Lift Your Abdominals and Lower Back Bones Like Your Life Depends On It…Because It Does!

November 11, 2011 at 2:50 pm 15 comments

Finishing the cue of lift your abdominals to lift your lower back bones...

If you spend any time around me, you know that I’m wont to say “Lift your abdominals in and up to lift your lower spine…like your life depends on it…because it does!”  Sound dramatic?  Yes.  Sometimes we have to be dramatic to catch your attention.  But, guess what?  It’s true!  Ah, all of the time, we have to tell the truth.  The Truth.

You can do all of the exercise in the world and take great care of yourself in many odd and different manners, but if you do not take care of your spine, then you will hurt, fall ill and suffer.  Now, one or more of these things may happen anyway.  Life is complicated and unpredictable, but you give yourself an incredible shot for the best health possible if you have a healthy spine.  That’s The Truth.

You teach Pilates.  You do Pilates.  You think that you’re all about the spine.  Mr. Pilates said that you’re only as young as your spine is flexible.  And he was right.  Did he know what we know now?  Could he have known?

Your spine houses your spinal cord.  Your spinal cord.  What if you consider your spinal cord as one of the 4 most important organs of the body:  Brain, Heart, Lungs, Spinal Cord.  (Not as though the rest of your body isn’t important…it all is!)  Never considered your spinal cord that important?  Rarely consider it at all?  Well, all of the nerves of your body go from your brain and brain stem into the spinal cord.  And what houses the spinal cord?  Your spine!

Your spine is the armor for your spinal cord.  Giving it a canal to run through, solid protection and channels for the appropriate nerves to leave to feed information to your organs and muscles.  You need unhindered passageways for those nerves to pass through or they will either not send their signals or only send some of their signals.  You’ll have some sort of dysfunction or pain in muscles and/or organs.  How often have you considered this?  The muscle pain, perhaps.  You pinch a nerve…you think of that pain.  But what about the function of your organs?

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

It’s truly great to take your spine and spinal cord for granted!  It would be great if we didn’t have to think about it at all.  However, if you do think about…life can get better and better!

We’ve got to work to keep space and flexibility through the spinal column.  Each vertebra must be well-spaced from the one above and below and in good alignment.  We’re lucky, we have vertebral discs.  They are shock absorbing spacers between each segment of the spine.  As spacers, they help maintain the openings (foramen) that allow the nerves to flow out of the spinal cord and column to the rest of the body.  They are incredibly resilient, but over time from the constant compression and friction of bone upon disc upon bone over time these discs become less cushiony and can become compressed and brittle.  Some of this is unstoppable because it’s the natural progression of our body’s aging process; however, we can do our best to resist the increased deterioration on our discs.


Lift your abdominals to lift your low backbones.


In Pilates, you’ve been teaching “Pull your abdominals in and up” or “Scoop your abs in and up” or “Scoop your Powerhouse in and up” or “Pull your navel to spine and up” or  some such thing.  You might have been missing the “up” part.  You might be concentrating on other things and have forgotten abdominals.  Even if you’re cueing the abdominals a bit or a lot…it’s not enough if you’re not cueing the lower spine.  Just working the abdominals to be strong and flexing and extending the spine in all different directions, articulating as much as possible is good…but it’s not good enough.  We’ve got to cue length and space between the vertebrae.  And it starts from the bottom (L5-S1) upwards.

Length and space between each vertebra comes from both abdominal and spinal erector (deep erectors:  multifidi) action…trying to create more length and space all around the spine.  Not just the back (the spinous process) but the front and the sides of the vertebral bodies.

Doesn’t it make sense that if there is space between the vertebrae, there will be the ability for more movement?  In all directions:  spinal flexion, extension, lateral flexion/side-bending and rotation/twisting.

Now, not only does your spine house your spinal cord and allow for the network of nerves to command your body, but it also helps hold up our torso and serve as a structure of support for our limbs.  With a healthy and flexible spine, we can have better support…of course…and better use and strength of our arms and legs.

If we consider our bodies a bit like pyramids with the ability for a broad base of support at the bottom and our tiny heads on top, then we can look deeper to the pelvis and spine and see that the pelvis is a relatively broad base of support, the sacrum being a considerable base of the rest of the moveable spine; lumbar vertebrae are wide and thick, thoracic a bit more narrow and thinner and then cervical vertebrae even smaller and thinner.  Of course there are many aspects to these dimensions, but just considering the bases and basis of support…it would make sense that in order to create more space in our supportive structure to be able to include flexibility and mobility, we need to lift from the bottom of the base:  Lift L5 off of S1 to begin.  Then from there once L5 can lift and be mobile, the L4, L3, L2, etc. can lift and mobilize.  I call it “the trickle up effect”…because the space must start at the bottom and then work its way upward.  It is relatively easy to lift the cervical vertebrae…there’s not much weight on them compared to the lumbar.  Some would say to work from the easiest to hardest…but we’ve got to look at the most vital for full-body movement and support and that starts at the base.  Lift L5 off of S1…all of the time…in every position…in every action.  L5 must never approach S1. Lift from the base of the pyramid.

