February 16, 2011
This article is the first in a series aimed at deepening your understanding of the Short Box Series, this one will focus on the Short Box: Round.
“You are only as old as your spine is flexible” captures a key facet of the Pilates method, speaking to the importance of a mobile spine as we get older. In our current computer age, with so a large percentage of the population spending several hours a day in a chair and working at a computer, it is no surprise that there has been such an increase in the number of complaints of lower back pain, neck pain and of headaches (to name only a few), even with ergonomically sound work stations. The only antidote for these complaints is for the body to move in ways that counteract the effects of these unnatural postures being sustained for several hours a day.
A proper Pilates session encompasses all spinal movements and the Short Box series encapsulates all of them within one series. The basic exercises; Round, Flat, Side to Side, Twist, Tree, and Side Sit Ups improve mobility, strength, stability and muscular endurance which all functionally impact good posture. The Short Box Series is introduced early on as a basic series and, with variations added as the student advances, continues being a barometer of progress revealing a story about our client’s spinal health.
What does the Short Box Series reveal? What are the things to look for when teaching and what are the small things to fuss about? It is the little details that make this series a mainstay in the classical system and the importance of delivering this series well cannot be understated. I have witnessed on countless occasions clients going through the motions and actually missing the point for what their body can gain and needs from these exercises.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the exercises in the Series to illuminate what to watch for, how to fix it and what it reveals.
Step 1: Sit a hands distance from the back of the box. The first thing to look for is how the client assumes the rounded position. Observe from the side, if the whole body collapses into the position, be sure to correct it. Things to watch for are the ribcage dropping toward the pelvis, a lack of lift off of the buttocks, hunched shoulders or a heavily drooped head. Look for an even contour of the spine with a deep scoop supporting the C-curve. Be sure the arms hug the waist tightly, between the pelvis and ribs, instead of being out away from the body. The head should be reaching forward over the chest with both eyes focused toward the naval instead of sinking the chin into the throat. The feet are apart with the safety strap near the ankles, take note of where the feet are in space as this will be important as the movement occurs. The starting position is a tightly rounded one.
Step 2: The movement begins by going back; the pelvis rolls under, the sacrum contacts the box, the scoop deepens and the first stop is half way back with the shoulders level with the box. The upper back should not be lower than the level of the box at this horizontal point. If needed, the knees may gently bend if the hip flexors are tight preventing the sacrum from making contact with the box. If the knees can stay straight when going back, observe that the heels reach out and away from the hips. If you observe from the rear of the reformer, watch that both sides of the back lower equally. From the footbar, encourage the heels to remain still in space and reach; you can cue this or have both heels reach into your touch.
Step 3: The spine lowers into the well until it is as low as possible before extending, with the head last to extend back. Watch that the head remains actively forward until the torso is low. Do not let the head open back prematurely!
Once upside down, try to maximally arch the entire spine, pulling the shoulders back toward the headrest, looking at the floor with the eyes and reaching the heels out away from the hips in opposition. As one becomes stronger the arms may be able to reach overhead to the floor.
Step 4: To come up, first return the arms to position hugging the waist and then bring the chin to the chest. Raise the head and have the eyes focus on the midline aligning the nose with the sternum, naval and pubic bone and curl up until the torso is level with the box. Encourage clients to look with their eyes into their body to steer alignment as this will be helpful when coming up from the Tree. At this point the sacrum should still be on the box and the upper back level with the box just as it was in Step 2.
Exhale and curl the rest of the way up keeping the sacrum on the box for as long as possible and curling the upper body forward, until the shoulders are over the hips, be sure the powerhouse remains engaged. The rounded shape is now a counter stretch for the full extension that was just performed. So the sequence is to deeply round in order to fully arch, and then the spine finishes by rounding again.
In the advanced variation of this exercise, the first time arching into the well, hold both elbows and reach the arms back in three gentle pulses; second time back place the hands on the floor and perform a back bend; third time back reach under the carriage rails and give a long pull while reaching out through the heels.
To check for one sidedness, view this exercise from the rear as the torso rolls back and notice if one side hangs lower then the other side. If there is one side hanging lower, a simple cue or touch in most cases will even it out. Often the client can’t feel the imbalance so it is important to correct it, as it will inevitably show up in other exercises.
Since the Short Box Series is a seated series, help raise client’s awareness of active sitting. Encourage them to use it often during the day to offset the dangers of sloppy sitting. If you have a side view mirror let them see what it looks like; illustrate what it looks like to sit tall with the shoulders over the hips, to lift out of the waist, hips, and lower back. Show them how to wrap and perch up off of the buttocks and how to use their abdominals to sit forward and up; practice going back and forth from sloppy to active sitting so they can see and feel the difference.
By understanding details and making small but profound adjustments during your session, your client will not only have something to think about and practice until they see you again but little by little you will positively impact their quality of life.
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”—William Arthur Ward
Filed under: Movement Matters