The Pilates exercises are designed as a journey. No one starting Pilates as a beginner could be expected to start with the most difficult exercises. You learn the easiest ones first and then progress to the more challenging ones. See our blog on the order for a deeper explanation about that.
Modifications are part of Pilates
Pilates is also a very individual journey. There is no such thing as the perfect body and we all have our own strengths and challenges. When we teach, we teach the body in front of us. Joseph Pilates strongly believed this and taught all of his clients slightly differently – when these clients went on to teach Pilates themselves they taught the version Joseph taught them, which is why depending which Pilates school you learn from you might learn different variations.
Modifications and building blocks
When we’re going through the order in class, whether that’s level 1, 2 or 3, there might be some exercises that you find particularly challenging. If it involves a movement that, for you, is never going to be achievable or is unsafe to try then we use a modified version of the exercise in stead. If, however, the exercise is challenging at the moment because you’re learning it but it may be achievable in the future then we use a building block. It might be that we use a series of building blocks in order to make steps towards the ideal form of the exercise. One example of this is using a cushion under your lower back for Roll Up. The cushion gives the back more support and helps the abs pull the spine through the movement. Depending on how tight your back is or how strong your abdominals are you might need two cushions or some days no cushions. It can also depend on the time of day! The main thing to remember is that it is better to use a modification or a building block rather than compromising the goal of the exercise. In this example, hoicking yourself up and throwing yourself forward isn’t helping release the spine or strengthening the abdominals, better to use the cushion.
Most common modifications and building blocks
There are loads of ways to modify or break down and exercise and it’s likely we’ll have shown you specific ways to do it in class. But if you can’t remember, here’s a list of the most common.
Just pump the arms
Bring the knees into table top but leave the head down
Use a ball behind the head
Lengthen legs up to the ceiling
Lower legs towards the floor
Use a cushion or 2 (or 3!) under the lower back
Cushion or ball under the pelvis
One leg circles
Keep non-circling leg knee bent with foot on the floor.
Bend the knee of the circling leg
Rolling like a ball
Hold onto the back of the thighs
Use a ball underneath the head (important to note this should be a building block in most circumstances, not a modification.
We encourage you to try lifting the head and chest up for a few reps using the abs, and resting back on the ball if it becomes too challenging. Always using the ball means you’ll never strengthen the neck muscles)
Spine Stretch Forward
Sit up on a block (or book). As many as you need until your legs are straight and your spine is long. Better here to use the blocks than to bend the knees or to let your spine slump in order to move towards the ideal.
Open Leg Rocker
Try not holding onto your legs and chasing them with your hands when you roll. Or hold lower down the leg or the back of your thighs.
Corkscrew (1, 2)
Place your hands underneath the pelvis so the pelvis tucks and the back flattens into the floor. You could also do frog legs (heels pressed together but knees apart).
Same as Spine Stretch Forward for sitting up on a block.
Swan 1 Neck Roll
For any of the extension exercises the point to remember is only to come up to a height suitable for you. The goal is to extend and strengthen your upper spine and open your chest, not extend into the lower back.
Single Leg Kick and Double Leg Kick
Similar to above, if being up in that position causes discomfort in your lower back then do the exercise with your head on your hands and focus on the legs.
If this position hurts your knees then lie on your back and pull the knees in towards your chest. If it’s difficult for your shoulders then lie the arms by your side rather than out in front.
Use a cushion behind your back if you used one for Roll Up. If you struggle with the dive forwards do a normal Roll Up with arms long in front then replace them behind your head for the nose to knees and hinging back section.
At Level 1 this exercise is a simple lift up of the pelvis and a roll down of the spine. You can stay with this version until you’re ready to add a leg lift. When adding a leg lift you and keep the leg bent and just lift the knee before progressing to a straight leg and lowering.
Side Kick Series
If lying on your side causes discomfort try using cushions underneath your side. You can also keep your bottom leg bent to 90 degrees (in a chair position) which will give you more support when moving the top leg.
- Inner Thigh Lifts and Lowers: If holding the back of your ankle is uncomfortable for your hip then place the top knee down on a ball or cushion.
Teaser 1 Leg, Teaser 1
Start by practising holding the position. Keeping your knees glued and the straight leg(s) reaching is challenging in itself. When you’re happy holding you can start to add a mini roll, not all the way to the floor. Focus on using the abs to control the movement not the thighs.
Just straighten the top leg to the corner rather than both, keeping knees glued.
Keep your head down on the floor and just move the arms and legs. If lying in this position is not working for you at all you can do it on hands and knees. Straighten one leg and the opposite arm out at a time, then swap.
Leg Pull Front
Come on to hands and knees before coming into the hold. If you’re uncomfortable on your wrists then do the exercise on fists but keep it short.
Leg Pull Back
If you can’t get your fingers to face your feet then have them slightly to the side. Start by holding the position and not adding in the leg lift.
Sit on a chair and focus on the lifting of the waist and reaching the arm over. Breathing is most important. You could also try and use pillows to fashion your own spine corrector shape. It’s also possible to do this standing.
You can just practice the hold and the clapping. If this position hurts the arms then hold the front of the ankles.
Seal to Standing
- let go with the hands, cross the feet and place the feet on the floor.
- try pushing into the feet and using your hands to push you up
- Just use one hand
Do leaning against a wall. Or come onto your knees and do the push ups from there. Miss out the Roll Down and the walk out, come onto hands and knees and then into your plank before doing the push ups.
It’s also worth saying that if the rolling exercises in general don’t work for you at the moment then Pelvic Lifts or Cats are a good alternative because you’re still getting some articulation through your spine.
You can also just do fewer reps of something or lessen the range of motion. Only you will know the difference between not trying your hardest and pushing it too far,
If you’re struggling with an exercise think about what the goal might be for that exercise. Are you trying to move your spine bone by bone? Are you trying to lengthen your spine? Then you can start to think about another way of getting the same goal.
Elle and I live and breath this stuff so are always happy to chat after class about options you could try.
Have fun and enjoy