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Movement Monday: A Deeper Look into Key Pilates Movements.

Pilates Technique: Engaging Core Muscles in The Hundred
Double Leg Lift in The Hundred

Welcome to Movement Monday! Today, rather than focusing on a single movement, we're going to delve into the movements of The Hundred, the Single Leg Stretch, the Double Leg Stretch, and the Scissors in Pilates. These exercises are fundamental to our practice and offer a range of modifications that can influence the muscles we engage.

When these movements are modified with the head down, you can maintain the natural curves of the spine. Traditionally, if you perform them in an imprinted position, your head is lifted in a flexed stance and your pelvis will be in a slight (NOT aggressive) posterior tilt. The distinction in muscle engagement between these versions is significant. Also significant is when the weight of the legs is added. This refers to lifting one leg versus two as single leg loading and double leg loading.

Let's start with the head-down modification. This approach is known as a postural challenge or a posture exercise, emphasising our posture and postural benefits throughout the movements. By keeping the head down and maintaining a ‘neutral spine’ alignment, we have the opportunity to focus on the maintained subtle engagement of deeper muscles, particularly the back support muscles, such as the lumbar multifidus along with the paired transversus abdominis muscles and pelvic floor muscle groups. The maintained conscious engagement not only challenges our core stability but also reinforces and helps support good postural habits in our daily lives.

So, when we work with a single leg, or even with no legs, simply holding the spine in this position, we are engaging in low-level stability work. This focuses on the deeper muscles being reminded to work, specifically the muscles already mentioned, with a healthy low-level conscious engagement. When one leg is lifted to add challenge to this foundation, the internal obliques are typically also automatically lightly engaged. This technique is beneficial for helping individuals connect with and engage their centre, with the single leg adding a low-level challenge that these deeper stabilising muscles are very capable of supporting.

However, the ultimate challenge is to effortlessly lift the second leg. Today, we are focusing on this double leg loading. As always in Pilates, there is a correct method to every exercise, and there is also a way to cheat. One common mistake is over-tensing the body and pushing out the abdominal wall when lifting the second leg, leading to what we call abdominal doming. This occurs when the deepest abdominal muscles are no longer actively engaged, and instead, inner abdominal pressure and superficial muscle tensions are used to hold the legs. This results in extra pressure on the lower back as it is an indication that the centre may no longer be providing support and protection.

Our focus today will be on how to lift the second leg without tensing, emphasising the importance of gentleness, connection, and lightness in our movements. Building strength from the inside out.

The first step is to maintain gentleness. I always liken this to picking up an egg—you handle it gently, not with force. This same gentle approach applies when engaging the centre. When you lift up, start using your breath out to lift the second leg and float it up. Your long-term goal is to maintain this with quality for longer with a maximum duration of 10 full breaths. The goal is to achieve double leg lift without having to strain or over-tense. The original instructions were to give a count to the breath of 5 counts IN and 5 counts OUT. With a maximum of 10 breaths, this is where The Hundred got its name. But even in the Contrology book by Joseph Pilates, he starts with a maximum of only 20 counts or two breaths at this level and only adds more duration over time by 5-count increments based on your ability to work with control.

Consequently, we can consider this as a preparation stage or modification. Once you can perform this without abdominal doming and maintain that gentle feeling while you naturally engage more muscles, you are ready to add the extra breaths. As soon as the second leg lifts, the external obliques, the rectus abdominis, and the superficial lower back muscles come into play while still maintaining the light tonic contraction of the core group. Over time, as you become accustomed to this gentle engagement, you can start holding the legs up for longer durations, building their stamina as well as their dynamic strength.

Begin with The Hundred, as it's a static position and an excellent starting point free of distractions from movement and load changes. Progress to exercises like the Single Leg Stretch, Double Leg Stretch, or Scissors, which add movement and thus greater challenge. Gradually, you'll build the strength to lift the second leg without excessive tightening as this only inhibits the movement of joints as your repertoire expands.

If performing these movements with the head lifted and in an imprinted position, the same principles apply. However, we find it more beneficial to teach these movements with the head down, focusing on posture, rather than in a more traditional imprinted way. But how to lift the head – that is a whole other topic!


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