By Jonathan Oldham • Edited by Amanda Altman
As a Pilates teacher and physical therapist, I have observed that the clients who derive the most benefit from Pilates have one thing in common: They are consistent with their practice. But research shows that one of the greatest obstacles to a regular practice is a perceived lack of time and not having access to equipment. As a solution to these issues, I was inspired to follow the model of dental hygiene.
Just as daily dental care prevents cavities and gum disease, a consistent spinal hygiene program can minimize the potential for back injury and dysfunction, while benefitting the joints of the extremities. Of course, the ultimate in spinal hygiene is to practice a comprehensive Pilates program on the equipment and mat, as well as to experience the valuable feedback of a teacher in a private or class setting, but when neither is available, performing this five-to-10-minute spinal hygiene series every day offers infinitely more benefits than doing nothing. Not only are these exercises designed to develop mobility, promote circulation and awaken muscles, they also provide a few moments to pay attention to your body and prepare it for your day (or your Pilates session to come).
The following movements, which work all the segments of the body and explore all planes of motion, were inspired by some wonderful preparatory exercises developed by Ron Fletcher, as well as traditional exercises, such as the Mermaid, Semi-Circle and Long Stretch. While performing them, it is important to be completely focused; this will take a basic fundamental set of movements to the level of a seasoned practitioner. As always, it is essential to incorporate deliberate breath and active deep-abdominal engagement. If you know that a movement is contraindicated for you, make the appropriate modification. For example, if you have been advised to avoid flexion due to low bone density, replace the rounded back components with a flat back, or just perform the extension part. If extension movements provoke symptoms in your lower back or legs, then place a pillow under your abdomen for the exercises performed facedown.
I invite you to explore changing the order of the movements if that makes sense for your body’s needs. And feel free to experiment with your own hygiene program, but as Clara Pilates admonished Ron Fletcher about any creative invention in the realm of Pilates, “Just remember your ABCs.” Above all, breathe, explore, pay attention to your body and enjoy. Remember to brush and floss, too!
Ron’s Seated Foot Lift with Contraction or Hinge
Purpose: encourages a vertical posture while sitting; activates and strengthens the deep spinal extensors (muscles along the spine); mobilizes the lumbar spine (lower back) in flexion; develops core control
Setup: Sit tall, with your knees bent, feet shoulder-width apart on the floor and hands under your thighs.
1. Lengthen your waist. Inhale, lifting your feet and flexing your ankles, keeping your heels on the floor, without collapsing in your spine.
2. Exhale, pulling your belly in and rounding your lower back as you lean back.
3. Inhale, then exhale, lifting back to the vertical position.
4. Inhale, then exhale, lowering your feet. Do 6–8 reps.
Tip: Use your biceps to help you sit taller and minimize hip flexor tension.
Modification: If trunk flexion is contraindicated, hinge back with a flat back, with your arms out to your sides at shoulder height and palms down. (Try this as an enjoyable variation, too!)
Ron’s Side-Bend and Spine Twist
Purpose: cultivates spinal rotation and side-bend motions
Setup: Sit tall in a diamond position, with the soles of your feet together and knees wide, and your fingertips by your sides on the floor.
1. Inhale, bringing your right arm to your ear.
2. Exhale, side-bending to your left.
3. Inhale, returning to center.
4. Exhale, bringing your right arm back to the starting position.
5. Exhale, placing your fingertips on your shoulders before rotating your spine to your right.
6. Inhale, returning to center. Do 6–8 reps on both sides.
Tip: Keep your sit bones anchored to maximize precise spinal mechanics.
Modification: Sit on a yoga block or other support to promote a vertical position.
Variation: Pulse on the rotations like you would do in Spine Twist on the mat.
Long Stretch–Inspired Plank on Elbows
Purpose: activates the stability system of the entire body; stimulates the serratus anterior muscles (muscles that keep the shoulder blades connected to the rib cage)
Setup: Get into Plank on your forearms, with your fists together underneath the top of your sternum.
1. Breathe deliberately as you rock forward and back. Do 6–8 reps.
Tips: Do not allow your shoulder blades to “wing out” as you rock—round your shoulder blades slightly forward on your rib cage. Think of a subtle dorsiflexion of your ankles and extension of your shoulders as you go forward, and the opposite as you rock back.
Modification: Place your knees on the floor.
Advanced: Extend one leg toward the ceiling throughout.
Unilateral Tick Tock
Purpose: promotes rotation of the lumbar spine with the upper body undisturbed while avoiding torque of the spine; elongates the hamstrings; prepares the body for Single-Leg Circle on the mat
Setup: Lie on your back, with your right leg extended toward the ceiling—Ron called this position “the exclamation point”—and arms extended at shoulder level, palms down.