Let’s take a few exercises and find/create more space in the lumbar spine.  Remember…this stuff takes time!  Your clients will not necessarily be able to create more space and movement at first.  Allow it to take time.  Be patient and persistent.  With that also know that the range of motion of the spine may seem like less at first…but will ultimately be a truer, greater range of motion.  Here we go:

1 – Half-Roll Down – We do this mat exercise with beginner clients as a pre-amble to The Roll Up.  We’re looking to make an abdominal connection and stretch open the lumbar spine.  Right.  OK, so what if we do this:
Set Up:  With your knees bent up and feet flat on the mat, lightly hold onto the back of your knees and round your spine.
Action:  Round your spine backwards.  Round your spine back upwards.
You do this for a couple of repetitions, start cueing the abdominals in and up…and then…you say this (in your own words and personality…or these):
“OK, now, instead of being a lower-case, little “c” shape with your spine, be a capital “C”…lift your abdominals in and up to lift your lower back bones.  Now, keep that capital “C” when you round back…and when you round up.”

You’ve just taught strength + space!  You’ve just taught your client that space is more ideal than compression!  And you did it on Day One!  Now, did it happen perfectly?  No…of course not.  Was it tricky?  Was it wobbly?  Yes and yes.  Great!  This is the struggle for support and space!

Now, you relate this experience to every other exercise that is, well, related to the Half-Roll Down.  Use the same image of lower-case “c” and capital “C” over and over again!

2 – Straight/Flat on the Short Box –
Set Up:  Sit up tall with your shoulders over your hips and your arms stretched up to the ceiling.
Action:  Hinge your spine backwards to a high diagonal.  Return upright; shoulders over hips.
Of course, you do this a couple of times, cue the abdominals in and up and then you say this (in your own words and personality…or use these):
“OK, now, pictures your lower back bones as five (5) tuna fish cans.  Can you imagine 5 tuna fish cans stacked on a kitchen counter?  They nestle right into each other.  What if that bottom tuna can could float off of the counter top?  Then the next can would lift off of that one and upwards and on until the 5 tuna cans were hovering off of the counter and each other in their column.  That’s what I’d like you to do with your lower spine.  So, keep going…and from the lift of your abdominals and lower back, lift your tuna cans to hinge backwards and lift your tuna cans to return upright.”

You don’t spend a lot of time giving this image.  You’ve got to see it so clearly that you can spit it out in a way that your client can see it 100% and right away.  If tuna fish cans doesn’t work for your client, then pick something else:  Oreo cookies, french macaroons, a stack of gold coins…you’ll figure something out.  It has to be round…so that your client lifts all sides of the spine.  Not just the back.  We must open all sides of all parts of the spine in whatever shape we’ve put it in:  natural curves, spinal flexion, spinal extension, lateral flexion, rotation.  Right.

Well, now you can use that tuna can image in every single exercise!

3 – Swan Prep-
Set Up: (Now, there are many, many variations of a Swan preparation…this is just one very simplistic version) Lie  on your stomach with your palms under your forehead, your legs out long behind you.
Action: Reach your hip points and pubic bone into the mat, lift your abdominals in and up, lift your torso head and hands up.  Lengthen back to the mat.
You do this a couple of times…then…
Now, imagine your spine is a set of train cars leaving the station of your pelvis; your sacrum and tailbone and running to your head. Lift your abdominals in and up to lift your torso and run that train forward to your head…put lots of space between each train car at your lower back…more space between those cars!  Lengthen your spine forward along the mat…keep those trains running!

Now, your client will be running those trains!  Use that image over and over again!

I’m not kidding…use those images over and over again…ad nauseum.  Your clients will not get bored or wish for you to say something new…because they will be connecting to this image and these actions and feel something special happen:  Positive Change!  They will get longer and stronger!

Take a look at every exercise you do when you work yourself out with Pilates 3-5 times a week (you do that, right?).  Are you really creating space in all sides of your lumbar spine?  And are you actually moving your lumbar spine when it is meant to move? Are you reaching L5 away from S1…always?  (L5 should never, ever, ever approach S1 [EVER] in life.)

Are you collapsing and compressing when you round your spine?  Why do we think that we need to be really small and round?  Isn’t “rounded” enough?  Round with space.

