Many exercises in the Pilates repertoire involve thoughtful and calculated initiation before you even begin the movement. Can’t feel the muscle focus? Don’t understand the objective? Then you’re cheating! The art of providing proper cues to clients is crucial to their success. Let’s explore a few exercises specific to the reformer and share ideas on how best to “tell a story” using a variety of cuing avenues.

Active vs. Passive Movement

With any Pilates exercise, I typically go through a mental checklist before beginning the movement pattern. I look at active versus passive movements, and I safely set up clients for success before the exercise begins. Many Pilates exercises require utilization of active movement. Because the progressive spring tension on the equipment is often light, you must treat the air around you as something much thicker than air in order to enhance and implement the exercise. This will allow for proper muscle recruitment and make each exercise and movement pattern deeper and more challenging. Cues such as “Imagine the air is the consistency of mud (or mashed potatoes, peanut butter, etc.)” are visually and mentally stimulating.

Giving the following creative cues—in addition to applying the aforementioned points—will complement the exercises and make them more accessible to clients. As a reminder, always assess client limitations and provide appropriate modifications prior to proceeding.

Abdominals: The Hundred

Muscle Focus: abdominals
Objective: abdominal strength with pelvic lumbar stabilization

This is a challenging and profound exercise in the Pilates repertoire, and it is often hard for clients to keep the cervical spine out of the equation. How many times have you heard, “I’m feeling this all in my neck and not in my abs!”? For clients to get the “ouch” out of the neck and bring the burn back into the powerhouse, it’s crucial to keep the shoulders and neck relaxed, to recruit the core and to access and stabilize the scapular region (including the latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior) before and during any Pilates exercise.

Top 3 Creative Cues

  1. Address the Shoulders and Neck. “As you press your arms down by your sides, imagine that your fingertips are paintbrushes and you want to reach them toward the wall in front of you (keeping them long) and make little brush strokes while pulsing.”
  2. Access the Powerhouse. “On your exhalation, try blowing out 20% of your air first. Then imagine you’re blowing through a straw that’s stuck in a superthick milkshake and you want to blow bubbles into the shake.”
  3. Reinforce 1 and 2. “Keep the chin in toward the chest, and on every exhalation use your breath to lift up even just a little higher, cinching your two bottom ribs closed while you flutter your long arms like hummingbird wings.” If I was working with a male client, I might swap out “hummingbird” and perhaps tell him to “recruit the abdominals as if bracing for a punch.”

Full Body: Up Stretch 2

Muscle Focus: abdominals and back extensors
Objective: stabilization through the scapulae and midline

Part of a series, this beautiful full-body exercise utilizes lighter progressive spring tension. For that reason, it is easy for clients to forget about the importance of setting up this exercise for success and instead to deviate from scapular and midline stabilization. This exercise is not just about “swinging” the reformer carriage out and in. Once you have set a client in the proper position, allow the breath and movement pattern to begin, and reinforce proper muscle recruitment.

Top 3 Creative Cues

  1. Address Scapular Stabilization. “As you rotate around the shoulder girdle into plank, feel the scapulae—or the wings on your back—anchor the movement. Visualize sliding your scapulae downward toward your tush as if you were sliding two wallets into a back pocket.”
  2. Maintain Spinal Extension and Alignment. “Don’t think of the spinal column as a spaghetti noodle in this exercise. Keep your spine long and supported as you hinge into plank around the shoulder girdle and hips. Visualize a string at the top of the crown of your head as an extension of your spine.”
  3. Focus on Flow. “As you extend the carriage out into the plank position, imagine that your reformer is set on deep, thick sand and you are dragging it out to extension on the inhalation and pulling it back in to the stopper on the exhalation.”

Back Extension: Pulling Straps 1

Muscle Focus: back extensors
Objective: back extensor strength

This is a wonderful back extension exercise that incorporates some “bonus” arm work with use of the shoulder extensors and lateral head of the triceps. This move is also executed on a lighter spring tension; thus the tendency to let the carriage ricochet and speed through each repetition can be prominent, as can loss of back extension focus.

Top 3 Creative Cues

  1. Importance of Breath. “Before you move on the exhalation, deepen into the abdominals by blowing through a straw to support the lumbar spine; then begin to grow tall through the top of the crown of the head, as if you were a turtle. Visualize spreading the clavicle toward the floor as you lift into extension.”
  2. Consider Opposition. “As you reach out and up through the crown of the head, think about opposing points with the arms. Visualize the ground coated in mud as you scrape the floor with your knuckles, then draw the pinkie fingers up to the hips and reach toward your toes.”
  3. Focus on Flow. “Keeping tension in the ropes at all times, imagine that the rails of the reformer are filled with creamy mashed potatoes (or honey, molasses, etc.) and you are pulling through that consistency on the exhalation and dragging back toward the stopper on the inhalation.”