Buttocks – Seemingly Every Fitness Person’s Favorite Subject…

December 15, 2013 at 1:50 pm 24 comments

GluteusMaximus

Dearest Fitness Fans…You’ll please forgive me as I am about to share something that will shock and appall:
Getting bouncy buns, strong buttocks and a lifted bottom doesn’t come from what you think it does. It 100% does not come from squeezing your seat, buns, butt, buttocks or tusch. All that squeezing you’ve been doing…it ain’t doing what you think. I know you’ve been told by people with gorgeous back sides that this is “The Way”. You’ve seen dancers with bottoms to astound. You’ve seen boxers with buns of steel. You’ve marveled over carved bums of seeming marble on your capoeira master. However, my fellow fans of fit…when they all tell you they got it by squeezing their seats (or any of the aforementioned terms)…they lied. Not intentional lies…but…perhaps that makes it even worse.

Why? Why do people think that squeezing your seat is going to get you a great seat? (Yes, I’ll go with seat or buttocks…the rest are rather crass [butt is crass] or childish [tusch or tuschy…as much as I love Yiddish, no one with a tusch is posing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and none of my powerful clients who own half of your country and mine have “tushcies”. They have backsides or buttocks or seats.] I’ll go with seat, buttocks or backsides.) It’s funny to me how many people squeeze and squeeze and tell you to do so…but they do not have enviable backsides. Hmmm…if this works so well…why aren’t their buttocks so glorious? And why haven’t you thought about that?

Curious…no?

Yes.

Now, not every fitness trainer is going to look like an Adonis or the female equivalent (what is that…Athena?).  That is not the goal. And please let’s recall that what is en vogue in this generation is perhaps anemic looking to another. So, may please agree to be  working towards fit, strong, healthy and able…and have fit buttocks as part of that package.  Still, I ask why doesn’t everyone who says to squeeze and those who do squeeze have sensational sit-upons (appropriate to body-type)? Why isn’t it working for you?

Because it doesn’t work.
Sorry.

NO SPOT TRAINING

First, I must share with you that there is not such thing as “spot training”. You cannot craft the perfect set of buttocks by squeezing them or working them alone. You are an organism and not a mechanism. So, you work as a whole. We can’t just work your buttocks alone. And that squeezing in each exercise is saying that you can.

In truth, you never have to squeeze any muscle to get it to work or strengthen or look fit. What you do have to do: actions that use those muscles in their primarily and secondary ways. It’s that simple, really. And it takes your whole body to allow that to happen. All the better!

Taking the buttocks for our primary example, but this relates to all muscles and muscle groups, let’s consider what the buttocks are in the human body. They are gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. And what do these muscles do as their primary actions? (I say “primary” because all muscles work all of the time. Yes…all of the time. Even your resting muscle tone (RMT) is not complete inactivity. [That is what death is…complete inactivity.] However, all muscles work all of the time with primary actions, secondary, terciery and so on. Based on where they are and the desired action they either assist in mobility or stability of a joint in the action. And every single muscle in your body is actually working for that to happen. There is no agonist and antagonist as our old biomechanics has led us to believe.)

So you can’t get great buttocks by squeezing them.  Simply, you must work the entire body and allow the glutes do their actions naturally.  That’s how it works.


OVERDOING BREAKS DOWN RATHER THAN BUILDS UP

If you do squeeze your buttocks constantly in all exercises, it actually causes more harm than good.  This can hurt you.  You see, when you squeeze your seat/sit bones/narrow your sit bones, etc., you are actually causing  a tremendous amount of compression of  hip joint/ball & socket/acetabulofemoral joint, the sacroiliac joint, L5-S1…and it simply does not look good.  As I asked in a seminar a couple of weekends ago:  When you look in the mirror at your bare buttocks and squeeze…does it look good?  I ask this because I know how we all are.  We all look in the mirror and check out what is or is not working.  Tell me, especially the ladies…what does it look like?  Nothing good.  If you have some cellulite and most women and even men do…it accentuates it, doesn’t it?  So, just common sense and the visual tell you that it doesn’t work.

So…why does everyone say to squeeze and worth those glutes?  Because it’s an easy muscle or muscle group to get into in that fashion.  It’s not actually that easy to train, but it’s easy to squeeze.  It must be entirely accessible as “fight or flight” muscles.  If you were crouching in the cave and a saber-toothed tiger/cat came your way, your gluteus maximus will help you leap up, run and climb.  However…it would already be strong because you’d been climbing, walking, running, swimming, squatting in life all of the time.  Sitting on a chair actually aides in deterioration (atrophy) of the gluteals.  So…they are not as easy to access as they once were.


