By Karen Ellis • Edited by Amanda Altman
One of the first things I do when working with someone new is assess and address the client’s basic skill set, no matter the body in front of me. For example, can the client get down to the ground? What about up off of it? Can they get a good grip with their feet or hands? Can they stand tall for more than a minute? Are they able to focus on doing one task well? These are important skills at any age. Depending on what I see, I can make the workout challenging or focus on finessing the basics. Together with the client, we explore how all these skills are connected during a session—to do that effectively, I have a few often-neglected props in my arsenal.
I always spend time on footwork, especially since other forms of fitness typically don’t; the focus on the feet is one of the things that sets the Pilates work apart. Footwork is so critical because it’s a chance for people to understand the ways in which the feet can move, and how the feet can adapt to surfaces to ultimately function better. Foot issues, such as weaknesses in the arches, toes and ankles, can result in problems up the chain of the leg and body; likewise, weaknesses above the ankles can put great demands on the feet.
You’ll notice that as people age, bunions can form and toes can become misaligned (it’s even worse for people like ex-dancers and high-heel lovers). Outside of the studio, and during Pilates if you’re not careful, this misalignment in the toes can be intensified. A quick solution is working with toe stretchers: I do simple proprioceptive and mobility exercises wearing toe stretchers, and leave them on for much of the workout to bolster better alignment throughout the foot.
Props can also enlighten the connection from distal to proximal, like the feet to seat (hips) or hands to shoulders, or they can help to better organize the joints in any given exercise. I like to play with squats, hand and wrist fitness, shoulder and back mobility and overall strength. The idea is to integrate the body with good feedback that translates to improved performance in the moment—and beyond the workout itself.
Props: toe stretchers; Sitting Box; High Heel Rescue Loop; dowel; bean bag filled with 1–3 pounds of beans or sand
Breath: Breathe naturally throughout.
Footwork with Toe Stretchers
DO THIS IF…you have foot weakness or stiffness, or can’t get a good grip with your feet.
WHY IT WORKS
• promotes better alignment of the toes, specifically the big toe, while articulating through the ankles and joints of the feet
• mobilizes the toes and strengthens the foot muscles to enhance overall gait
• brings awareness to the feet
Setup: Sit on a Sitting Box that’s on the floor with the toe separators on your toes, knees bent, and your feet parallel and flat on the floor hip-width apart.
1. Flex your feet up, and then return them to the floor. Do 5–8 reps.
2. Flex your feet up, and then “wrap” your toes over the toe stretcher; extend your toes. Do 8–10 reps.
INCREASE THE CONNECTION: When wrapping and extending your toes, think “jazz toes”—spread them wide.
Modification: Do this exercise without the toe stretchers. You
can also perform it while sitting on a regular chair or Reformer.
Footwork with High Heel Rescue Loop
DO THIS IF…you need to improve ankle/foot mobility and strengthen the feet.
WHY IT WORKS
• strengthens the outer hips and the muscles that rotate the upper leg
• brings awareness to the connection between the feet and the glutes
Setup: Same as Footwork with Toe Stretchers, but place the Loop around your feet below your toes and flex your feet up.
Squat Progression on Box
DO THIS IF…you can’t lower your body from standing to the mat or vice versa, or if you need help with the fundamental squat.
WHY IT WORKS
• works on alignment while deeply flexing the hips and knees
• enhances muscle pliability, joint articulation and fascial fitness
• provides a cardiovascular challenge
Setup: Stand tall in front of the Long Box with your feet parallel and hip-width apart. Holding onto a dowel, extend your arms forward at shoulder height.
1. Bend your knees to come into a squat, bringing your hips back over the Box.
2. Return to standing. Do 3–5 reps.
ROLLING LIKE A BALL
1. Squat all the way down to the Box, set the dowel aside, and prepare for Rolling Like a Ball: Rock back on your sit bones with your feet in Pilates stance (heels together, toes apart), and hands on your ankles with your elbows wide. Gaze at your naval, coming into a C curve, and scoop your belly.
2. Rock back to the tips of your shoulder blades, and then rock back to your sit bones. Do 3–5 reps.