our clients to use their muscles lock the bones in place.  We don’t want our clients to lock by jamming bone into bone.

Muscles can lock bones.

Bones ought not lock each other.

Ah!  So, one is dynamic stability and the other is compression!  It always comes to this!  We must train muscles to do their jobs in balance with each other.  This is not easy.  It takes the teacher understanding how the body works and the extreme patience from both the teacher and client…because creating this dynamic stability takes time.  “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, they say, and balance doesn’t happen in one repetition or session or week or month…truly…who knows when it will develop.  It just takes practice and patience.

Here’s a minor bit of the functional anatomy of it all:

The quadriceps are the accelerators of knee extension (straightening the knee).  That means it is the muscle that makes the knee straight.  The hamstrings are the decelerators of knee extension.  That means they slow the quadriceps down so the bones don’t smash.  Well…this only happens if the hamstrings actually engage.  If you “quad” and smash the knee cap back, then the hamstrings can’t do their job.  (Yes, yes, the hamstrings main function is the flex the knee, but…remember that all muscles have more than one function.  In fact, the hamstrings are the accelerators of knee flexion while the quadriceps are the decelerators of knee flexion.  Hamstrings make it happen, quadriceps keep the knee from snapping and smashing the knee capsule.)

Take an exercise like The Footwork Toes on the reformer.  When your client presses the carriage out and extends her knee, the main effort is the quadriceps to straighten the leg, but without the hamstrings, the knee cap smashes down.  Stopping at soft knees does, indeed, stop the smashing, but does nothing to strengthen the quadriceps and teach your client how to use his/her leg in motion.  In fact, it will create relatively weak quadriceps, hamstrings, popliteus and more.  But aren’t we supposed to be making strong legs?  We have to find full extension without hyper-extension from a balance of quadriceps and hamstrings (these are primarly, but they are not the only ones involved in stabilizing the knee) ostensibly locking the knee joint with a balance of muscular contraction.  We must find “end range” of joints with the balance of muscular action.

How does one develop this?  Well, in Footwork, as a solid example, as the teacher, alert your client.  When she smashes her knees say something like “Did you feel that when you straightened your legs, your knees smashed into position?”  The usual response is “No”.  And that’s understandable.  your client is used to smashing and doesn’t even realize it.  So, this is half of the battle.  You now say “Do it again and let me know what you feel”.  Now, they are aware of their movement…now you can teach.  Whether they smash again or not, cue this “As you press away on the footbar, work to use the back of your leg, your hamstrings, as much as the front of your leg, your quadriceps. We’re looking for a balanced strength of your leg.  Do the same thing when you bend your knees and resist the springs in.  Front of leg and back of leg working together.”

This way they have something to work on!  Find this in every leg exercise.  Work to straighten the leg completely…with balance.

Those with hyper-extended knees will stop short or go too far more often than not.  Stay patient and encouraging…develop balance.

Same thing with elbows.  There is a balance that needs to be developed that can be found through opposition:  Reach the shoulder blade back (just enough to be balancing on the back of the ribcage) and the hand forward.  This opposition will ultimately allow for a “locked” elbow with great strength.  If the elbow continually hyperextends, then the lost action is the shoulder drawing back.

Whenever we’re looking to stabilize a joint…working on a stable surface is ideal:
For learning how to straighten a leg with balance, sitting up on a mat is great.  With legs outstretched, have your client “soften” her knees.  Then have her press her heel into the mat strongly with a softened knee to activate her hamstrings.  Then have her maintain the pressure of the heel while drawing her kneecap up her thigh which is engaging the quadriceps.  The effort of keeping heel down and knee cap engaged ought to work to straighten without quadding or hyper-extension.

For learning how to straighten an elbow with balance, lying down on a mat is great.  With knees bent up and feet flat on the mat, have your client reach her ams up to the ceiling right over her shoulders.  She ought to lift her shoulder blades off of the mat and start with softened elbows.  Then ask her to keep reaching her fingertips to the ceiling, but draw her shoulder blades onto her back, into the mat (note that I did not say “down her back” or “away from her ears”…these cues are not proper ways to stabilize the shoulder blade…even though many of you have been taught this…I apologize, but they are compressive cues rather than stabilizing…and we can talk about this another time…please ask me to explain.)…so she must draw her shoulder blades onto her back and into the mat.  If she is reaching up and drawing back equally and opposite…her elbow joint will become straight with strength.  With mighty effort, balance and control…very mindful and active.

Well…these are not quick fixes, but they are extremely strengthening and balancing!

