Pilates Exercise Tips for Functional Movement of the Upper Torso & Spine
Gaining a Deeper Perspective on the Details of Moving the Upper Body for Improved Flexion & Extension – Arms, Shoulders, Ribs, and Spine
I love those days when I’m teaching along and decide to pick just a little bit more on a piece of an exercise. Seems like once I get rolling, I quickly see the huge value in my clients better understanding the concept, or movement I am tweaking to help them better understand. Have you ever thought about the difference between the shoulders and arms moving around the ribcage vs. the ribs and spine moving inside the shoulder blades and arms? There IS a difference, and it can dramatically enhance your ability to move the upper back into better flexion for exercises like the Pilates Hundred, as well as improved extension for exercises like the Swan and Swimming.
Today, the exercise of technique tweaking was the Down Stretch on the Reformer. And our focus was not moving the carriage, but just getting into a gloriously supported and well-lifted arched position with the whole ribcage shifting positions for better extension. I see so many people take this extended position into their lower back and neck in a bad way…. I usually choose to have my clients prove to me that they can find and support a good position with the carriage in before we proceed with moving the carriage and “doing the Down Stretch.” It seems like I always say, “if you’re in a good lifted position, you should have very little weight on your arms.”. Everybody hears this, but hearing and doing… Two different things. And how do you achieve this? First, by maintaining a strong connection to your Hamstrings, Glutes, Inner Thighs and Pelvic Floor so the ribs have something to lift away from. Second, by learning to feel the ribcage move inside the shoulders & arms – all the way to the top ribs and collar bones – the opening through the front of the body, is well supported by the lower trapezius, posterior deltoids, and triceps – so that the spine extensors through the high upper back can lift the spine into deeper extension bringing the head around towards the heels. Of course it’s an exaggeration to think that the head is going to actually get to the heels – especially in Down Stretch, because the arms remain on the bar, but it’s a great image!
It’s funny how with Pilates we can do the same exact exercises over, and over again, but each time it’s a brand new experience for body discovery!
As I was analyzing the movement of the upper torso into the arch of the down stretch position it occurred to me that part of the sticky spot for a lot of people is the movement of the ribcage inside the shoulder blades and arm bones. It’s easy to retract the shoulder blades and move the blades around the ribcage. And you might be fooled into thinking that you’re actually moving the spine when your retracting or protracting the shoulder blades, when in fact the spine and ribcage is providing a stable base for the blades to move around. Pinching / retracting the shoulder blades is NOT a component of a good Down Stretch position ( or any other spine extension exercise for that matter!). But learning how to get the entire ribcage and spine to move is a must.
People tend to pay attention to their back ribs, but forget about the ones high in the front that are attached to the breastbone, or have any sense of the ribs as they wrap around under the armpits and attach to the spine. As with any relationship there is a bit of give and take, or shifting of leverage to create movement. This has to happen through the entire ribcage to really improve thoracic mobility.
I often cue clients to feel the breastbone slide up as the body moves into extension, and to notice the breastbone slide down when moving into flexion, but I don’t think I’ve ever related it to the arms and ribs like I did today -and boy what a change!
Here’s the preparatory exercise I played with to help get the concept across to my clients :
Prep-Exercise Part One:
Stand with tall posture arms hanging by the sides.
- Lift the arms 3-4 inches in front of the body (ribs are now behind the arms, but the arms moved to make this happen.)
- Lower the arms to the sides of the body (ribs and arms are now “neutral” and next to each other.)
- Lift the arms 3-4 inches behind the body (ribs are now in front of the arms, but the arms moved to make this happen.)
This is what we are doing in the Long Stretch Exercise…Maintaining a stable ribcage/spine/and whole-body, and only moving the arms & shoulders.
Here are a few other examples of Pilates exercises that move the arms and shoulders around a stable spine/ribcage:
Chest Expansion, Lat Pull 1 arm, Swakate, Kneeling Arm Circles (or supine), The Hundred, Double Bent Leg (series of 5 -Matwork).
Prep-Exercise Part Two:
Stand with tall posture arms hanging by the sides.
- Leave the arms hanging still alongside the body (“neutral” position.)
- Move the ribcage 2-3 inches or more behind the arms. Be sure the arms stay still and reaching down towards the floor. The shoulder blades will spread apart as the back ribs expand to lift the ribs up and back for a high scoop. (Spine Flexion)
- Move the ribs back alongside the arms – “neutral,” tall, standing posture.
- Move the ribcage 2-3 inches or more in front of the arms. Arms remain still and reaching straight down to the floor. Shoulder blades move slightly together (but don’t retract!) Back extensors are working, chest is opening and lifting up, out, and forward as the sides of the ribcage (way up under your armpits) pass through the arms to move forward, out, and up. (Spine Extension)
- Return the ribs to neutral.
And here are examples of Pilates exercises that have the spine/ribcage moving between stable arms: *(Please note – “stable arms” does not mean there is no movement of the arm & shoulder. There is still some functional mechanics that has to happen with the shoulder blade to allow the ribcage to change positions, as well as rotation of the arm as it changes from a low to high position. How much this happens is dependent on the exercise and where the arms are in space.)
Short Spine Massage, Up Stretch, Down stretch, Semi-circle, Pike on the Chair, Tendon Stretch, Swan prep.
Joseph Pilates was a Genius! Here are exercises where the arms / shoulders AND spine are ALL moving! Much more complex and challenging to do well! Notice how most of these are to the more Advanced end of the Pilates repertoire. If you haven’t mastered arms & shoulders moving around a stable spine & ribcage, and stable shoulders & arms to assist spine and ribcage mobility – in flexion, extension, side bending, and rotation, don’t expect any of the examples below to be done easily (or safely.). The risk of injury will increase, especially for the shoulder if the more basic exercises are still a challenge to do well.
Pull straps & T ( if lifting into extension and not just holding the body still and working on shoulder mechanics), Rowing I & II, Long Back Stretch – reformer, Twist II – advanced Mat, Swan on the Reformer or Ladder Barrel, Breaststroke, Snake/twist, Boomerang, Mermaid -reformer, Cadillac, mat.
I love my job! And thoroughly enjoy helping others find better connections to functional movement. The day I shared this easy preparatory exercise to notice the difference between moving the arms and keeping the ribs still, and moving the ribs keeping the arms still, I saw all kinds of improvement on a lot of different exercises where more movement through the upper torso and thoracic spine was needed.
Stomach Massage Round and Hands Back are two good examples of putting this concept into action for a beginner. In Stomach Massage Round, the hands are stable to the front, and the ribs are lifting up, and away to the back for a lifted C-Curve. In Stomach Massage Back, the Hands are behind the ribcage, and the spine extensors have to work while the ribs swing forward through the arms to open the chest and create more space across the front of the collar bones.
Hope you can visualize this and put it into practice! I’d love to do a video on this for a visual – but didn’t want to wait to share it with you! Drop me a note and let me know how this concept feels in your body, and what exercises you notice a difference on if you’re thinking about moving the arms on a stable spine/ribs, vs. stability with the arms and a moving ribcage.
Have a Great Day! Hope to hear from you – Please share your thoughts about this, questions, ah-ha moments, and movement success!
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