Balanced Body Building In Pilates

Creating a balanced body is the ultimate goal in Pilates. But how do you detect and overcome those compensations? Start with these Reformer exercises.


I’m constantly on the lookout throughout each session to find these detrimental patterns, which can result in serious injury and damage to the body left unaddressed. As I enter my 50s, this interest in good mechanics and functional movement has only intensified. I want to enjoy the next decade of my life and on, and limit dysfunction, pain and restrictive movement patterns as much as possible.

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I’ve found that during times of stress we often revert to old patterns regardless of how much we’ve worked toward the good ones. We often stop exercising, sleeping well and drinking enough water, and choose sugary, fatty foods, along with alcohol and Netflix binges. Reinforcing good habits seems counterintuitive as our bodies store the stress we’re experiencing. Unless we find positive ways to release this tension, it slowly solidifies in our joints and muscles. Ultimately, rounded shoulders and spinal compressions result. That’s why we need to learn to take responsibility for our bodies, and create new awareness within ourselves.

Sound ambitious? Remember that the mind and body share a symbiotic relationship: Just as we have the power to control our thoughts, we have the power to control awareness of our movement. As a teacher, how can you sharpen your eye and spot these compensations or deviations? Where are these compensations occurring? What muscles are inhibited? What muscle is overworking? Simply ask yourself, What do I see? Make a note and continue observing. Eventually, you’ll see a common thread and have this aha moment: The same compensations are occurring throughout all the movements! Be patient, though—a keen eye can’t be purchased, it must be earned. That’s another reason it’s essential that educators continue to receive regular sessions.

Picture a chef who never ate, but only cooked; how would they ever improve their craft? Students, heed the advice of my mentor Rael Isacowitz: “Ninety percent of the success of an exercise is in the setup.” Make a mental checklist to make sure you’re setting yourself up for success, and also check in throughout your session: Are you aware of bony landmarks? Do you feel balance within your pelvis? Are your scapulae neutral? Try shifting from one leg to another, and observe where you tend to carry all of your weight. Discover your natural posture, and what you can do to correct it. Taking a video of yourself while doing an exercise is a great way to get feedback.

One of my most successful undertakings has been my weekly sessions with my teacher Constance Holder. I have invested in my education, and it has enabled me to grow in my work and personally, beyond my expectations. But back to this series: The following movements highlight compensations, and help me guide clients in discovering enhanced balance and harmony within their bodies. Because life’s too short to not feel good!

GENERAL GUIDELINES PROP Reformer Sitting Box BREATH Varies REPS Varies TIP Modify an exercise if you feel any strain or tension. It’s more important that you’re using the correct muscle group.

DOUBLE-LEG STRETCH SPRING SETTING heavy (all springs) PURPOSE increases abdominal strength and shoulder mobility


• Limited mobility in shoulder flexion and in the thoracic spine.

• Weak hip extensors and abdominals.

SETUP Lie on the Long Box with the tips of your shoulders at the back edge. Curl your upper torso up while bringing your legs to tabletop with your hands pressing down on both knees. Engage your abdominals and softly press your lower back into the Box.

1 . Inhale as you extend your arms by your hips and your legs to a high diagonal.

2 . Exhale as you circle your arms overhead and extend your upper torso over the Box, allowing your head to dip toward the well.

3. Lift your upper torso as you circle your arms toward your hips.

4. Bend your knees to tabletop and return your hands to your knees to come back to the starting position. Do 8–10 reps.


Initiating the movement from your abdominals.

MODIFICATIONS Be aware if your lower back is compensating for weak abdominals. Try extending your legs at a higher diagonal, or keep your knees bent as you hinge from your hips.

CHEST EXPANSION (SINGLE ARM WITH ROTATION) SPRING SETTING light PURPOSE works the lats and abdominals unilaterally to observe compensations COMPENSATIONS TO LOOK FOR Pulling on the neck, an indicator of weak abdominals. SETUP Kneel on the carriage against the shoulder rests while choking up on the straps. Inhale to prepare.

1 . Exhale as you draw one arm down and back.

Inhale and hold.

2 . Exhale as you rotate to the side of your extended arm.

3. Inhale as you return to the starting position. Do 8–10 reps on both sides.


• Keeping your pelvis under your rib cage, and your abdominals engaged.

• Minimizing deviations if you find yourself shifting laterally during the rotation.

MODIFICATIONS Omit the rotation, and/or use both arms to pull down and back.


Stretches the thighs with thoracic (rib cage) extension COMPE N SATI O N S TO LOOK FOR

• Moving from the thoracic spine.

