The Elephant

March 15, 2018 at 1:53 pm 6 comments


Thank you, Elephants for Africa for this photo. I did not receive permission for the use of it and do not have a photo credit. It’s a beautiful photo and I hope they don’t mind my using it here.

I used to wonder what The Elephant on the reformer was all about. Did you? Do you still? I couldn’t understand how I could excel in so many exercises but still be plagued with The Elephant. From my early on and all through my apprenticeship it felt like my teacher’s greatest dilemma: how will we get Shari to do the Elephant. She just has it all wrong.

Totally defeated, I would teach The Elephant to my clients…and just find it utterly mysterious. WHAT IS THIS EXERCISE ABOUT?! Why can I do super advanced work and not “get” The Elephant and super beginner exercise.

Well, now, I am very happy to announce that I can tell you why: because apparently my teachers didn’t know what it was all about either.

So…what is The Elephant about?
Sure it’s to strengthen your abdominals…everything in Pilates is.
Or if you want to call it your “powerhouse,” it strengthens that, too.
I remember being told it stretches your back body and strengthens your front body.
Well…sort of, but not really.
I mean…it encourages an elasticity in your back body…and…also strengthens it.
Oh, was told that it’s about opening your lower back, I was told.
Nope. It’s so not.

I was encouraged to make a shape that looked like an elephant’s back.
Some sort of relationship to why we call this “The Elephant.”

I was told the story that Joseph Pilates created this exercise for women who had “elephant” skin at their outer thighs.
So, maybe this was about working the thighs?
Something resonates here…

What is it really?
A hip joint mobility exercise and a shoulder joint stability exercise.
That’s it, folks.

Is it a torso strengthener, too? Of course. It’s a “full-body exercise.” (a phrase that makes me laugh because every exercise is a “full-body exercise.” Some have more benefit for the entire body than others and some trainers/teachers cue in ways that are more beneficial than others, but even a leg press at the gym is a full body exercise. Every muscle in your body works all of the time and every muscle makes whatever you’re doing happen.) But the primary focus is hip joint mobility and shoulder joint stability which creates all sorts of full-body strength.

Now…the hip joint mobility portion is the most interesting and this is where we get into all sorts of differences in how to do this exercise: body weight forward over the spring bar or body weight back. Spine rounded, natural curves, etc.

If this is about hip joint mobility then it would be wise to seek a position where the person will have the greatest range of hip joint motion available. And that is with the torso rocked back toward the heels. Unless a person is really “connected” and flexible, that also means that the pelvis will be just barely in front of the ankle joint (so as not to allow the mobility and not get stuck in the weight of the pelvis over the legs over the ankle and foot not allowing the carriage to move. Again…more advanced and flexible people can do it with pelvis directly over the ankle. However…let’s stay away from pelvis behind ankles.)

When I say “mobility” that requires strength. That does not mean stretch or floppiness. The more range of  motion of the femur in the acetabulum, the greater strength we can develop. Greater strength leads to greater mobility. Yes…that’s an interesting concept and one I will discuss further in a future post. Stiffness requires strength for elasticity.

And what about the shape of the spine? I strongly suggest learning this with a flexed spine (with a posterior tilt of the pelvis relative to the lumbar spine) so that the lower abdominal and gluteus maximus connections are easiest to develop, as they are in flexion. Then over time when your client is able to stabilize the shape of spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle (relative to the slight movement that must happen as the legs press out and then back in) your client can advance to natural curves of the spine. It is a greater challenge to make a lower abdominal connection in natural curves than in flexion with posterior tilt…so this is an understandable progression.

Now…what about curve of the spine in flexion? We’re looking for light flexion. That means long, supported, strongly muscular lifted flexion. “Lift tall” or “lifted” in my world and The Vertical Workshop world is always more space between each of your backbones no matter what shape you call your spine into. Remember that’s really your disc space…so…all around your vertebral bodies and in between: front, back, sides, etc. They are little discs (See an earlier piece: Abdominals. Spine…) that you want to develop the proper tension of soft tissue (tensegrity) to keep them apart…always…as a priority! (Again…see Abdominals. Spine…)


Now…was I taught like this? Absolutely not! Heck no way!
I was taught like many of you were taught: my body weight forward, a really rounded spine (which is a force of the thoracic spine and hinging at C7-T1) and shoulders slid off the back to have “shoulder blades flat on the back.”

When the body is so far forward, hip joint action is minimal. It’s not possible to get the most out of the hip join flexion and extension because you’re already set up in a sort midway or more through your range of motion. That’s a problem.

When the spine is so rounded at the thoracic spine and collapsed at C7-T1, there is no use of the spinal extensors balancing the pull of abdominals and gravity…and that causes passive stretching of soft tissues, most likely the ligaments. That’s a problem.

