Pilates = Big bottoms + Spacious shoulders… such BS or is it?

My most “popular” frequently visited post on this site by a long shot is “blossom or squeeze”  If you are unfamiliar with this post or would like to revisit please check it out.

If you read it, you may recall it was a reflection on my own experience in learning how to balance these two opposing actions (blossom and squeeze) to find ultimate connection through my pelvic center.  I shared my experience around the action of “squeezing.”  Overdoing this action prevented me from connecting and strengthening the parts of my pelvic center that needed work and attention. 

Well, today I am going to share some insight with this same line of thought to describe the importance of blossoming your upper back/chest to create strength and connection between your arms and low back.  Prioritizing the action of creating more inner space will help you find more clarity in what parts of your body need to be strengthened.

I hope this  following post will encourage all of you to be your own best cheerleader and ask yourself questions if things are not working out.  If something does not feel right, and the cues you are given do not help you to better connect, please remember, words are just words.  It’s how you interpret the cues and then apply those words that matter…I believe  the body does not lie and  when something does not feel right it’s probably because there’s more work to do!

Time to step into Le Bureau:)!

Pilates exercises encourages one to work from ones center.  Therefore, in a Pilates class, to encourage this effort in the upper body, you may hear the instructor say, “connect your arms out of your low back,” “put your shoulders down your back,” “get out of your shoulders,”  or my personal favorite…”don’t use your shoulders use your stomach!”  UGH..so frustrating right?  I don’t know about you, but from my own experience, I understood what the teacher was telling me but the cues were not helping me connect my hands to my low back.  WHY?

I have, by nature, strong shoulders.  My shoulders definitely take the spotlight.  That said, my broad shoulders coupled with my long limbs and hyper-mobility in my joints makes the action of connecting my hands all the way into my stomach/low back a challenge.  You see, it’s easy for me to get the “job done” using mainly my shoulders!  However, getting the job done doesn’t always mean it was executed well in a sustainable healthy way.  Furthermore, is the job ever done?  What do you think?  

As a student and a teacher I know how difficult finding more space in the shoulders can be.  Luckily we have Pilates to help encourage  this practice of learning how to round our backs as we strengthen our bodies.  To be clear, a collapsed, slumped weak back is not a round, spacious, strong back.  

*remember, round back exercises are the majority in your beginner system…

Roll up
Roll like a ball
Series of 5
Spine stretch forward 

I know some of you will argue that you first want to strengthen your low belly before you focus on your shoulders.  I hear you!   However, please do not forget that your pelvis is not a separate entity from your shoulders and Interestingly, the action of rounding and creating width and space in your upper back you will indirectly create more opportunity for your low back to create more width and space.  It seems counter intuitive to tell someone to focus on rounding their upper back to help them round their lower back, but trust me, it works.  It’s just a different way to see the situation at hand.  Sometimes focusing too much on one thing will close off possibilities to see different solutions to help.  You have to deepen your perspective and look at your body as a whole as opposed to singular separate pieces.

Below are some ideas that have helped me in my efforts in connecting my hands to my low back/stomach center!  Before you do so, pease consider visualization.  I have discovered that visualizing my upper body as a round cylinder container of energy can really help!  This simple and effective visualization gives me dimension and boundaries to work with(front body, back body, left side body and right side body) in my efforts to make a deeper connection from my hands to my low back.  Using the visual of my trunk as a round cylinder I have found that there is space for me to soften and deepen my front body (sternum, ribs, stomach) into my back body and this action has helped in my efforts to better connect my mid back muscles as i make my way to my lower back!    This may not be your issue but I do find it is a common one. 


1.  Space precedes strength.

Having a strong background in YOGA, I know how important it is to lengthen and lift your side body/side ribs  FIRST!    If you jump right into strengthening without taking a moment to lift and lengthen yourself you are missing the point.  The action of shrugging your shoulders is an excellent way to create more length and space and essentially unstick yourself!  

2.   Shoulders back precedes shoulders down.

Take your arm bones back!  Sustain wide collar bones even when you are rounding your back.
Find the shoulders first up, then back, and then let them relax down(never need to pull anything down including your smile:))

3.  Midline, midline, midline!

The more you pull to your midline the more lateral space you will create!  For example, place your hands your shoulder width apart  when overhead, on the foot-bar/floor etc. and energetically gently squeeze your hands forearms to your center line.  keeping this effort, you should right away be able to feel more lateral space between your shoulders.  

4. Breathe, keep it flowing.

Don’t shy away from using your breath to  of create some lateral width in your upper chest/back area; especially before you attempt to “crack a walnut”(common Pilates cue to help one draw their shoulders on their back).  The breath will help everything sync up in creating more space to better facilitate your arm bones drawing back in the shoulder socket without creating any tension.

5.  Reach!

In Pilates, although you will be initiating the movements and the exercises from pulling into your powerhouse aka, stomach, pelvic/hip, buttocks, inner/outer-thighs; you still need to create and sustain good posture practices so the energy flows back out through your body.  Therefore, practice long wrists(or minimize wrist flexion when possible), and also long fingers, and keep the exercise growing through your peripheral parts.

6.  The exercise never stops…

Even when your upper-body is stable.  There needs to be persistent and infinite pulse of pulling energy in and reaching energy back out.

It has been essential for me to pay attention and listen to my body in my efforts to connect and integrate my hands better to my low back/stomach.   Working on rounding while at the same time lifting my upper back with strength has really helped me in my efforts while being mindful of all my other above tips. 🙂

Remembering, that Pilates is therapeutic exercise and not PT,  I hope you strive to continue to work in the movement as effectively as you can.   I hope you have fun as you work to create and sustain deeper connections in all of your relationships.