We’ve got to work through our muscles finding the end range of motion for both extension and flexion of joints.  Full Range of Motion is what we’re going for.  Stopping short at “soft” knees or elbows does have an element of control and consciousness and is import for beginners, but intermediates need more…we’ve got to work for balance of strength (and stretch) to give our clients the most!

As always…please ask me questions and let this be the beginning of a discussion, not the end or a monologue.  I hope this information is helpful!  Try it out on yourself first…and then your clients when you feel comfortable with it.  And please feel free to request a topic for me to write on.  I really enjoy your input!  Enjoy!!!

Here’s what’s coming up:

August 6&7 Margate and Avalon, NJ
August 20&21 Istanbul, TURKEY
September 17 NY, NY (Pilates on Tour)
October 22 Chicago, IL (Pilates on Tour)

August 6 & 7
August 6 – Margate, NJ – NJ YogaZone – Semi-Private Sessions from 11am-?
To register, contact Melissa at www.njyogazone.com
August 7 – Avalon, NJ – MindBody Pilates – Workshops:

Archival Mat & Standing Exercises

archival mat/standing

There are many more versions of Mr. Pilates’ exercises than we see today.  Many Pilates teachers have never been taught many of these variations, modifications, and combinations of multiple exercises in one!   Fascinating, challenging and all the rest!  These versions should not just live in the memories of those of us who had access to them years ago.  They ought to be living, breathing exercises for those who need modification or challenge!  Experience this material, then teach it so we never lose track of these great exercises!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

9:00 AM-11:00 PM

2101 Ocean Drive

Avalon, NJ 08202



Shoulder Girdle:  A Delicate Balance


The Shoulder Girdle is a complex system.  When I first started teaching, all I knew was “pull your wings down” and “crack a walnut”.  The more I study biomechanics, the more I know there’s very little down and no cracking.  It’s a delicate balance of bone, muscles, ligaments, tendons…and constant reassessing.  Dynamic Stability is what we’re looking for.  Let’s spend time studying where we’re going with the shoulder girdle and how to get there in Pilates. We’ll take time with anatomy and biomechanics, Pilates exercises, common ailments and all of your questions.  Take a moment to review what you already know before the workshop…then we can grow from there.
Sunday, August 7, 2011

11:30 AM-1:30 PM

2101 Ocean Drive

Avalon, NJ 08202
Shoulder girdle from Gray’s Anatomy.
Creative Spine Corrector

spineThe Spine Corrector is one of the most underused yet extremely versatle pieces of equipment designed by Mr. Pilates. In this workshop, you’ll learn how to transform your Spine Corrector into one of the most useful pieces of apparatus in your studio!  You will learn how to do and teach an entire flowing workout/ session on the Spine Corrector as well as how to use just a handful of exercises to enhance a full workout.  With over 40 exercises, there’s a lot to work on and discover.  You will also learn how to organize the exercises, how to position the clients on the apparatus and where to be spot and cue the exercises as the teacher.  It’s surprising how special and important you’ll find the Spine Corrector.

Shari Berkowitz teaching the Creative Spine

Corrector Workshop in Barcelona

     Sunday, August 7, 2011
     2:30 PM-4:30 PM
The cost of these 2-hour workshops at MINDBODY Pilates is just $80 each. Save $10 if you sign up for 2 workshops, $20 if you register for all 3 and $30 if you schedule all 3 by July 15.
To register, call 609-368-8700 or online click here
August 20-21
Istanbul, TURKEY
I’ll be presenting many workshops including:
Mysterious Aches and Pains
Pilates for Seniors
Pelvic Floor
Shoulder Girdle:  A Delicate Balance
Back Problems
a couple of mat workouts!
If you live in Turkey or nearby…or have friends who do…please send them to register and get more information at:
September 16-18 
I’m teaching on Saturday, September 17 from 1:30-4:30pm
Mr. Pilates’ Archival Mat and Standing Exercises
There are many more versions of Mr. Pilates’ exercises than we see today.  Variations, modification, combinations of multiple exercises in one!  Fascinating, challenging and all the rest!  These versions should not just live in the memories of those of us who had access to them years ago.  They ought to be living, breathing exercises for those who need the modification or challenge!  Experience this material, then teach it so we never lose track of these great exercises!
For more information and registration, go to:  https://www.pilates.com/BBAPP/V/education/pilates-on-tour/new-york.html
October 21-23
I’m teaching on Saturday, October 22 from 1:30-4:30pm
Mr Pilates’ Archival Mat and Standing Exercises
There are many more versions of Mr. Pilates’ exercises than we see today.  Variations, modification, combinations of multiple exercises in one!  Fascinating, challenging and all the rest!  These versions should not just live in the memories of those of us who had access to them years ago.  They ought to be living, breathing exercises for those who need the modification or challenge!  Experience this material, then teach it so we never lose track of these great exercises!
For more information and registration go to:  https://www.pilates.com/BBAPP/V/education/pilates-on-tour/chicago.html
More information on September and November workshops in NYC and December workshops in Boston, MA to follow!
There’s plenty in the works…but on the books already:
June 2012 – London, ENGLAND – more information to follow!
***Please share this information and tell your Pilates teacher friends and colleagues to come on over for workouts and workshops that will get your Pilates-teaching-juices flowing.***
Again, these are not your typical workshops where you might get 1 useful tidbit.  You will leave full of new teaching skills and ways to look at Mr. Pilates work.  You will have a new perspective on Pilates that will enliven your teaching and your own workouts!
Shall we set up something at your studio or the one you work at?  Clearly, I travel to teach and enjoy it!  Read below for more info!