Same thing with extension.

And what about side-bending?  When you do an exercise like Side Sit Ups or Mermaid…are you actually moving your lumbar spine or are you hinging at T12-L1?  That’s a big problem.  You’ve got to create space in the lumbar spine…starting with L5 getting off of S1 and up (lift your tuna cans) and then shift them laterally…let everything else follow.  At first…you will find that you don’t go very far.  That’s fine…great, even, because you’re really being true to what needs to move and how.  Resist the temptation to add the extra crunch of the thoracic spine/ribcage.  Work to lengthen and mobilize the lumbar spine laterally.  The more space you have, the more movement you’ll have…in the future.  It doesn’t have to be today.  The ideal photos you’ve seen…why do you think you ever have to be that, let alone today.  Make certain you and your clients are doing the correct actions correctly.

Twisting?  You get it already:  The more space you have in your lumbar spine and support from your abdominals and back extensors..the greater range of motion you’ll have in your twist.  You’ll never increase your twist if your bones are bearing down on each other.  You’ll only compress and sheer.  Ooh…that does not sound good.  And what does a good twist mean, anyway?  A beautifully lifted twist is not going to pay your rent, but that space, support and mobility will show you how healthy you are and give you longevity.

Round is rounded…not collapsed or compressed.
Arched is a long bow…not gripped.
Lateral Side-bending is lengthened…not hinged.
Twisting is uplifting…not sheering.

All of this sounds great!

It all comes down to remember what we’re doing and why in Pilates.  We’re looking to use our method of Pilates, whatever style you teach, to help our clients achieve their fitness goals which almost always include feeling better, getting out of pain, being more flexible, being stronger, having better posture, looking leaner…movement is great…but conscious movement is even better!  Consider the lumbar spine…create space!

How much further can we go with this…incredibly far.  Start with this concept and these actions and make creating space within and mobility of the lumbar spine your singular goal…for now.  Lift your abdominals in and up to lift your lower spine.

As always…if you have any questions, comments, concerns…please leave me a comment in the section below!  I love to hear from you and keep a good conversation going.  Also, if you’d like to ask me to write about something specific, drop me a line at  If you have a private question to ask me about your clients, also .

Thank you for taking the time to read this!  You can subscribe to the blog if you want to be notified when the next article is posted…just click the toggle on the side!


November 13

Madison, CT – Pilates Barn

Pilates for Seniors – 11am-1:30pm – $100
Working with an aging population is great, but we must understand their special needs.  What are the common conditions of the agin client?  How do you drive a workout at his/her level? What are some modifications or new exercises to do?  What are some great tools to use.  You’ll leave this workshop feeling more confident that you know what to do and what not to do with your senior clients.

Teaching Tower Class:  How to Create and Actively Teach 
2p-4:30p – $100
2.5 PMA CECs
Apparatus classes are a big part of our growing Pilates world.  You teach them, but you were never trained for them.  In your tower classes, there are people of all levels, many who have never seen or been on the tower and then there are some who are pretty advanced, as well.  How do you create a class that takes care of them all?  Let’s take the time to learn how to create really safe, strong and challenging classes on the tower.  There are special guidelines and progressions you can follow and great ways to make a fantastic class for everyone…including you as the teacher!

To register, contact Lori at or 203.214.3213

Sunday, December 4

Albany, NY – Albany Pilates Center

Magic Circle Miracles – 10a-1p – $120

The Magic Circle has become a common tool in Pilates…so small, but so effective!  It is Miraculous in it’s ability to transform a clients body and mind!  You’ve used it a lot, but truly understanding it will make it your most precious tool in getting your clients to connect with their core/powerhouse, full body and mind.  In this workshop you will learn the circle’s history, understand where, why and when to use the Magic Circle, learn solid technique of  Magic Circle exercises and learn creative uses, too. It’s miraculous that a little ring can do so much!

Archival Exercises: Beyond the Everyday – 2p-5p – $120

Joseph Pilates created somewhere between 500-600 exercises. You know some of the repertoire…it’s time to learn more. In this workshop, you will learn you rarely seen and immediately useful exercises on multiple apparatus (Mat, Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Standing Arm Springs) all created by Joseph Pilates. You’ll leave feeling confident in the purpose and technique of teach exercise, have time to do exercises, practice teaching and ask questions. You’ll walk away with your own special archive of exercises for your strong intermediate clients…and yourself!

