Frequently, we as teachers have students of various skill levels in our classes. In order to meet the needs of students, while delivering a good, safe work-out it is helpful to have an understanding of exercise progressions. In this tutorial we will examine Pilates exercises and offer progressions and modifications to the traditional technique. These progressions and modifications maintain the intention of the original exercises while providing a perfect, client specific class.

The Hundred
The Benchmark of Pilates

The perfect Hundred begins with the legs and arms outstretched on the floor in opposite directions. The advanced student will lift the upper and lower body simultaneously coming into the "Hundreds" position and begin the exercise. At the completion of the Hundred, the student will simultaneously lower the upper and lower body to the start position on the floor.

The body is in the shape of a "boat" or "banana" during the exercise. The back is anchored to the floor from the bottom of the shoulder blades to the hips. The hands are by the hips, and the feet are at eye level. The upper body is lifted off the floor.

The breath may either be sustained or staccato. In order to properly execute the Hundred the student must have a high degree of core strength to keep the back on the mat.

Students with inadequate strength may try the following modifications:

The "Beginner" has his/her knees bent into the chest with the head either on the floor, or lifted. The goal is activation of the core muscles without arching the back, or straining the neck.

The "Advanced Beginner" may have his/her legs extended up toward the ceiling, or may lower his/her legs to a 60 degree angle to the floor. Make sure the student is able to maintain and sustain core activation throughout the entire number of repetitions.

The "Intermediate" can lower his/her legs to a 45 degree angle to the floor. This client is almost ready for the perfect Hundred.

The Breath

Quick, shallow breaths from the upper chest reduces the carbon dioxide in our body. This makes the brain feel as though it doesn't have enough oxygen. This makes us tense. Hyperventilation is not the goal in the Hundreds breathing. The goal is to completely fill the lungs with air on the inhalation, and completely squeeze the air out on the exhalation. The breathing should be deep, and open from the diaphragm. It is important to pay attention to the breath with the mind, to gain self knowledge, and learn how to sense the body during the Hundred.

Some fun information:

When you squeeze all the air out from your lungs, you still have approximately 1000 cc of air left in the lungs.

It is the space between the inhalation and exhalation where we create space in our lives to enrich our spirits.

Our normal cycle is to breath through one nostril for 90-120 minutes, then switch to the other nostril for 90-120 minutes. Breathing through the left nostril corresponds to the right side of the brain (the spacial, creative side), and breathing through the right nostril corresponds to the left brain (the analytical, critical thinking brain).

The Roll Up
The Toughest Exercise for the Hyper-lordotic student

The Roll Up requires the student to sequentially forward flex the spine as he/she moves from a lying to sitting position during the first half of the exercise, and from a sitting position to a lying position in the second half of the exercise.

Students who are hyper-lordotic have a difficult time properly flexing the spine while contracting the rectus abdominis muscle. They frequently over-recruit the hip flexors (the iliopsoas) in order to come up to the sitting position.

In addition, the improper timing of the inhalation and exhalation while moving from lying to sitting compounds the "lurching" of the torso when coming off the floor. The torso should be in the "C" shaped curve during the exercise.

The student must be able to forward flex the spine sequentially while flexing the rectus abdominis muscle in order to properly come to the seated position.

The inhalation during the initial phase of the Roll Up contracts the upper third of the Transverse Abdominis allowing for stabilization of the upper trunk. The exhalation on the second portion of the Roll Up contracts the remaining two thirds of the Transverse Abdominis. Proper breath patterns as well as the contraction of the Rectus Abdominis contributes to a smooth, fluid Roll Up.

Hyper-lordotic students may try the following modifications:

The "Inflexible Hyper-Lordotic" places a small towel folded in thirds under the lumbar spine. This serves to raise the floor to the spine, and allows the student to more readily Roll Up to sitting without over-recruiting the iliopsoas.

The "Weak Hyper-Lordotic" places a wedge pillow under the back from the head to the hips. This provides a biomechanical advantage by decreasing the range of motion necessary to complete the exercise. There is less gravitational pull working against the student's success.

