Pilates Exercises to Improve Flexibility
“Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit…” – Joseph Pilates
The original work of Joseph Pilates has developed significantly since its inception in the early 20th century. While modern interpretations, Stott, Body Control Method, Integrative Approach et al, have brought in a more scientific approach to exercise and training, they still retain the core tenants of Pilates’ original ‘Contrology’.
Pilates felt that his work was decades ahead of his time, implying that the modern way of living, poor postures and inefficient patterns of breathing were all factors that impaired a person’s health. Today, poor diet, sedentary lifestyles, and a culture of sitting down, particularly at work, impact our health – so there may be truth in his claim.
Traditional (mat) Pilates has several principles including control, centring, precision and breathing, and with the exercises he laid out, a range of benefits can be gained:
- Improved balance and posture
- Greater core strength/stability
- Improved coordination
- Reduced lower back pain
- Improved flexibility
- Greater kinaesthetic awareness
As well as the average Pilates student, improved balance and flexibility has also been proven to be greatly beneficial for older adults, particularly when it comes to preventing falls. A 2014 study by Daegu University in South Korea examined the effects of mat-based Pilates on the balance ability of elderly women. Participants in the study exercised three times a week for 12 weeks, 40 minutes at time. It was concluded that Pilates exercise has a significant effect on the static and dynamic balance of the women, as well as an increased performed in the Timed Up and Go (TUG) test.
“The science of Contrology disproves that prevalent and all-too trite saying, “you’re only as old as you feel”.
In Pilates’ original work ‘Contrology’, he devised 34 exercises. As they have proved so effective they still to this day remain largely unchanged. While each of the exercises below have a wide range of benefits, they are particularly useful for improving balance and flexibility. It’s worth noting however that Joseph Pilates primarily worked with dancers, namely the New York School of Ballet, and individuals who would be considered fitter than the average person. Therefore, these exercises can be modified or adapted as necessary for those less capable.
The purpose of this exercise is to promote sequential mobilisation of the hips and spine. It also serves to benefit the development of whole body balance from a supine position. To perform this exercise correctly and safely, it’s important that you try not to rotate the spine, instead allow the hips to lead the movement. Engage the abdominals throughout and avoid straining the neck area, this is best achieved by using the core to control the movement. Typically this exercise involves 3-5 repetitions.
An important point to note is that this exercise is not appropriate for those with osteoporosis. Should you need to modify then the hips can be kept on the mat with just the legs circling.
Flexibility in the hips, spine and shoulder regions can all be promoted with this exercise. It also serves to develop scapular and pelvic stability. To ensure you get the most out of this movement, begin by sitting tall with a neutral spine and pelvis with the legs stretched out to the the front. The pelvis should remain fixed throughout and you should ensure that coccyx remains in contact with the mat. Perform 3-5 reps on each side.
This exercise provides an alternative to spine twists and it can be modified with the use of a block for those with a tight lower back or hamstring.
This exercise is not suitable for participants with osteoporosis, though it does bring a wealth of benefits for those able to perform it. These include: developing pelvic and spinal stability; increasing the flexibility of the hamstrings and hip flexor, and promoting overall bodily awareness, balance and control.
Begin by adopting a supine position with the legs and place the arms by the side, palms facing down. With the legs lifted upwards, support the hips with your hands. Exhale as you split the legs in a scissor motion and reach further on the second breath. It’s best to avoid letting the leg move too far or drop in front of the face. Both legs should move through the same range of motion. A foam roller can be placed under the hips as a means of support.
An alternative to The Scissors, this exercise serves to mobilise the hips and knees. It also aides development of pelvic and spinal stability. As with the previous exercise, this should not be performed by those with osteoporosis. It can however be modified by lying on your side for those that find it too difficult. While performing this advanced movement, avoid loading weight directly into the neck and ensure that the torso and shoulders remained fixed – as ever, the abdominals should be engaged throughout.
Perform the exercise 5-10 times on each side and then reverse the action.
This exercise is designed to mobilise the hip and shoulder joints, and promote upper and lower body coordination on reciprocal sides. With a neutral spine, adopt a prone position keeping the legs abducted to hip distance apart. While this movement is performed, the legs should be kept long and together, without bending the knees. With every count, squeeze the gluteals and switch sides. Ideally repeat three to six reps on each side.
To modify, this exercise can be performed lying prone lifting one leg or one arm at a time. The speed of the movement can also be increased should you wish to add a progression.