Workshops in Your Studio:
If you are interested in my teaching workshops and/or semi-private sessions for your teachers at your studio, please contact me at info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com  I’ll be thrilled to put together a program with you for your needs!

While my vocabulary is classical Pilates, the principles behind my teaching and workshops apply to every style of Pilates.

We have countless topics to play with within technique workshops of classical Pilates and teaching skills workshop that apply to all!

If you’re in NYC and want a Pilates session e-mail me at info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com
And I’m at Purchase College (Near White Plains/Westchester, NY) on Thursdays.

If you’d like a workshop and/or semi-privates at your studio, e-mail me at info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com  I travel all over the world and would be thrilled to come to you!

If you’d like to set up a meeting on the phone or in person to ask questions about teaching or building/maintaining your business, e-mail me at info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com

Enjoy!- Shari

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Pick and Choose – An Article For Everyone! Breathe. Breathe in, breathe out…just breathe.

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alex  |  July 18, 2011 at 9:37 am

    (note that I did not say “down her back” or “away from her ears”…these cues are not proper ways to stabilize the shoulder blade…even though many of you have been taught this…I apologize, but they are compressive cues rather than stabilizing…and we can talk about this another time…please ask me to explain.)…

    So by removing these cues and staying with “onto your back, into the Mat” would you expect to see, in time, a change in the clients shoulder position that would previously prompt a teacher to reach/grasp/grip/cling/wrestle you to the ground…. for the removed cues?

    With a thought that it may not be such “common launguage” that is used, for most!

    Or….would an average new body require some interim help with cues to understand what a teacher wants to see begining?

    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  July 18, 2011 at 9:57 am

      Hi, Alex!
      Thanks…but I’m not sure I totally get what you mean. My interpretation has an answer like this:
      If you understand the true movements of the scapulae and how to ostensibly stabilize them while moving the humerus/upper arm (which the scapulae don’t actually stabilize in most movements of the humerii because of scapulohumeral rhythm unless you work “to pull them down” or “anchor them” which causes compression and a lot of trouble in the shoulder complex)…but at least we’re working for opposition, space and support…if you work to really understand how shoulders work when they are supporting a load/weight in the hand or moving the load/weight of the arm, then you only need simple cues that are effective for the average body. Now…not new. New clients don’t get shoulder girdle cues. Intermediate clients might (or might not) get shoulder girdle cues. New clients get abdominal cues that affect the lumbar spine. Some variant of “Scoop your abdominals in and up to lift your lower spine.” Intermediate clients (notably intermediate because they have a good connection to their abdominals and an awareness of the need for this through out their session…and life, a growing physical understanding of the basic exercises and a developing concentration throughout the session) receive cues for the shoulder girdle when it is appropriate for their body. When is that? Good question. Focus on abdominals and lower spine first, then perhaps stabilization of the pelvis (bottom of the box), then more effort on opposition and length of spine and perhaps the midline of the legs (connect the heels to connect the inner thighs…creating a “spine of the legs”)…perhaps then the shoulders are ready. Of course, if this client has a neck or shoulder issue, maybe after an abdominal connection is created, the shoulders are addressed then.

      Come to my shoulder girdle workshop in August in NJ. Or…since that’s a bit far for you…let’s do it in London next year!

      Now…please ask me some more!

      Thanks, Alex!
      – Shari

  • 3. Alex  |  July 18, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Thanks…but I’m not sure I totally get what you mean

    must be my accent….!

    I was thinking of specifically shoulders only, and when a teacher may reach for “those” cues because of the natural focus on that area, say…..arm springs on the cadillac!

    Where a teacher may see the clients shoulders up by their ears and quite naturally wish to cue to move them away from that position!