When shoulder blades are slid off of the back to be flat on the back, the upper back muscles are weakened and shoulder girdle muscles are at a disadvantage as the primary shoulder joint muscles originate on the scapulae and require the scapulae to be on your back (See a really, really old post that I’d like to update, but that’s how I feel about all of my posts: Shoulder Girdle: A Delicate Balance) When your arms are up between your eyes and ears, you’re at near, but not quite at , your end-range of supportive motion of your shoulder joint. This is a great place for strength of shoulder girdle. ALSO…when your arms are in this position, your latissimus dorsi (LD) is in its longest position. The tension within the muscle puts tension on the thoracolumbar fascia (TFL) which translates to tension to the contra-lateral (opposite) gluteus maximus (GM – glutes). This makes your GM work really well! So…we want to be in a position for maximal effect on the GM for the posterior tilt of the pelvis and hip extension because that’s a primary part of what The Elephant is about. And…never have to squeeze your buttocks to do it! (Read Buttocks – Seemingly Every Fitness Person’s Favorite Subject… ) With that…this position of pelvis just in front of the hips provides all of this.

Lean bodyweight back until pelvis is just in front of ankles.
Flex spine, be in posterior tilt AND maintain strength and support in spine.
Keep shoulder blades on the back which is easy when arms are up between eyes and ears.

And what is the Go?
Press the carriage out with your legs.
Resist the springs in.

What? No “pull the carriage in?”
That’s right, my Pilates friends. That’s right.
What brings the carriage in?
Nope. Not your abdominals.
Nope…not your power house.
Oops…it’s not your legs.
The springs. The springs bring the carriage in on all exercises.
Your job is to resist the springs.
The eccentric contraction of the same muscles that pressed the carriage out is resisting the springs in! Ooooooh that’s so good! (I’ll share more about eccentric contractions and their value in an upcoming piece.)

How far do you press the carriage out?
Only as far as you can keep the pressure at the very back edge of the bottom of your heel so that you work your anterior tibialis! Poor thing is a wreck from flip-flops, hard-soled shoes or clogs, backless shoes. Poor anterior tibilis that is essential to walking, simply not falling while standing and many other things in movement life.

What’s the rhythm? Good question! Ooooh rhythm questions are great (see The Music of Pilates workshop that you can download right this moment at a fab discount:
Press the carriage out in 1 count.
Resist the springs in for 3 counts.
1  3 2 1

Here’s a little goofy video of me saying things about The Elephant:


Questions? Concerns? Thoughts?
Drop me one in the comments!

Thank you for joining me here! I appreciate your interest in learning and playing!

Want more?
Photos: Instagram:
Tips: Twitter:

I’m all over the place and would love to see you in person or virtually!

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

I’m coming back to the blog… Hand Grasp and Wrist Positions: Which Do I Do and When?

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. addison  |  March 15, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    Thank God you are back … we desperately need your knowledge!

  • 3. Lianne Ernsting  |  March 18, 2018 at 10:46 am

    I’ve always loved the Elephant Shari, and I agree, weight is back on the heels, i.e. pelvis not behind ankles nor weight forward on the arms. I’ve taught this exercise in the past to pregnant clients who are bothered by the baby’s weight on the legs or pelvic rim…always worked a treat!
    I enjoy reading your blogs and your view on exercises! Always so well articulated, thank you 🙂

    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  March 18, 2018 at 10:49 am

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and use for this, Lianne!
      It can be great for pregnant ladies, indeed. Anything to give them as much support as possible (hands and feet are supported which can give a more intrinsic support to the spine even with an enlarged abdomen) which takes the weight off of the typical position in the pelvis!
      Thank you!
      – Shari

  • 5. amysasso  |  June 20, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    Yes!! Love the elephant. What about lifting the pinky toe? Why is it so hard and what improves by doing it?

    • 6. theverticalworkshop  |  June 21, 2018 at 9:42 am

      Thanks for reading this and commenting, Amy!
      Lifting the pinky/small toe is more challenging for some than for others, indeed. The strength and range of motion of toe extension can be limited by the mechanics of one’s walking and that often means by the shoes that person wears. Flip flops or backless shoes will make the foot claw in constant flexion and limit extension. It’s the most distal aspect of extensor digitorum longus that extends the small toe. If this muscle is weak in general, it will only function for the most important aspects (the middle three toes)…for efficiency. Just like the rectus femoris if weak will not be able to do hip flexion and knee extension at the same time and can only do one or the other…or neither very well. So…wear good shoes with flexible soles and a back or ankle strap. Walk through your foot, ankle, knee and hip. Do toe extension exercises both with and without dorsiflexed ankle.
      – Shari


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