Tag Archives: Exercises

The Pelvic Debate – Spinal stability lying Down

arched, tucked, and neutral pelvic positions

arched, tucked, and neutral pelvic positions

To Tuck or not to tuck? That is the question.

And just like for Hamlet, there is no easy answer. It’s all in your relation to gravity, what movement you are performing, and what kind of weaknesses and spinal posture you have right now.

When performing exercises on your back that require spinal stabilization –  keeping the back still while moving the arms and legs – it is important to learn how to maintain a neutral pelvis and spine. We want to strengthen the natural alignment without force.

To find neutral pelvis, first learn how to isolate and move the pelvic bones by doing pelvic tilts.

pelvic tilt

Lying on the back with knees bent, draw the pelvic bones inward towards your nose, pressing the low back into the floor and slightly lifting the tailbone off the floor. This is called tucking under. Next, go the opposite direction, creating a tunnel or arch with the low back by drawing the pelvic bones downward towards the knees, tailbone connects to floor. This is called arching.

Neutral pelvis is the happy medium between this range of motion. The front two pelvic bones are pointing upward towards the ceiling, most likely creating a slight arch in the low back.The tailbone and the back of the rib cage remain heavy on the floor. To engage the abdominals in this neutral pelvis, imaging trying to zip up the last bit of zipper on your tightest pair of pants! The muscles between the pelvic bones should sink down, but the bones themselves should not move.

(Refer to the picture at the top of the post)

Exercising supine (lying on your back) maintaining neutral pelvis will strengthen and stabilize the spine, allowing the arms and legs to move around freely. Your abdominals gather towards the spine ( like a corset closing in on all sides of the waist, belly and back), but, don’t force down the belly by tucking under the pelvis. Often we confuse scooping the abdominals with tucking under the pelvis.  This will only create bad spinal stability habits in the long run, leading to overdeveloped hip flexor muscles, weak core, and an overstretched low back. The tuck under for stability when lying down will translate to a lordotic low back when standing, or what is called “sway back”.

image025fv3There are always exceptions to every rule. If your back is extremely weak or you have never exercised then modifications must be made. Prop up the pelvis with a small pillow or blanket roll to support weak back muscles when lying on the back. This elevation of the backside will create less pressure directly on the spine and allow you to feel the core muscles. In this case, DO work on keeping the low back heavy and the pelvis tucked under. Given the body’s change in relation to gravity and weakness of the muscles, this works best. As one gets stronger take the prop away and work in neutral pelvis.

Once you’ve found a neutral pelvis position, practice moving the arms and legs while maintaining the stable spinal column.

Look at the “dead bug” exercise in finding your fulcrum.

A good image to help create stabilization would be to imagine balancing a bowl of water ( or a glass of champagne, depending on your preference) on top of the pelvis, just below the navel and between the pelvic bones.

For a more difficult stability challenge, try balancing a tennis ball or golf ball on this same low point in the torso.

Good luck. Once you are able to maintain and understand a correct neutral position, it is surprising how fast one can strengthen their body from the center outward!

Mix It Up – Pull together your own adventure team


You might not feel like GI Joe/Jane. Maybe somedays you look like Mr. T, but that’s besides the point…

You too can feel like one of the team…in your own urban non-cartoon kind of way.

I knew a group of coworkers who would come to my pilates class once in awhile. They had developed a plan where every week they took turns choosing an exercise activity. They mixed it up between spinning, pilates, yoga, walking, cycling, hiking, dancing, and on and on. The opportunities and inspirations are endless!

It’s a creative way to hang out with friends, get out of your comfort zone,  and try new things. Having a group means the onus is not always on you. Being a “team player” makes it easier to commit to keeping it up.

Don’t go much bigger than a group of 3 or 4, friends, couples, what have you, unless you have some very organized friends.

The laughter alone in trying new things is certain to put you in a better mood and enhance your creativity, if not burn a few extra calories along the way.