1. Inhale, rotating your pelvis and lower spine to your left, allowing your leg to cross your body.
2. Exhale, returning to the “exclamation point” position.
3. Inhale abducting your leg to your right side, holding your pelvis still.
4. Exhale, returning to the “exclamation point” position. Do 6–8 reps on both sides.
Tips: Make sure that your leg on the floor stays reaching and engaged like a standing leg would be. Gently pull your femur bone into its socket to maximize stability.
Modification: If the “exclamation point” position cannot be achieved, slightly bend your knee.
Purpose: encourages active thoracic (mid-spine) mobility into extension; strengthens the thoracic extensor musculature; prepares the body for Pulling Straps on the Reformer
Setup: Lie facedown, with your forehead on the floor, feet slightly apart, arms at your sides and palms up.
1. Exhale, lifting your head and neck to align your body in a straight “arrow” position.
2. Inhale, squeezing your shoulder blades together, lifting your arms and arching your upper spine. Do 6–8 reps.
Tips: Lift your entire abdominal wall off the floor before you move. Do not allow your lower rib cage to flare, causing a hinge where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet.
Modification: If there is too much compression on your lower back as you lift, place a pillow under your abdomen.
Advanced: Perform this exercise with your legs together, and/or do a Swan Dive.
Prone Knee Flexion with Hip Extension
Purpose: controls the excessive arch of the lower back; lengthens the quadriceps; awakens and strengthens the gluteus maximus; prepares the body for Single-Leg Kick
Setup: Lie facedown with your forehead on your hands and feet together.
1. Inhale, pulling your abdominal wall away from the floor and bending your right knee to 90 degrees.
2. Exhale, lifting your thigh slightly off of the floor; hold for a count of 3.
3. Inhale, lowering your thigh and extending your knee to return to the starting position. Do 6–8 reps on both sides.
Tips: Actively engage your buttock muscle before you lift your leg. Do not try to lift your leg very high—it only needs to clear the floor. Otherwise, there is too much potential to strain your lower back.
Modification: Place a pillow under your pelvis and abdomen.
Semi-Circle-Inspired Shoulder Bridge
Purpose: improves spinal articulation and trunk elongation
Setup: Lie on your back, with your feet flat on the floor and aligned with your sit bones, arms by your sides and palms down.
1. Roll up to Bridge. Take a deep breath.
2. Reach your arms overhead, palms up. Take a deep breath.
3. Keep reaching powerfully as you articulate your spine back down. Take a deep breath, then return your arms to the starting position. Do 6–8 reps.
Tip: When rolling down, reach your arms back like you would on the Reformer when reaching into the shoulder rests during Semi-Circle.
Modification: If you have shoulder issues, reach straight up toward the ceiling instead of overhead.
Advanced: Perform the exercise with your legs together, or on one leg.
“Lenses” on All Fours
Purpose: promotes distributed motion throughout the spine in flexion and extension; enhances spinal position proprioception
Setup: Get into a quadruped position, with your wrists under your shoulders and knees slightly apart under your hips.
1. Exhale, rounding your spine.
2. Inhale, arching your back. Do 6–8 reps.
Tips: The goal here is to create concave and convex lines in your body, suggesting the even curve of a lens. When rounding your back, emphasize the motion at your lumbar (lower) spine, and then finish the curve with a shallow flexion of the thoracic (mid) spine. When arching, emphasize the motion in your thoracic spine while avoiding end-range extension of the lumbar spine. Allow your head and neck to follow the line of your spine throughout.
Modification: If flexion is contraindicated, perform this exercise from a neutral line to an arch.
Purpose: promotes a vertical standing posture; applies the benefits gained from exercises performed lying down to standing and walking
Setup: Stand tall, with your pelvis, rib cage, neck and head in alignment, feet together and arms by your sides.
1. Inhale, bending your hips, knees and ankles while keeping your back straight and heels down, and reach your arms to shoulder height, palms in.
2. Exhale, straightening your knees and lowering your arms to return to the starting position. Do 6–8 reps.
Tips: Use a mirror to check your posture. Strive to perform this exercise with the same precision and spinal alignment as Footwork on the Reformer.
Modification: Stand against a wall.
Advanced: Perform it on one leg.
Jonathan Oldham is a Pilates teacher and physical therapist in the Denver metro area. He studied and worked for many years at the Pilates Center of Boulder, and also worked extensively with Ron Fletcher and the Fletcher Pilates Program of Study. Oldham strives to utilize these influences to reach each individual client for their specific needs. For fun, he enjoys singing, cooking and eating natural foods, and ice dancing. What he finds most enjoyable about teaching Pilates is developing fulfilling relationships with clients and colleagues. For more information, visit www.altatherapies.com and www.puravidaclub.com.