TEACHER TO TEACHER
Here is what I just wrote to a colleague who asks for a true understanding of what to do with our glutes.  She says she now understands completely.  I hope you will, too.  Here it is
“Glutes.  It’s not an eternal question to me.  It is quite clear.   Like everything else in the human body, we must seek efficiency.  And muscles ought to work with effort only when needed.  What I mean by this:  
 
All muscles work all of the time.  Even when you don’t think so.  
That is The Truth.
And all muscles assist in all movements.  Even when you don’t think so.
Also The Truth.
There is no agonist or antagonist no matter what books say that there are.  If people still think this and think this way…they are ready to study more.  Modern biomechanics is well beyond this.  If we worked this way (agonist/antagonist) we would certainly fall apart.
 
However, there are primary movers.  If you straighten your leg/extend your knee…indeed the quadriceps are the primary movers.  They instigate this motion.
 
As for the glutes or gluteus maximus in particular…it must work…but it’s primary movement is not to squeeze.  No no no.  Like all muscles, it should have excellent RMT (Resting Muscle Tone).  What are the primary actions of the gluteus maximus?  This anatomists are correct:  “Extension of the femur from the flexed position in the hip joint; lateral stabilization of the hip and knee joints; external rotation of the femur” (a quote from the reliable source of Wikipedia.  No…really…Wikipedia is great for this sort of stuff…straight anatomy.)
 
Now…gluteus maximus is best for external rotation of the femur when in extension because it’s primary action is really extension.
 
It is a superficial muscle, true?  Not deep.  Have we a more deep muscle or set of muscles that we must concentrate on?  Yes yes yes yes (I don’t want to type it more, but yes to an infinite degree):  Quadratus Femoris, the Obturators and the Gemelli.  Study them and then it will be clear why our community of Pilates teachers are confused about what the feeling at the “sit bones” is. That everyone says “squeeze your sit bones”.  Do not squeeze your sit bones.  Hug your darned heels together with legs ideally parallel and together (heels and big-toe knuckles/bunion knuckle) so that these muscles can train and eventually you can live your life with true parallel (as normal people should be) with incredible strength from deep muscles.
 
IMG_0124
Now…back to gluteus maximus…it’s best in hip extension.  That doesn’t mean just when your leg is behind you, but it works when you are going up any level…like a stair (going up front) or seeming like it (press down front).  Any time you are trying not to let your hips flex while kneeing or standing…that’s gluteus maximus (kneeling chest expansion, thigh stretch and arm circles) are great examples of this.  Any time you lift your hips/pelvis in an exercise, it’s the action of hip extension even if your legs don’t actually go behind you like Shoulder Bridge Prep or Full, Jackknife, The Roll Over, Short Spine, Long Spine, Overhead, etc.  Even keeping your legs level with your pelvis when you are lying prone (on  your stomach) in a swan preparation, in Pull Straps in 2nd Long Box and so many other things…that is the active resistance of falling into hip flexion…and your gluteals do that.
 
And do you have to squeeze your buttocks to do this?  No no no no no no  (to the infinite degree)…they are the only muscles that can do it.  So you just have to unconsciously ask them to do it and they engage only in the degree that is needed.  You just have to send a signal that you want this action of the bones to occur and the correct muscles work.  If it doesn’t happen, the muscles aren’t strong enough.  That doesn’t mean you squeeze them.  That means you have to find an easier exercise to train the action.
 