What are you waiting for? Remember, knowing is half the battle.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Choose Your Own Adventure

Hip and Leg Strain in Pilates


So you’ve been doing pilates tapes and/or classes for awhile and are at a point where all you feel in many of the exercises are the legs and hips. You might get popping or snapping in the hips. Your lower back might be straining too. Why?

One reason might be that in a traditional pilates mat sequence the beginning exercises are mostly lying supine (on your back) with your legs in the air.

Most people start pilates because they have a weak set of core muscles they want to strengthen.

It is imperative to understand the core is NOT the belly. You cannot look down right now and see your core.

Yes. Your abdominals are part of the muscles that make up your body’s core, but so are many muscles of the torso, including overstretched back muscles, the shoulder stabilizing muscles, and even the back of the thighs, just below the buttocks. The core is more like a long corset wrapped around your entire midsection. Some of these muscles are over-developed, some are under-utilized. Pilates helps find core balance.

Your Core includes many muscles

There is no one perfect exercise that strengthens and stretches all of the core muscles at once.  We need to mix it up. The positioning should be moved around also. If you do all of your core exercises lying on the back with the legs extended upward, ultimately, your core will not be getting stronger. Your hip flexors, the muscles that lift the legs, will, however. If you have strained or tensed hip flexors and quads ( the front of the thighs), they will take over the movement and not allow your core to perform correctly. (The same is true for tense shoulders and neck muscles as well.) Tight hip flexors and gripping in the buttocks go hand in hand…as it were…and overtime can actually compress the low back vertebre and cause low back pain.

Here are a few ideas for finding your own core balance and getting out of leg straining:

#1. If you are feeling leg, hip and back tension in the first part of the traditional pilates mat exercises. SKIP THOSE EXERCISES. Not forever. Just for a few weeks. Focus on some of the countless other exercises that work your core more effectively for you.

Some alternative exercises for overall core strength can be done in their place, such as; forearm planks on a fit ball, careful back extensions, and roll downs against the wall.

#2. If you do the exercises that sometimes strain your legs and hips, keep to the modified versions with the knees bent. Focus on release of the buttocks and thigh tension. (tense and release those muscles a couple of times and they will relax much more easily).

#3. As your center becomes stronger, learn to lengthen and stretch the legs away from your core in the movements. This will release tension as well.

#4. When the legs are outstretched, work on turning out the thighs. This will help you engage the back of the thighs, which help you contract the pelvic floor, which helps you get out of the hip flexor tension…see how it’s a chain reaction!

#5. If you feel popping in the hip socket on some of these back lying exercises, you have 2 options for getting it to stop. (1) Make the movements much smaller and focus on length in the leg rather than width of movement. (2) Squeeze the muscles around the hip to help hold things in place. The hip snapping often occurs in active women who have hip flexor imbalances…too much stretch on one end, too much tension in the other. This can get better if you work bit by bit.

Your ultimate goal is to create tension free, balanced movement. There should be no strain. It take a lot of practice, patience and concentration to move with ease in most areas of life. Slow down, relax and practice. Good luck!

Alternating arm and leg plank

Alternating arm and leg plank

Too Hot to Workout?


Throughout a large part of the country the temperatures are soaring. If you are in these temperatures. Beware of working out outdoors, and follow a few simple guidelines.

Working out indoors is preferable in 100+ temps, or days with bad air quality.

Cut back your regular routines until your body adjusts.

Early morning workouts are best right now. The temperatures are lowest. Evening workouts come in second.

Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration is a big factor.

The older you are, often the greater the risk for heat stroke, dehydration, etc. Use caution.

Take our workout time and practice focused meditation and deep breathing. This can be even more rewarding to your overall health and mind!

If all else fails, a mint julip on the front porch with a friend isn’t a bad idea either….

Stay Cool!


Want a stronger back? Stop fixating on abdominals.


An article appeared yesterday in the New York Times Magazine discussing the myths behind doing deep abdominal crunches for a strong back.

I couldn’t agree more. When repetitively overdone, such exercises can create new injuries.



