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Putting alignment into action in Pilates mat work

This is an excerpt from Pilates Anatomy.

Many of the Pilates exercises in this book are designed to strengthen muscles that are important for alignment and core stability. However, strength alone will not necessarily create the desired results. It also is important to learn to feel correct alignment and core stability, to hone skills for quickly achieving this alignment, and to practice using this alignment in the exercises in this book as well as during other activities in your life. Research suggests that with repetitive activation of the desired muscles in the appropriate manner, over time your body will automatically start using these more optimal strategies.


Many common cues are used with Pilates to try to achieve the desired static or dynamic alignment in a given exercise. These cues, or directives, offer practical ways to help you apply many of the principles discussed in chapter 1 and in this chapter. Some cues used with the exercises in this book are described in this section. Others are described in the chapter introductions or with the specific exercises in chapters 4 through 9. In the original Pilates approach, many of these cues were exaggerated and emphasized lumbar flexion and a posterior pelvic tilt. However, the desire to create strategies that are more similar to those needed in functional movements has led various current approaches to apply some of these cues in a modified or less rigorous manner. This functional emphasis also led to the development of additional cues to encourage a neutral position of the pelvis or spine in appropriate exercises.

  • Draw the navel or abdominal wall toward the spine, or scoop. These cues are designed to counter the common error of allowing the abdominal wall to bulge outward when the abdominals are activated and to encourage a flattening or pulling inward of the abdomen. Drawing the navel or abdominal wall inward toward the spine can be thought of as scooping or hollowing the abdominal area inward. If you have difficulty finding this muscular control, place the palm of one hand on your lower abdomen, and press the wall outward into your hand to feel the undesired position; then draw the abdominal wall inward as you think of the hand pressing flat toward the spine or the hand scooping the abdomen, as if making a hollow in the sand at the beach. The cue of drawing the abdominal wall inward can help you recruit the deeper abdominals, including the transversus abdominis, as well as help you achieve the aesthetic goal of a flatter abdomen. This cue commonly is used when performing an exercise lying on your back such as the Pelvic Curl (exercise 4-1), but can also be used in other positions to help create a C curve.
  • Make a C curve. A common error when flexing the spine is creating most of the curve in the thoracic spine, a region of the spine that is naturally concave to the front but is already excessively rounded (kyphosis) in static alignment in many people. Instead, the intent of this cue is to include flexion of the lumbar spine—a region naturally concave to the back and often tight, making flexion in this area more challenging. Pulling the lower abdominal wall inward encourages rounding the lower back and aids in distributing the curvature throughout the spine as much as possible so the head, spine, and pelvis attempt to form a C shape that is concave to the front.
  • Bring the spine to the mat. When lying on your back, firmly draw the abdominal wall inward to bring the lumbar spine closer toward or in touch with the mat, depending on your natural curve and flexibility. The change in the contact of the spine with the mat can be used to help maintain and monitor core stability. For example, when the legs are held off the mat in exercises such as Hundred (exercise 5-4), inadequate abdominal stabilization would cause an anterior tilt of the pelvis and arching of the lower back, lifting the lower back farther off the mat and potentially injuring the lower spine. Therefore in exercises like this, the cue is often given to keep the legs at a height (the closer to vertical, the easier the exercise) at which the lower spine can remain close to or touching the mat, with the pelvis stationary. This directive involves an intentional decrease in the natural lumbar curve and, generally, a slight posterior tilt of the pelvis to help prevent lumbar hyperextension.
  • Maintain a neutral pelvis and lower back, or bracing. While the first three cues reflect the original Pilates approach, this cue is used by those who believe that training to stabilize in a neutral position is also important to allow transfer to many everyday movements that do not involve spinal flexion. This cue generally involves a coordinated cocontraction of many muscles of the core including both the abdominals and spinal extensors such that the natural curve of the lumbar spine and neutral position of the pelvis are achieved. This coordinated cocontraction of the abdominals and spinal extensors to maintain a neutral position of the pelvis and lower back is also termed bracing. When lying on your back, pulling up the front of the pelvis with the abdominals while simultaneously pulling up the back of the pelvis with the spinal extensors, pressing the sacrum into the mat, or reaching the sit bones away from the back of the ribcage can help you achieve this desired bracing.
  • Pull up with the abdominals. Pulling the lower attachment of the abdominals (rectus abdominis and obliques) upward can produce a posterior pelvic tilt. Often this cue is used to encourage creation of a posterior pelvic tilt and flexion of the lumbar spine in exercises that require this full rounding, such as Rolling Back (exercise 6-2). The cue is also used to prevent or limit an anterior pelvic tilt in exercises in which the limbs are moving or the back is arching, such as Double Kick (exercise 9-3), or to help achieve a neutral position of the pelvis with bracing.
