The past few weeks I have been working with my Pilates clients with a goal of assisting them enhance the curl and bend of the upper back for The Hundred. I’ve also been focused on improving articulation of the upper back for the Roll Up, Teaser and Neck Pull - These are not easy exercises for most beginner and some intermediate level Pilates clients.
If you observe participants executing any of the above Pilates exercises, you’ll either notice smooth, sequential articulation of the spine – in which case the exercises are easy! Or, the head leads and the next place the body bends is almost at the waist! When this happens, the upper body is moving as a “chunk.” Instead of the chest and upper back muscles releasing to allow the breastbone soften to help the front of the body bend more.
When the chest muscles are held stiff, smooth movement is restricted thus making it hard to properly engage the abs. This severely affects effective core support.
Here are a couple of fundamental warm-up exercises which can be useful to help loosen up the upper body to release the chest and mobilize the upper back. Enhance your ability to bend forward effortlessly and apply these helpful workout tips to all other forward bending Pilates exercises.
1. Standing Breastbone Slide Exercise
Start standing facing a wall and set both hands on the wall in a “push-up” position. Keep great posture and the lower abdominals lifted. Breathe in to stand tall and on exhale, relax the chest to slide the breastbone down along the front of your shirt to bend the upper back forward. The bottom tips of the shoulder blades spread wide to generate room for the breastbone to soften and move the upper spine backwards in between the blades.
Take a deep breath in, then exhale and return to your center. Now work to slide the breast bone up to extend and arch the upper back. Inhale stand tall, exhale pull the shoulders down and start sliding the breast bone up and forward. As the breastbone moves forward, the upper back moves forward towards the breastbone to begin arching the back. Maintain low ab support so the arch is from the mid back up, rather than in the low back.
Continue alternating between the breastbone sliding downward and the upper back moving into flexion, and the breastbone sliding up and forward as the spine moves into extension.
What to Watch For:
• Keep the elbows straight and feel the breast bone and upper back bones move to alternate between flexion and extension.
• Let the eye focus change. Look down and forward when sliding the breast bone down. look straight ahead for tall posture, and focus out and up to slide the breastbone up as you arch.
• Maintain low ab support so the mobility increases in the upper back and doesn’t place undue stress on the low back.
2. Expand and Contract the Ribcage (rise and fall)
When breathing in, the entire ribcage should fill with air, and the ribs separate. On every exhale, the ribs need to release and come closer together. This rise and fall of the ribcage creates and allows pliability, mobility, and flexibility through the entire chest.
With expansion and contraction of the ribcage the inhale needs to fill the ribcage from the bottom to the top. The exhale needs to empty the lungs from the top to the bottom. Put effort on the exhale to discover and feel the top ribs (right underneath the collar bones and below the armpits) soften or actively come closer together. A lot of people expand the ribcage under the armpits and up to the upper chest, but don’t release these muscles upon exhaling.
Learning to lengthen the spine and improve the rise and fall of the ribcage assists placing the back in a better position to articulate well while peeling the spine up off the mat to curl up or bend the back for any exercise.
An Easy Visualization to Assist the Rise & Fall of the Ribcage
• Pretend you’re a fish. Breathe into and out of your gills. Your gills are along the sides of the ribcage up under your armpits.
• Place your hands on your ribs up under the armpits and feel the ribcage move. It expands to inhale. Then starting from your armpits feel it the ribs release to exhale.
3. Standing Roll Down on the Wall
Stand with the entire back against the wall. The feet can be together or hip-width apart and placed out in front of the body as far as needed to help make it easier to keep the abs working and back against the wall.
The entire spine from the tailbone to the head starts firmly pressed to the wall.
Maintain core support throughout the exercise to keep the lower back firmly against the wall. Arms and shoulders remain hanging and relaxed throughout the exercise.
Inhale to stand tall, on the exhale nod the chin forward to look at the chest. Continue inhaling and exhaling to bend forward. Soften and relax the chest while you watch the breastbone slide down the front of the shirt, and feel it move backwards towards the wall between the shoulder blades while the back bends forward. Continue breathing steadily and forward bending peeling the back one segment at a time off the wall to the bottom of the shoulder blades. Lower abs stay lifted.
Inhale and exhale to roll back up to a tall standing position one segment at a time. The breastbone slides up as the shoulders pull down to return to a tall standing position with the back against the wall. Keep your core working.
Helpful Hints to Maximize Movement of the Upper Back on this Exercise:
• The collar bones and ribcage rotates like a rotisserie to bend the upper back forward.
• The chest muscles have to relax to allow the breastbone and front ribs to release.
• Then every rib from the top of the ribcage to the bottom of the breastbone should rotate and drop backwards underneath the collarbones and ribs above to efficiently deepen the forward flexion.
• Get help from a partner or spotter, they can lightly place their hands on the front ribs to support find this rotisserie movement.
• Practicing by yourself – place your hands on your breastbone to cue and feel it release, soften and slide down and back while you’re bending forward.
• The breastbone slides down and back between the shoulder blades while the rib cage turns from the top to the bottom rotate to bend forward.
• The breastbone slides up while the ribs un-rotate to stand tall.
By incorporating these three fundamental exercises into your workout routine, you can improve body awareness and improve the release of the chest to help mobility and function of the ribs, breastbone, and upper back movement. Then take these new movement habits back to all of the Pilates exercises you practice that need a forward bend.
With the Pilates equipment, The Roll Down and Push through Bar exercises on the Cadillac, and Washer Woman on the Chair are other beneficial exercises to practice forward bending and strengthening these new muscle habits for a great curl on the Hundred. Every Pilates exercise that uses the C-Curve needs whole-spine mobility to accomplish optimal body alignment and muscle use for maximum health benefits from every exercise. These workout tips and fundamental exercises are easy to incorporate into your Pilates workouts, and can make great “homework” exercises!
Have fun and happy forward bending to improve the health and mobility of your upper back!
Apply what you’ve learned with these 3 Simple spine bending exercises to all the exercises in your workout. Practice your Pilates Matwork with an easy-to-follow class on your iphone or MP3 player. Get the Centerworks Pilates Audio CD/MP3’s - Basic, Beginner-Intermediate, Intermediate, and Magic Circle Matwork Classes available at: http://www.centerworks.com/store/category/pilates-cd-and-mp3-workouts/
Aliesa George is the founder of Centerworks® Pilates. She is an author, workshop presenter, and mind-body health expert with more than 25 years of experience designing solutions for health improvement. Aliesa has created a wide variety of products focused on Pilates, Foot Fitness, the Mind-Body Connection, Stress-Management, and Whole-Body Health. She enjoys helping others discover the connection between thought and action to get positive results and achieve goals for a healthy mind, body and spirit!