Think of your core as your entire trunk, front, back and sides, beginning just below the collar bones and going all the way down to the back of the inner thighs, just below the gluteus maximus. Your whole body coordinates to create a length, strength, and flexibility.

Here are a good guidelines to keep in mind.

#1. Don’t over do one exercise. There is no magic exercises creating perfection. A few well done, thoughtful exercises are better than 50 sloppy ones.

#2.  Play with gravity in your movements. Make sure to strengthen and lengthen all the muscles of your trunk. Do some sitting, standing, lying down (front and back), or balancing.

#3. Mix up your routine. Don’t get too comfortable in one series of movements. Challenging your brain and muscle memory is key in staying strong. Every muscle counts, each one helps another to do its job.

#4. Moderation. Start small, slow and steady. If you push out the gate too hard, you could injure yourself, or get frustrated very quickly.



Here are some excellent moves from the New York Times online article. Anyone who takes mat classes with me will recognize several of these movements. These movements can be modified based on injuries or weaknesses. For more beginning exercise routines, check out the post on The easy tv workout.

The Easy TV Workout


Missed your workout today, but not your favorite tv show?

So you’re at home watching The Housewives of New Jersey, or Mad Men, or Thirty Rock, or whatevers, and commercial break hits. Instead of hitting fast forward on your DVR, challenge yourself to my commercial break workout. Quick, easy, nothing is missed but some couch potato intermission drool.

The average commercial is approximately 30seconds. Most of these challenges require about 2 -4 commercials, although you could go the entire commercial break if you choose at some point. At this rate you could be getting in 5 minutes of exercise a day. Enough to make a difference in a week. You’d be surprised! Take the challenge!

BREAK #1. EXTENSION with Arm Push (Adapted from Somatic Patterning by Mary Ann Foster)

The arm push will strengthen rounded shoulders. Lying on your belly. Put both arms to the sides and bend your elbows. Palms are flat and all 5 fingers are touch floor! Widen and sink across the front of your chest. Reach your elbows out to the sides to widen across your shoulders. Keep your neck long by reaching out the top of your head. Slowly press your entire hands and forearms into the floor. Sense the force of the push traveling up your arms, into your back and down your spine Continue to push your arms down and out into the floor and raise your head and chest off the floor. Keep the back of your neck long. Let your chest feel broad, your neck free, and your spine feel long. The shoulder blades should be drawn together behind you. The arms stay straight. Hold for at least two commercials. If you feel pain in your back, walk your hands out in front of you further, or prop your belly with a pillow.  If you feel pain in your gluts or legs. Stop.

Extension with arm push

Extension with arm push

don't do this

don't do this


Nothing fancy about this one. Tried and true. Do not do it on your hands, thinking you are making it harder. On the hands is actually easier for your to avoid your core and to tense your shoulders. The forearm plank is good core stability work. Lengthen in the position. Keep stretching your chin and neck past your fists. Keep your armpits reaching for your hips. Hold at least 2 commercials.


Forearm Plank


You know how to do them. So go for it. How many can you do in a commercial break?

Little tips: Try to keep your neck tension free by reaching through the crown of your head towards the ceiling. Pull your belly button to the spine to help from placing too much tension on the knees.



BREAK #4 BALANCE CHALLENGE: Balancing on one leg and toes

Practice you balance by standing on one foot for one commercial break. Shift to the other foot for the next commercial. And then balance on your toes for the third  commercial. You can always extend the time. Keep the thought of lift the spine and your posture in mind as you practice your balance. Let your eyes look up to where the wall and ceiling meet to help keep your neck long.

balance on one leg

balance on one leg

Balance on your toes

Balance on your toes

There you are. Not only did you get your tv time in, but your work out as well. Who knows? Maybe it will catch on and become the party game of every tv show watching party across America. Okay. So I’m dreaming big. You could also challenge your kids or grandchildren as well. No matter what, just have fun with it, perhaps making up your own commercial break workouts. Good Luck!