    If that still makes no sense, don’t worry, it’ll keep…

    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  July 18, 2011 at 10:48 am


      I think I’m misunderstanding, but let’s chat on the side and I’ll make sure I do understand! Then I’ll do a piece on the shoulder girdle, specifically!

      Thank you for asking…let’s chat separately!
      – Shari

  • 5. Troy Hyatt  |  July 20, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Hi Shari,

    Love your blog. It’s really helpful and useful whether you’re a teacher or a practitioner (I’m both!). My comment has not so much to do with locking joints or not but rather about all these details. I’m not saying I disagree with you but how do you infuse these details in a lesson while still giving the “joy of movement?” How do you keep it moving while educating? Do you understand what I mean?

    I take a kind of kickboxing/self-defense class and it’s wonderful. We go full on for an hour or so, non-stop. The teachers just kind of throw in what we would call “cues” here and there but there’s never an interruption to explain. You just sort of absorb what you can and keep going. You keep going to class and the “cues” make more sense but you’re never over-thinking it because you’re too busy trying to keep that fist from coming into your face!

    While Pilates is not exactly the same, you do want to keep moving, don’t you? I’m curious to know how you “keep ’em moving” while giving all this great info.


    • 6. theverticalworkshop  |  July 30, 2011 at 8:09 pm

      Hi, Troy! Thank you for taking the time to read and then comment/ask questions! It’s great hearing from you!

      It’s really important to cue while your client is moving. Pilates is exactly the same as any other form of movement in this realm. Please bear with my bluntness and black & white of text. You know that in person my edges are far more smooth: It’s a shame that most instructors stop and talk to clients about movement rather than asking for changes while moving. The contemplation of how to move while staying still is ineffectual for your client…it’s the combined actions of moving and working to accomplish a new cue that makes changes. Some instructors go so far as to tell a client what they ought to have been doing or could do better after they’ve completely finished the exercise repetitions…and then they move onto the next exercise leaving the client no opportunity to take those cues and try to adjust. Hence: Cue your client while she/he is moving!

      How do you do that? Get your client moving in the exercise…doesn’t matter if it’s “good” or “bad”…just move safely. Then say “keep moving and…” insert your cue here. If you client stops for you to speak…just say “keep moving and try to make the adjustments that I share with you”. I don’t stop my clients during their workout…at all.

      Now, I have some clients who are teachers who use the session as both their workout and a seminar/opportunity to ask questions about their clients or the method, etc…that’s a different story. Otherwise…it’s 55 minutes of moving.

      We’ve got 5 repetitions to make a positive change. So…observe repetition #1 and start making the most important adjustments by repetition #2. Give them the opportunity to get it. If they get it, add more…if they don’t…change your words, use images, get your hands-on and find a way to help your client make even the tiniest positive change in the exercise. By repetition #5 be quiet and hands-off and let your client be on her/his own. Then transition into the next exercise seamlessly.

      Pilates is not a contemplative study. It’s a movement modality. Let’s move our clients.

      you and I can sit and talk and dissect…and that’s so we can have it figured out and ready for our client to move…non-stop!

      Good stuff! I’m glad you asked!
      – Shari

  • 7. Pippa Taylor  |  July 24, 2011 at 3:40 am

    Hi Shari

    Thank you so much for your blog! It makes so much sense, out of all the information I have been given over the years, you make it simple and clear.

    I am slowing going through your past posts, taking my time. I don’t want to rush this!

    I loved meeting you in London this year at PI Battersea and am looking forward to your visit next year. Especially if we are covering the shoulder girdle, what an area! At least I have time to go over what I do know, what I think I know and what I definitely don’t know. So hopefully I will have some questions for you.

    I stay in touch with Alex so with your combined spirit, energy and approach I am confident that I am, at last, on the right path to becoming a Pilates ‘teacher’.

    Thank you for taking the time and making the difference!
    Alex, if you’re following this, same to you mate!


    • 8. theverticalworkshop  |  July 30, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      Hi, Pippa! It’s absolutely lovely e-seeing you here! Thank you for reading and commenting! I hope to hear from you again and again! And then see you when I’m in London next. Which…is around the weekend of June 15-17, 2012! perhaps there will be something that brings me out before…but that’s what’s on the books at the moment! Please pencil it in and bring all of your Pilates friends! I look forward to spending more time with you! Until then…let’s stay in touch here and through e-mail, etc.!

      All the best,
      – Shari

  • […] Lock Joints? Don’t Lock Joints? What do we do? […]

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

    […] Lock Joints? Don’t Lock Joints? What do we do? […]

  • 11. Louise  |  March 25, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    Hi could somebody please help me with the following terminology:

    Split Stance
    Square Stance
    Knees soft
    Don’t lock out the joint

    Many Thanks


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