Call Albany Pilates Center to register:  518-435-1156

December 9-11
Boston, MA – Atelier Pilates (Somerville, MA)

Friday, Dec 9
Trios 1:30, 2:30, 3:30, 4:30
Cost: $60.00 per person
Saturday, Dec 10
Workshop:  Flow and Rhythm: Use your voice  to drive and command the session – 10a-12n
Cost: $80
Class/Workout:  Mat with Archival Variations
Cost: $25.00 per person
Workshop: Archival Mat and Standing Exercises – 1:45p-4:45p
Cost: $120
Sunday, Dec 11
Workshop: Shoulder Girdle: A Delicate Balance – 9a-12n
Cost: $120
Class/Workout: Reformer on the Mat
Cost: $25.00 per person
Workshop: Great Groups and Sensational Semis – 1:30p-4:30[
Cost: $120
To register or questions:
There’s plenty in the works…please keep your eyes and ears out!
Sunday, January 29 –  Mamaroneck, NY – Fiore Pilates
Archival Mat and Standing Exercises
Mysterious Aches and Pains
More information to follow!
February – Los Angeles, CA
March – London, ENGLAND and Geneva, SWITZERLAND
***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 just one 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  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
And I’m Westchester, NY on Thursdays.

If you’d like a workshop and/or semi-privates at your studio, e-mail me at  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

Enjoy!- Shari

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Curl Your Chin To Your Chest? No Thank You! Doing Wrong To Get To Right?

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lynda Lippin (@lyndalippin)  |  November 12, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Such a great post and your cues are perfect! I am constantly trying to get people to lengthen and create space in their bodies. Pilates teachers need to understand that a big part of what we do involves getting those backbones to lift and separate and move with support and length.

    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  November 12, 2011 at 11:57 am

      Hi, Lynda,
      Thank you!
      Let’s keep doing it!
      – Shari

  • 3. CathB  |  November 28, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I’ve tried these cues with great results – thanks!

    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  November 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm

      Cathy! I’m so glad that you’re able to use these cues…and that they’re working well! Thanks for the feedback!
      I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!
      – Shari

  • […] Lift Your Abdominals and Lower Back Bones Like Your Life Depends On It…Because It Does! […]

  • 6. Mareile Paley  |  February 22, 2012 at 8:32 am

    😉 I know exactly what you are talking about…

    • 7. theverticalworkshop  |  February 23, 2012 at 8:20 am

      Mareile! You do know! And you did it so very well!
      It was so great seeing you on Tuesday!
      – Shari

  • 8. Reb  |  April 25, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Great article. I’ve been explaining the big C v. little C for a while, but I’ve never anyone else cue that way. I often show students how scooping the wrong way can compress the lower back instead if lengthening it.

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

    […] Lift Your Abdominals and Lower Back Bones Like Your Life Depends On It…Because It Does! […]

  • 10. Beth  |  July 15, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    I have been binging on your blog for a few days now – can’t stop reading and learning! But so far I feel like this post is the one everyone should start with. Just reading it feels good!

    • 11. theverticalworkshop  |  July 16, 2014 at 1:09 pm

      Hello, Beth,
      Binging on the blog! Thank you!
      I do agree that this article is the place to begin. Our perspective is everything!
      Please reach out with any questions. I hope you continue to read on!
      All the very best,
      – Shari

  • […] 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 […]

  • 13. Marcia Shapira  |  February 28, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Oh, I remember the tuna cans imagery from our session in NY and have used this with clients with great results. In fact, that session is still very fresh in my memory to date and I got so much out of it.

    One question: Do you usualy cue the initiation of the rotation like Saw or tilt on short box from the lumbar or from the head down? And why?

    Thanks Shari, your insight is greatly appreciated.

    • 14. theverticalworkshop  |  March 15, 2015 at 9:11 am

      Marcia! Pardon my delay in responding! I’m so glad that this stuff has stuck with you and works for you! Thank you!!

    • 15. theverticalworkshop  |  March 15, 2015 at 9:15 am

      You asked: One question: Do you usualy cue the initiation of the rotation like Saw or tilt on short box from the lumbar or from the head down? And why?

      I cue the initiation to rotate the spine to one side from the head down to the lower thoracic spine.
      The to untwist, from the base of the thoracic to the top of the head.

      So…I do not cue to twist the lumbar spine.

      Now…the thing that is most important is WHY someone does or doesn’t do something. So…why? Because the lumbar spine has a limited amount of rotation in it healthy ranges. Perhaps about 5 degrees of rotation with out sheer forcers. Maybe more…but let’s not push it. Sheer forces are compression friction forces. Friction breaks down components of whatever is sliding against the other to make this happen. So…let’s not do that to our body. Work to stabilize the pelvis…that will be an action of rotation against the active rotation of the cervical spine and thoracic spine. The lumbar spine will have some passive rotation. Minimal. Mostly…lift those lumbar vertebrae apart…lift your tuna fish cans!


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