  • Pull up your lower back. Sometimes, pulling the lower attachment of the spinal extensors upward is used to encourage extension of the lumbar spine in exercises that require a full arching of the spine, such as Rocking (exercise 9-5). The cue is more commonly used to prevent or limit a posterior pelvic tilt and excessive flexion of the lumbar spine in sitting exercises (see the next cue “Sit tall”) or to help achieve a neutral position of the pelvis with bracing.
  • Sit tall. A common alignment error in sitting is to let the spine collapse downward, with the lumbar spine going into flexion and the pelvis posteriorly tilting. Think of lifting the upper back and the area of the head just behind the ears toward the ceiling, with the weight of the trunk right over the sit bones. Anatomically, slight use of the upper back extensors balanced with the abdominals can produce the desired lift in the thoracic spine without rib-leading. Another desired strategy, similar to that described in the last cue, is to think of slightly pulling up the lower attachment of the abdominals onto the pelvis while simultaneously lifting the center of the back of the pelvis upward to encourage use of the spinal extensors, particularly the multifidus. This cocontraction provides deep segmental support to the lower spine and encourages the maintenance of some of the natural lumbar curve.
  • Maintain a flat back. The term flat back refers to a position in which the trunk is approximately straight when viewed from the side; the side of the shoulder, rib cage, and pelvis are in line. This term can be used to describe the trunk in various positions including kneeling, being supported on the hands and feet, or sitting. The term is not literal—the spine still maintains some of its natural curvatures—but there is a feeling of being elongated as just described in the cue sit tall. Achievement of this flat-back position involves a skillful simultaneous contraction of the abdominals and spinal extensors.
  • Keep the rib cage down and back. When thinking of pulling up with the abdominals or lower back, as well as when trying to achieve a flat-back position, a common mistake is to contract the spinal extensors so the rib cage juts forward (rib-leading). The upper attachment of the abdominals onto the rib cage can pull the front of the rib cage slightly down and back to prevent this undesired rib-leading and hold the rib cage in its desired neutral alignment in many exercises. In other exercises involving spinal flexion, pulling the front of the lower rib cage down and back can aid in attaining the desired maximum spinal flexion to help with achieving a full C curve.
  • Lengthen your neck. A common alignment problem is an excessive arch in the neck so that the chin projects forward in static alignment (forward head posture) or during movement. Thinking of lengthening or stretching the back of the neck can help counter this tendency. For example, when lying on your back, bring your chin slightly down and back while rotating your head slightly forward so that the contact with the mat moves from the top of the back of the head to the middle of the back of the head. Anatomically, this involves using the neck flexors while focusing on relaxing often excessively tight neck extensors.
  • Bring your chin to your chest. The cue to lengthen the neck is also linked to the cue to bring the chin to the chest. In original Pilates work, the cue to flex the neck so that the chin comes toward the sternum while the back of the neck lengthens was often exaggerated in many exercises involving spinal flexion. Bringing the head closer to the chest emphasizes greater use of the abdominals while producing less stress on some of the neck muscles in many supine abdominal exercises. However, many current approaches encourage a moderate use of this cue so that the head is in line with an arc created by the thoracic spine (a small fist or lemon could fit between the chin and chest).
  • Move one vertebra at a time, or use a smooth sequential movement of each vertebra. A common error is to move a large section of the spine as a solid unit, often causing jerky movements or making a portion of the spine appear flat rather than arched or curved. In contrast, the desire is precise consecutive movement of one vertebra relative to the next vertebra, aimed at achieving full movement in each segment of the spine that is involved in the exercise, regardless of whether the movement is spinal flexion, extension, or lateral flexion. For example, during the up phase of Roll-Up (exercise 5-2), ideally the vertebrae should lift one at a time off the mat from top to bottom and lower sequentially in the reverse order on the down phase.
  • Keep the scapulae down in neutral. This cue can be used to prevent the common alignment error of lifting the shoulder blades toward the ears as the arms move. Anatomically, think of using the scapular depressors to pull the scapulae slightly downward before lifting the arms to encourage use of these muscles as the arms move. However, the goal is not to hold the scapulae excessively downward or in place, but rather to help establish a neutral position of the scapulae as they naturally rotate upward. This is achieved by balancing the use of the upper trapezius, which elevates the scapulae, and the lower trapezius, which depresses the scapulae, as shown in figure 2.12. You can also focus on keeping distance between the shoulders and the ears by using a less forceful contraction of the upper trapezius to prevent excessive undesired elevation of the scapulae with overhead movement of the arms.
  • Stretch or reach your arms and legs. The cue of reaching the limbs outward is used to achieve the desired long line and dynamic of many Pilates exercises. Anatomically the joints of the limbs are in a straight line rather than bent or hyperextended. When the body is straight with arms overhead and legs elongated, such as the beginning position of Roll-Up (exercise 5-2), imagine someone gently pulling on your fingertips while someone else gently pulls on your toes in the opposite direction as you maintain strong core stability.