NEVER SQUEEZE YOUR SEAT.  Of course, if you want to impinge your sacro-illiac joint, jam your lumbar spine, force your femoral head into your acetabulum or many other things.  Then squeeze all that you want.”
WHAT DOES SHARI DO? So…what do I do for myself?  How have I crafted my own backside?  (This feels silly to even discuss…) Do I do as I say or do I do something else?  The Truth…The Truth…I have not squeezed my buttocks for years and years and years!  I remember feeling like I was the queen of squeezing it!  Boy, oh, boy, could I get people an myself to squeeze!  Ohhhh and I could even refine it to just the sit bones.  Wow!!!  But…now that I have studied and know the down side of it…now that I see the better results on my clients and on myself…I simply do not squeeze.  I allow my gluteals to engage when they need to.  I don’t try to release them if they are doing their job.  I just made sure, by my stable pelvis and action of my lower abdominals and back muscles together that my glutes can extend my femur in the hip or take me out of hip flexion.
I often guide my clients sharing in an exercise like The Half Roll Down on the mat:
“From your lower abdominals, rotate your pubic bone upwards.  Keep that action/connection as you roll your pelvis backwards.  You’ll feel your glutes engage…but recognize how you don’t squeeze them…they just do it on their own?”
or Shoulder Bridge Preparation on the mat:
“From your lower abdominals, rotate your pubic bone upwards.  Keep that action/connection as you roll your pelvis upwards.  You’ll feel your glutes engage…but recognize how you don’t squeeze them…they just do it on their own?”
We don’t want to relax our buttocks.  (Yes, I know I used to teach that well before I knew better.  I should hope we all learn even more over time.)  That was in the back-lash of wanting to not squeeze the glutes, etc.   Now…I know…you want them to engage when they’re supposed to.  They do it on their own.  Our bodies are extremely efficient and work when given the correct environment.
Can I go on and on about this?  Yes and I shall…in another article.  However, this is enough for you to chew on now.  Please comment on this.  Ask questions and read the comments.  And join me in face to face (even via computer) discussions.  I do promise to share more!
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24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paige  |  December 15, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Great article, thank you. I have herniated discs on the left side of L4-L5 and L5-S1. I notice that my left seat muscle doesn’t turn on as much as my right seat muscle. I have been thinking about reaching out through my heels more as well as thinking about actively squeezing my seat but it’s not all that successful. Any advice on how to get my left seat naturally firing again? Thanks in advance for your insight.

    Reply
    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  December 19, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      Paige the issue with your left seat has less to do with your glutes than it does to do with the rotation/twists of your pelvis and the weak lower fibers of your abdominals that are meant to set a chain reaction to help stabilize your pelvis so that your glutes can actually fire…as well as psoas, illiacus, back muscles, quads, hamstrings, adductors, quadrates femoris, gemelli and obturators that are all weak on that side.

      This is paramount to all work, but no one does it and is central to my work “The Universal Theory on Human Health”.

      So…what to do? I will write a full article on it for this blog and it will be in science/medical journals in the near future, but you must make a mental and physical engagement of your lower abdominals especially on that side of the weak gluteals. Then you have to work with a “square” pelvis and that engagement of the lower abdominals (Especially the weak one) in every exercise you do…FOREVER. Then your glutes will engage properly because they have the correct support. Again…a chain reaction of proper firing will happen when the lower abdominal fibers do their job. That takes mental and physical engagement. And…square pelvis.

      Please give that a try. And how long will it take? However long it takes. And you have to do this every repetition of every exercise always. ALWAYS. And…everyone actually has to do this.

      That is a very quick response to the most important action. It seems really simple when you read it but let me tell you…it’s taken a lifetime to develop this theory that works 100% of the time if people actually do it.

      So…enjoy! And let’s chat more about it.

      Would you like a session together on this and such? I will look up where you live, but let’s do a Skype session. I do them all over the world with teachers.

      All the best!
      – Shari

      Reply
  • 3. Troy Hyatt  |  December 15, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Great article. Thanks for writing it. I always questioned when some teachers told me to squeeze so much. It just didn’t seem natural. I like how you say to just let the muscles do their own thing.

    Reply
    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  December 19, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      Hello, Troy! Thanks for reading!
      I’m glad that it didn’t seem natural! So much of what has been taught in Pilates is completely unnatural and bad for the body. Remarkably well-meaning teachers who have been given poor education and been told to trust. Very dear teachers. It’s my pleasure to share how the human body really works and how to then apply that to Pilates or any other physical activity…including simply living! With that…allow yourself to feel natural!
      Enjoy!
      – Shari

      Reply
  • 5. The Body Sleuth  |  December 15, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    I agree with Paige and Troy, thanks for sharing. I do believe that I am still squeezing more than is advisable given what you write here, but I am always focusing on length too. I have a similar situation to Paige due to an old tailbone injury and I have found that really lengthening is the only way to facilitate the automatic and coordinated engagement of my rear hip muscles. Because of my specific situation, I discovered the ineffectiveness of squeezing and shared my thoughts on the topic over at my blog. To me the squeezing was generally accompanied by tucking. It is amazing to me how easy it is to get off track with physical training. Simple is the ultimate sophistication because it’s so complicated to keep it simple. In this case, to let the body do it’s thing naturally is so difficult because we are so often doing what does not come naturally without realizing it. Oy vey!