Shoot Hoops With Your Grandpa TODAY

mink Summer is creeping up. It’s the kind of weather where the breeze gently brushes your skin and the warm sun keeps you from getting goose bumps. And what’s better…not too many bugs just yet.

So beautiful you wish you weren’t inside. And I was. Working with an elderly client on his balance and reflexes by tossing a ball. It made me a little sad for both of us. Remembering he is a very proud grandfather and a former collegiate basketball player, without much thought I asked, ” Do you have any grandchildren nearby?” You should be out playing with them instead of in here doing this with me.” He was hesitant about asking his grandchildren to play, fearing perhaps coordination embarrassment. Once he conceded and did in fact go out to shoot some hoops with his family, he had a blast. Such a great bonding time was had, they resolved to do it regularly.

It’s a no brainer!  Grandpa, Grandma, elderly neighbor, Mom or Dad….whomever. Basketball, kickball, hopscotch, four square, …whatever. It’s all about fresh air, quality time with family and/or loved ones, and exercises that stimulate balance, reflexes, focus. Best return on this experiment are the smiles and a little laughter. We all need to feel like a kid again once in awhile.

There’s not a lot to this blog today, but common sense advise. I’d rather see your Grandfather outside playing hoops with you, than inside a therapy studio tossing a ball with me. So what are you waiting for….

You can watch the NBA Playoffs together afterwards…

The Cheapest Exercise Aid You have Right Now

That wall next to you. It does wonders.

Here are 3 quick ideas you can do right now without getting too many weird looks from co-workers…

For starters, it’s great for posture. Just go stand against it – don’t be shy – it gives incredible feedback into how slumped the back really is. Now we all have curves in our back in varying degrees. We don’t want to force the curves out of the spine, instead, the goal is to create length in the vertebral column and muscle support in this more upright posture. Slide the back of your head up the wall, keeping the front of your neck long, and slide your tailbone towards the floor, while keeping it pressed into the wall. Feel the vertebra in between these two points spacing apart – the back of the head up and the tailbone down – lengthening as your entire back gets closer to the wall. Hold for a minute or two and take deep breaths. You should feel lighter and taller as you come away from the wall.

lengthen your postureKnee bends against the wall are good for knee and hip strength, while keeping your back straight and creating core awareness. Important notes: Keep toes in front of the knees, don’t bend too far or at least past 90 degrees. Secondly, work on feeling the length of the posture and of the legs while performing this exercise. Finally, scoop the belly to the spine. It helps to imagine a band around your waist pulling you into the wall.

knee bends against wall

We all need a good upper arm and shoulder stretch throughout the day.  This is one of my favorites. Do be careful to start small with this stretch. Don’t hold it too long or force it too much, since shoulders are intricate machines. With the arm straight out to the side, press the entire palm into the wall, especially the heel of the palm. Keep the shoulder of the extended arm down and even with the other, and the arm straight. Lift your spine and take deep breaths. A deep shoulder and arm stretch should ensue which might radiate all the way to the middle finger. Hold for about 30 seconds tops.


These are just a few of the many creative exercises you too can do with a wall. No purchase necessary, just look up and find one.

Bad Economy. No Excuse.

Respect your Body

Yes, the economy blows. For real. But it is now even more important you do something for yourself, to keep your body physically fit and your mind less heavy with stressful thoughts.

Most illnesses can be linked to overall stress on the body. Keeping physically active can be the best preventative medicine out there. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and leg. Here are a few ideas for keeping mentally and physically fit in these fabulously slumpy times.

#1. Do something you love! This is the most important factor. Running on the treadmill is not gonna cut it, if it’s something you hate to do. We both know it won’t last, and you are not gonna get the mental challenge you need. I, for instance, take trapeze lessons twice a week. I always look forward to each lesson, enjoy the challenge, and laugh and cry with my classmates. That’s what your exercise should be…something you enjoy in your own way. To each his own! What’s yours?