The "Long Torso, Short Legs", "Large Shouldered" or "Large Breasted" places the feet under a strap to improve biomechanical disadvantage. A longer, wider, or heavier upper body against a shorter, smaller, or narrower lower body does not allow the client to ascend to sitting without lifting the legs from the floor. Anchoring the feet provides the necessary to support to balance the structure. Light hand weights can also assist in balancing the upper to lower body proportion disadvantages.

A Super Challenge for students with Tight Shoulders and/or Weak Lower Abdominals

The Jackknife is an advanced exercise requiring multiple skill sets as the student moves through the various positions.

The student begins lying supine with the hands by the hips. The legs, buttock, and lower back are raised off the floor and overhead, then quickly lifted to a vertical position from the floor. When lifting to the vertical position, the middle and upper back muscles become active.

The body moves through the "jackknife" position in the first half of the exercise. The intermediate student can simply reverse the jackknife to return to the start position. The advanced student lowers the legs away from the head while sequentially rolling down the spine (without much flexion at the hips).

Students who have forward rounded shoulders, forward protruding heads, and tight pectoral/chest muscles have difficulty keeping the arms flat on the floor. Frequently they will "break" at the wrist. Try placing yoga blocks under each hand (thereby elevating their floor and placing their shoulders in a more biomechanically efficient position. Some students may need a small pillow under the head if there is a significant degree of a forward protruding head.

For the student with weak lower abdominals and pelvic floor, try this exercise on the Universal Reformer where they can hold onto the pegs by the headrest. This provides a higher center of gravity, and enables the student to use their arms to assist in lifting the body off the ground.

Breaking the Exercises Down

Progressing a student to a full and complete version of an exercise can take some work. Look at the final product, for instance an advanced jackknife (as listed above), and move backward. Ask yourself and your client, "can you do the intermediate jackknife"? If the answer is no, then you must ask "can you do a roll over"? If the answer is no, then you must ask "can you do an assisted roll over (either with hands holding onto bars of Trapeze Table or pegs on Reformer)"? If the answer is no, "can they do pelvic press, and coccyx curl on the Mat or Reformer without difficulty"? If not, "can they do Breathing on the Trapeze Table (are they able to lift the lower body off the table with ankles supported in the swing)"? If not, "can they lift and lower the pelvis while lying in the restorative position (spine corrector under knees and lower legs)"? Your starting point to build strength for this student is to focus on perfecting the lowest common denominator of movement, and then building upon that.

The teacher should also look at correcting postural imbalances inhibiting a proper jackknife (such as forward rounded shoulders), and include exercises that open the chest and pectorals while strengthening the mid to upper back.

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Author's Bio: 

irginia Nicholas, M.A., R.N. is known as a teacher's teacher and recognized internationally as an expert in the Pilates method. She has lectured and taught in universities, colleges, and studios throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and an Associate Degree in Nursing from Michigan State University and Lansing Community College (respectively). Virginia completed her Master of Arts degree in Theatre and Dance, with an emphasis in Kinesiology from the University of New Mexico in 1995.

Incorporating dance, athletics, and her background in emergency, intensive care, and cardiac care medicine, along with 30 years teaching experience, Virginia created Pilates Core Integration teacher training program. For 10 years, Virginia worked closely with Michele Larsson of Core Dynamics Pilates as one of six hand picked affiliate teacher training locations. Pilates Core Integration (PCI) is classical Pilates, infused with the rehabilitative genius of Eve Gentry and current knowledge about the body mind.

In 1995 she established Moving Breath Pilates, a Gyrotonic and Pilates studio in Tempe, Arizona. The Moving Breath Pilates studio is home to the Pilates Core Integration teacher training program.

Virginia has presented at Body Mind Spirit and the Pilates Method Alliance conferences. She has created several Pilates and movement dvds that are currently available through Balanced Body, Moving Breath Pilates, and Pilates Core Integration. She has been on the faculty at Arizona State University, DePaul University, the University of New Mexico, Scottsdale Community College, and Lansing Community College.

With an extensive background as a professional dancer, registered nurse, teacher and master of the Pilates method, Virginia brings expertise and a movement sensibility to the Pilates method.