    Reply
    • 6. theverticalworkshop  |  December 19, 2013 at 12:14 pm

      Fear not! The issue is that teachers have complicated the matter of how to work with body in Pilates and Life because of a lack of quality education. Well-meaning, but uneducated. Much of what is taught in Pilates over the past 35 years since Mr. Pilates died is a tremendous misunderstanding of how the body worked. Not a soul who continued his work really educated herself or himself in human physiology and dynamics. They all went with gut and it’s a shame because their guts were and are wrong. well-meaning…just incorrect. And that has been passed on and on and on. It’s time to stop that because the information is out there and then some of us are working really hard to understand more.

      I spend most days studying the human body and creating ways to untangle the habits that modern humans have created to destroy the natural actions of the body. Not intentional destruction…just life has changed a lot. And then applying that to Pilates and helping teachers untangle the habits of poor physical education from training courses.

      It’s my absolute pleasure to share this information as much as I can! Please keep reading and recognize that simply is not complicated. Not at all. You have to clear away all of the jabber of yore and get into what’s most important:
      lower abdominal fiber control – engagement at desired level of intensity
      back extensors from the lower fibers first up through to the upper control – with engagement at desired level of intensity in the effort to both move and create space on all sides of the space between bones.
      work to either stabilize or mobilize the pelvis with the balance of abdominals and back muscles
      square the pelvis in every exercise when the above actions/connections have been made.
      That’s it.
      It’s about removing what’s not important and getting these things first.
      Then we can layer on other things.

      I will help you. It’s easier than anyone thinks when we know what we’re going for.

      – Shari

      Reply
  • 7. Reb  |  December 16, 2013 at 5:44 am

    Thanks for this article. I haven’t cued to squeeze or tuck for years. Somehow still managed to get myself a sciatica pain from an inflamed piriformis that doesn’t want to go away. Another good reason not to squeeze the buttocks and to work in parallel!

    Reply
    • 8. theverticalworkshop  |  December 19, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      I’m so glad that thou haven’t squeezed or tucked, but clearly there is an issue that exists because of imbalance (everyone has imbalances). It’s something that can be balanced, though. Please read the comments I sent to Paige and Liza. I think that you will find them equally helpful.

      Thank you for reading and replying!
      – Shari

      Reply
  • 9. Karin Krouse  |  December 17, 2013 at 5:51 am

    I cannot access this post (error 404 – file not found) unfortunately!

    Reply
  • 11. PilatesAndrea  |  December 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Thanks for this lovely article Shari. I am with you – it seems we are looking for specific seat engagement versus the all-or-nothing squeezefest of yore. Thanks for the help 🙂

    Reply
  • […] Shari Berkowitz at The Vertical […]

    Reply
  • 13. AlanaB  |  March 9, 2014 at 12:25 am

    Hi Shari,
    Great article! I am curious about your view on the role of the hamstrings in hip extension (I know your article is talking about the glutes specifically). I think it is essential to cue and encourage balance of the backside at the glute hamstring attachment site (gluteal fold). Can you shed some light on this as many clients clench their glutes so strongly in hip extension exercises that they are unable to fire their hamstrings… How does the muscle firing order in the chain reaction work when engaging the glutes and hamstrings? I’ve found myself cuing hamstring engagement rather than glutes as most peoples’ are quite strong but I don’t want to neglect the glutes either! I suppose I’m coming from the idea that the glutes are such a dominant and strong muscle group that trying to cue the (sometimes) weaker hamstrings will bring more balance to the back of the body. I am aware that not every person falls into this scenario.
    Thanks- I love your blog!

    Reply
    • 14. theverticalworkshop  |  March 11, 2014 at 9:15 pm

      Hi, Alana, thank you for reading this and asking about the hamstrings.
      Indeed, the hamstrings while their primary action is knee flexion, one of their secondary actions or roles is assistance in hip extension by supporting the weight of the lower leg. We have to be careful that people use their gluteus maximus as the primary hip extender and the hamstrings as secondary

      One never ever needs to squeeze the glutes for hip extension, but they should be what actively creates hip extension. Hamstrings should be extremely active, too.

      The cueing of hip extension must involve stabilizing the pelvis by reaching the pubic bone forward with strong lower abdominals and then reach the back of the thigh back. If your effort is a stable pelvis (and likely lumbar spine, too) with a strong lower abdominal connection, the the glutes should fire strongly, but there will be no “grip” or squeeze. Whether a straight leg or bent, the hamstrings should also activate strongly.