• Pelvic instability—not keeping the pelvis in neutral or in a slight posterior tilt.

SETUP Same as Chest Expansion, but slightly tilt your pelvis.

1 . Exhale as you hinge from your knee joints while maintaining a long spine with a bias toward a pelvic tuck (to prevent going into your low back).

2 . Inhale as you extend your upper body while maintaining your abdominal engagement. Do 3–6 reps.


• Keeping your torso consistently stable throughout.

• Where you initiate the movement— don’t lead with your upper body.


Decrease your range of motion.

REVERSE LUNGE WITH BALANCE SPRING SETTING light PURPOSE promotes hip flexor and hamstring stretch COMPENSATIONS TO LOOK FOR Difficulty keeping both sides of the pelvis on the same plane and the hips to the front. SETUP Stand on the carriage in a lunge position with one foot between the shoulder blocks, and the other turned out on the edge of the footbar. Extend your arms out to your sides, palms facing forward. Inhale to prepare.

1 . Exhale as you extend your front leg, allowing the carriage
to move.

2 . Inhale as you return to the starting position. Do 3–6 reps on both sides.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON Keeping your head on the same plane as you move in and out—don’t bob up and down—and staying level in your body as you move your leg. MODIFICATIONS Use a pole for balance, or place your hands on the shoulder rests.


• Shifting weight off the standing leg.

• Hiking the hip on the working leg.

SETUP Facing sideways to the Reformer, stand tall with one foot on the platform, and your other foot on the carriage edge at a slightly pronated angle. Place your hands on your hips, and bend your knees. Inhale to prepare.

1 . Exhale as you extend your leg on the carriage, keeping your heels planted; pause.

2 . Inhale as you resist the carriage home. Do 8–10 reps on both legs.


• Maintaining a neutral spine.

• Pressing through your heel, and your moving leg down and away.


• Pushing more with one leg than the other.

• Hiking the hip before movement begins.

SETUP Same as Single-Leg Skate, but move your carriage leg toward the middle of the carriage and hinge forward at your hips, keeping them slightly internally rotated. Extend your arms out to your sides, palms down.

1 . Exhale as you extend both legs simultaneously.

2 . Inhale to return to the starting position. Do 8–10 reps on both sides.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON Working both legs equally.

SIDE SPLITS SPRING SETTING medium PURPOSE increases inner-thigh stretch, abdominal control and torso stability COMPENSATIONS TO LOOK FOR

• Hiking the hip.

• Inner-thigh imbalances.

SETUP Same as Double-Leg Skate, but move your carriage leg closer to the shoulder rests and flip your palms to face the ceiling.

1 . Inhale as you extend your leg and move the carriage out; pause.

2 . Exhale as you return to the starting position. Do 3–6 reps on both sides.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON Keeping your spine neutral—there’s a bias toward a posterior tilt.

GEAR GUIDE BASI Systems Reformer and Sitting Box ($4,345 and $295, respectively.

SIDE-OVERS SPRING SETTING heavy PURPOSE stretches and strengthens the obliques COMPENSATIONS TO LOOK FOR

• A forward head.

• Losing the muscle engagement on the underside obliques.

SETUP Facing sideways to the Reformer, sit on the Short Box with one foot anchored in the foot strap, and your other knee bent on the Box. Place your hands behind your head, keeping both sides of your body elongated, and lean toward the well so your body is on a diagonal. 1 . Inhale as you reach out and over, bringing your body closer to the well.

2 . Exhale to return to the starting position. Do 3–5 reps on both sides.


• Keeping both sides of your body pulling away from the footbar.

• Moving your elbow toward the ceiling as you return to start.

ADVANCED Extend your arms by your ears. On the last rep, rotate your torso and place your hand

MANDY WRIGHT has always been physically active, with interests ranging from kickboxing to raising three rambunctious boys. She fulfilled a lifetime dream by opening Ojai Pilates by Mandy in Ojai, CA, and currently works with the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa and at The Studio at Padaro Beach, home of Pilates Anytime. A BASI Pilates–certified teacher, Mandy has been teaching for almost 10 years, and continues to learn and grow as a teacher and an international presenter. Mandy is currently a BASI faculty member, having taught the teacher-training program and various workshops in Tokyo, Beijing, Buenos Aires and across America. She is also a NASM-certified personal trainer and -corrective exercise specialist and a MADDOG Spin instructor. Mandy’s focus is on creating better posture for her clients though renewed awareness and improved functional movement for a healthy and joyous life.

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