#2. Create a community. Bring the class to you. Say you want to do pilates or yoga or dance or whatever, but privates lessons are too expensive. Create a class of your own. Get a group of friends with similar interests together, find a time that works for you, and go find a teacher. The cost would be minimized. The class would be fun. It’s also an excuse to get together with friends, or make new ones.

#3. Turn off CNN or Shut down your computer. We can all create more stress and the downward spiral of becoming news or internet junkies – needing to know how the Dow ended, and what John Stewart has to say about it. Cut out the headlines for a week or so, maybe 1 hour less a day, and give that time to yourself to take a walk outside in the fresh air, call a friend, write in a journal. Something just for you.

#4. 20/20/20 This is my at home mind and body workout. I tend to be ADD. So much I want to do at once, I often end up doing nothing. This formula seems to work for me most of the time. And if I don’t do all, I do at least one or two. I spent 20 minutes exercising or stretching (jumping rope, pilates mat, just stretching, etc), then 20 minutes journaling – which is almost like mental spewing to get certain stresses or ideas out of my head and onto paper, and then finally 20 minutes meditating or breathing – this is the hardest, but very beneficial.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that money rolls, but you only get this lifetime once…enjoy it!

The Dawning of the Age of Golfers

golf mustache for wind resistance

Pilates and Golf.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you might have heard of this popular combo.  I must fully agree with the pairing.  They both require the same skills: mental and physical conditioning from the inside, outward to the external.  In other words, practicing how you respond to your surroundings.

Unfortunately, like in most things, there is no magic spell to make this happen. It requires mindful repetition of movements which allow you to change and control your own habits without over-thinking, no matter what the external challenges might bring.   To be done properly, both golf and Pilates require precision controlled movements flowing outward from a strong and flexible center. One compliments the other indisputably. To create control and precision movements, one needs to be able to breathe properly, releasing tensing muscles, and quiets the active mind.

Living in the Midwest now, I realize golf is seasonal, as opposed to the West Coast, where it flourishes year round.  So now is the ideal time to start prepping body and mind for the upcoming season.  One movement every golfer needs to work on is twisting properly. My explanation here of twisting is pretty rudimentary, but this should convey the general concept. Keep in mind, just like with the English language, there are always exceptions to the rule.

In Pilates, the basic concept of twisting starts with the axis of the spine. Along the spine axis we have two attached bones structures we will focus on: the rib cage and the pelvis.

Twisting to stretch the back and strengthen the obliques, one must either A. Twist the rib cage, and stabilize the pelvis, or B. Twist the pelvis and stabilize the ribs. When we attempt a twist without stabilizing one part of the spine we often end up with back injuries. The twist of a follow through in your swing is only executed properly with the ability to stabilize ones pelvis  even as it moves with the spine. Hmmm. tricky. But, possible. Think of a rubber band: In order to stretch it, one point must be fixed. If both points are unstable, it’s a wet noodle. If both points are fixed, it is rigid and doesn’t move.

So how do you practice twisting?

Warning: Be careful and do not over do any exercise. I recommend only 3 sets. (1 set is a twist in each direction). If you have any back pain, do not do this exercise until you consult a professional.

Sitting on a large balance ball. Both feet and knees about shoulder width apart. Arms can stretch out to the sides, rounded in front, OR you can place one hand on top of the other on top of the head. Twist the rib cage to the right, but DO NOT MOVE THE BALL OR YOUR LEGS. This will limit your twist, so that you are twisting from your obliques and not your hip flexors. Repeat to the left. The stability of your legs, backside and the ball is more important than the amount of rotation from your chest. As you twist, think of spiraling up towards the ceiling, rather than twisting back behind you. Remember: twist up, not back. twist-on-ball

For the more advanced student, it can be done on the floor, keeping both legs glued together and the spine lifted up towards the ceiling.


Spring and Summer 2009 I will be giving several workshops on Pilates movement for golfers. Please check back under classes and workshops to find out when and where. If you are interested in hosting a Pilates and golf workshop, please email me at: pilates@stephanieellison.com