      If there is an inactive set of gluteus maximus during hip extension, then we have hamstring dominance which can create severe problems in the acetabulofemoral joint…as the hamstring must not be dominant in hip extension because then the femoral head will rotate too strongly forward in the acetabulum since the attachment of hamstrings to pelvis is on the ischium. Gluteus maximus and hamstrings together make for a balanced action of hip extension.

      Does this make sense? What are your thoughts from this?

      Thank you, Alana!
      – Shari

      Reply
  • 15. Lesley McPherson  |  March 20, 2014 at 4:19 am

    Logical and sensible as usual Shari. Thanks for writing. If people use their legs and derriere well while walking around there is almost instant uplift! Our mechanics are indeed sound- we just forget to apply it properly. Here is another word for that part of the body- Bahoochie- old scots..

    Reply
  • 16. how to get a toned buttocks  |  June 20, 2014 at 10:35 am

    I’ve learn a few excellent stuff here. Definitely price bookmarking for revisiting.
    I wonder how a lot effort you put to make one of these great informative site.

    Reply
  • 17. susan sommers  |  October 11, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Hi Shari! I went searching for this blog post today as I had remembered reading it when originally posted. Why search today you may ask? Because Yes Yes Yes Yes all I had to do is engage my lower abs as we did in my last session and my glutes fired. Yes I had glutes after all and No No No cramping of my hamstrings. I of course shared this with several clients in the last several days who couldn’t do a shoulder bridge or a pelvic curl without a hamstring cramp and you know what their glutes fired too!! Not a hamstring cramp among us 🙂 Thank you!

    Reply
  • 18. amysasso  |  May 12, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    Shari, I have a question for your about this post. You say that you should let the muscle do the job it’s naturally made to do, without squeezing. This makes a lot of sense. But what happens when a person has “Gluteal Amnesia” ? This is where the glutes are inhibited and the nerve paths are not strong, so the body compensates and uses the hamstrings instead for hip extension. I personally have this, and no amount of non squeezing, or squeezing, aligning, abdominal cueing, or anything for that matter, can help me feel the glutes working when moving the hip from flexion to extension. Would you suggest a different approach in this case? Thanks!

    Reply
    • 19. theverticalworkshop  |  May 12, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Amy, indeed, you never need to squeeze a muscle to make it work. Just “ask” it to do its primary action. However, you have to make sure that the “environment” is set up so that that action can happen. There is an “order of operations” that one must put into play. (Could I use more quotation marks in this?)

      I received your note about doing some Skype sessions. It would be my pleasure to teach you how this all works. I have spent my life researching how our bodies work and what is going on when they do not work well. What we need to do is rather “simple” (more quotation marks!) but must be practiced until our body works properly as designed once again!

      Reply
  • 20. janaeluxe  |  June 3, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    Reblogged this on Janae Luxe Pilates Studio.

    Reply
  • 21. Sabrina  |  June 13, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    Loved this article, Shari. I can’t stand the “squeeze your glutes” cue. I’m taking your session re the pelvis at PoT next month, and I know I’m going to learn a lot more.

    Reply
  • […] to squeeze my glutes all the time or relax them completely. Based on Laura’s corrections and Shari Berkowitz’ article, here is my current view on […]

    Reply
  • 23. cman  |  May 22, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    Ok but what about with glute bridges. U have to squeeze glutes to lift the weight. Should I just lift with my hips instead and will glutes naturally flex on there own?

    Reply
    • 24. theverticalworkshop  |  May 29, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Hi, Chris,
      Thank you for reading this and for asking about weighted glute bridges. If your aim is to strengthen your hamstrings and gluteus maximus with glute bridges, then you’re wise to only do the number of repetitions and carrying the amount of weight where your glutes engage on their own without trying to clench/squeeze them. They should engage on their own. Now, if they do not, either the amount of weight you are using is too high or you’ve exceeded the number of repetitions that they can manage. With either of those situations other muscles will make the action seem to happen and will strain. Don’t waste your time or energy. You absolutely have to engage your lower abdominals to make sure there is good tension across your thoracolumbar fascia for your glutes and hamstrings to be efficient. If you find that one side of your glutes does not activate (you might feel a hamstring cramp and that will let you know), then deepen your lower abdominals on that side even more to develop the right tension for your glutes to activate.
      Please let me know how this goes or if you have other questions about this or anything else.
      – Shari

      Reply

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