In my countless hours of professional dance training and decades of teaching bodies of all levels with every request imaginable (to get rid of “arm jiggle,” make the pain go away, loosen up hamstrings, unwind scoliosis, and more), I’ve learned there are groups of exercises that really do work well for most of us. While we all need teachers to guide us, we also need to take responsibility for our bodies and keep them tuned up.
In dance training, we do the same repetitive, tedious exercises, whether we’re three years old or 93. These exercises help us develop and execute classic choreographic patterning. Everyday life is no different, as it is important to have some ritualistic exercises to use as a barometer while we all evolve and get better with age.
…our prime of life should be in the 70’s and old age should not come until we are almost 100.
– Joseph H. Pilates
Our bodies create reflexive patterns in movement, or muscle memory, and we (should) deviate from ideal alignment all the time. But it is crucial to our health that we repeatedly teach our bodies right from wrong. You can teach your body to make better choices when doing that same move that keeps tweaking your hip. After all, the problem is not the move itself; it’s how you move.
Unwind (Series 1)
Below is a short series of go-to exercises that can work for you throughout all stages of life. You can add it to your usual workout, or if you don’t have a workout . . . now you do!
Plus, we’re all a little twisted. Professional athletes and great-grandmothers alike, take this routine with you now, and it will forever help you #keepittogether.
#1 – Flat Back With Shoulder Extension
Logic: Create a strong, long back by working the spinal extensors as they counter your flexion at the hip joint.
- Inhale – Lengthen the spine; lift out of the waist.
- Exhale – Reach out as far as you can maintain a long spine.
- Inhale – Lengthen in your flat back.
- Exhale – Return to standing.
- Do not flex the spine.
- Keep abdominals connected to the back.
- Flex only at the hip joint, as far as the spine can be kept long.
- Keep slightly more weight in the front of the feet.
- Feel work in opposite directions; extend the back as you flex forward. Reach the sitz bones up as the feet press down. Arms reach up as the shoulder girdle roots itself.
Stabilize: Spine, abdominals, and shoulder girdle
Modify: Use the wall as a support or if you don’t know how to make your back long.
#2 – Pelvic Curl (Bridging)
Logic: Work hip extensors (hamstrings/glutes) and spinal articulation if applicable. (Your butt will look amazing!) Your back will feel decompressed from the support of your newly recruited abdominals and hip extensors.
- Exhale – Initiate by drawing the abdominals deeply into the spine, causing the lower back to press into the mat, and begin articulating the spine off the mat from the bottom.
- Inhale – Sustain at the top, creating a diagonal line from shoulders, ribs, and hips to knees.
- Exhale – Soften the sternum, and roll down the spine one vertebra at a time from the top.
- Keep shoulders pressed open. For assistance, press down in the hands to activate the triceps.
- Push evenly through the feet; do not push from the heels.
- Keep the feet aligned in parallel. The position of your feet will affect the muscle activation in the hips, making the subtle changes to your gait that you might be trying to correct. Your form equals your function!
- Do not get discouraged if you don’t feel every vertebra articulating. The act of trying is where all the benefits are.
Stabilize: Shoulder girdle, legs, and feet
Modify: Replace the spinal articulation with a lifting and lowering of the spine in ideal alignment. Keep picturing the spine being as long as possible.
#3 – Spine Twist
Logic: Bring rotation into the lower body and counter-rotation above. Good for functional daily motions, clarifying rotation in sports, the waistline, and for stretching the shoulders.
- Inhale – With hips and knees at 90 degrees, rotate hips to the right while keeping knees together.
- Exhale – Draw in the abdominals deeper when you return to the center.
- Keep the top leg stacked on top of the bottom leg. The tendency is to let the top leg slide away from the direction of the rotation.
- Press the hands into the floor for more stability; keep the chest open.
- Keep cervical spine neutral.
- Keep feet on the floor if tabletop position is too much for your lower back.
Stabilize: Head, shoulder girdle, and leg connection
Modify: Keep the feet on the floor for support, which will close the chain and protect the back.
#4 – Back Extension
Logic: Counteract those hunched shoulders! Waking up the upper back muscles will help alleviate neck tension because your new posture will recruit the correct muscles. Teach your arms where they should stabilize from during movement. The correct form of this exercise will also work the jiggle part of the underarm that everyone loves (a.k.a., bingo wings, lunch lady arms). Strengthen and mobilize the upper back extensor muscles.
- Inhale – Support the lumbar spine with your abdominals. Open the shoulders, and then reach palms of your hands alongside your thighs.
- Exhale – Extend the spine long and hover.
- Inhale – Lower the spine, maintaining the shoulders open and the palms touching the thighs.
- Repeat 5-10x.
- Support the lower back.
- Think of your body being long and low, not short and high.
- Keep elbows and hands long and close to the sides of the body, palms facing in or slightly down to open the chest.
Stabilize: Pelvis and hip extensor muscles
Modify: Place a pillow or arc barrel under the lower abdominals to encourage a muscular lift to support the spine.
#5 – Back Support (Reverse Plank)
Logic: Undo the forward motion of life by working from the back of your body.
Stretch and strengthen the shoulder extensors. Strengthen your hip extensors.
- Exhale-Inhale – With seated legs straight or bent, press hands into the mat and elongate the neck and lower spine while stretching the shoulders open.
- Exhale – Lift the pelvis up to create a line from the feet, knees, pelvis, ribs, and shoulders.
- Inhale – Lower the torso to its seated upright posture without “sitting.”
Tips: Keep the space between your ears and shoulders . . . and between your ribs and hips long and unchanged as you move.
Modify: Stand with the arms reaching behind you on a counter or tabletop with no pelvic motion.
Do Some Soul-Searching
If you think these workouts are too challenging or too easy, search deeply inside your soul, or at least your core, to make them better. Remember, it is always beneficial to try a lesson with a professional to guide you with modifications designed to work around a limitation, and with variations designed to decrease or increase the challenge.
Exercises don’t get easier . . . they get better.
– My mentor and teacher Rael Isacowitz
The video below shows all of these exercises in an uninterrupted sequence. Check it out, and stay tuned for Unwind, Series 2!
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Lynda Salerno Gehrman is the Founder and Director of Physio Logic Pilates & Movement in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Tying together her training, her studios are the BASI Pilates teacher training centers of NYC for which she serves as faculty. As a reputable Pilates educator in her own right, she has appeared on the cover of Pilates Style magazine, for which she’s penned several articles. While she equally enjoys working with the professional athlete as much as the exercise novice, she specializes in using her keen eye to reorganize sport-specific gait patterns, recognize muscle initiation and imbalances, and teach corrective strength training, applying the works of Pilates to any practice.