Order does matter – in Pilates

Posted on March 5, 2024


Did you ever wonder why a Pilates class always follows the same sequence of moves? Back in the 20s, 30s and 40s when Pilates was creating his Contrology, he designed it to counter the inactivity of modern life. Therefore his exercises worked, in a brilliantly intricate and biologically logical way, to restore our natural rhythm and coordination. Following the physical development of humans, he started with the 100s, where you are prone like a baby and breathing to the fullest extent, gradually moving the body to its upright position, with each exercise preparing for the next. Flex founder Heather Thomas-Shalabi explains how it works.

Understanding sequencing
As a background to understanding sequencing, it’s important to understand the whole point of Pilates’ Contrology. His exercise system was based on defying the physical body’s ageing process by maintaining the ability to hold the body up against gravity’s incessant pull. How? Firstly by developing proper breathing techniques to flood the blood with fresh oxygen and therefore replenish red blood cells, which nourish muscles. Secondly, by training the brain to take control over the nervous system, which controls the muscles and helps develop uniform, balanced muscles, both flexible and strong. And finally, by flushing toxins from the body.

Underlying these aims was an overarching goal of using Contrology to re-gain the body’s “natural rhythm and coordination associated with all subconscious activities,” as he wrote in Return to Life. Pilates saw “modern life” (such as it was during the 20s to 40s, Contrology’s formative years) as detrimental to the human body’s innate way of moving. He compared us with animals, which don’t work at flexibility and strength building as an independent activity. Inherently their movement patterns stimulate the development of lean, flexible muscles. So Pilates developed Contrology as the human being’s solution to the limitations of modern living on the species’ natural, perfect, physical state. Thus, his exercises are sequenced in a deliberate way to bring back this natural state of physical, subconscious being.

Mat work sequencing
Generally, Mat work is sequenced with breathing exercises, movements to lift the body against gravity, exercises which awaken the nervous system and connect the extremities to the core.

As a result you’ll find movements that “roll and unroll” the spine, lengthen the posterior body (whilst strengthening the anterior body), introduce rotational spine stretches and strengthen the posterior while stretching the anterior.

A Mat class increases in challenge as the base of support narrows or becomes more challenging, from lying down to sitting, then side lying and finally inverting, supported by extremities only rather than the spine, for example plank exercises. The progression logically follows our human physical development, from being a baby lying on the back (The Hundreds) to fully upright.

The further intelligence in the sequencing is that each exercise builds on the intelligence learned in the prior exercise, while preparing for the next. For example, an exercise requiring basic spinal mobility, core strength and which stretches the hamstrings like The Rollup always precedes Overhead (sometimes called Rollover). Overhead is basically a reverse Rollup, so it’s harder, but the “prep” Rollup essentially teaches the practitioner how to do the more advanced movement.

Why do The Hundreds always start a Mat practice?
Firstly, because it represents the first developmental stage of a human as a baby lying on its back trying to lift its head and legs against gravity, which involves a tremendous amount of core and neck strength.

Secondly, it works as a breathing exercise, designed to teach complete inhalation and exhalation (“wring out” the lungs of all stale air) in a slightly compromised position. This fuels the muscles with oxygen for the workout to come, while forcing the practitioner to fully concentrate on the movement and thus improve breath quality. If one could perform this successfully under slightly difficult conditions, in a natural state, full breathing could become reflexive and instinctive.

And thirdly, The Hundreds connects the extremities to the core, teaching the body how to move from core control (proximal) rather than from the extremities (distal movement) for better neural, and therefore, muscular, control.

The sequences progress from there to uniformly develop muscles in increasingly difficult positions in terms of their relationship to gravity and base of support.

Recurring patterns
Pilates believed people’s natural physical instinct was to move freely in multiple planes, thus we see inversions early on in Mat (and Reformer) repertoire with the Overhead/Rollover. Because the spine is so fundamental to all human movement, “rolling” and “unrolling” the spine appears very early on, to awaken the neural pathway along the vertebra. In fact, every exercise in both Mat and Reformer classes involve the whole body.

The exercises that follow the Hundreds, the Roll Up and Roll Over, are basically the same exercise but with a different relationship to gravity. Both focus on lengthening and rolling out the spine using abdominal control. Both hamstrings get stretched, then we have Single Leg Circles in which we introduce an asymmetric movement pattern and spinal rotation. This brings in hamstring and abdominal control. These were previously established in the prior exercises but we throw in a neural control because the brain needs to circle one leg, while stabilizing the other.

Spine Stretch Forward followed by Open Leg Rocker are also basically the same exercises, but Spine Stretch is firmly grounded with pelvis on the floor, and Open Leg Rocker challenges balance and abdominal control as you hold the position of Spine Stretch but rock on your spine.

Another interesting pair is the Saw and Corkscrew. Again, we have a similarity in that we first perform a rotational stretch forward with pelvis grounded, then flip over and rotate the legs.

And is changing the sequence a bad idea?
Deviating from the sequence won’t maximize the capability of the body, and it may not properly teach the nervous system how to control muscles properly. Likely your form won’t be as good and you may “muscle through the exercise to get it over with”, rather than truly controlling movement through the mind. Biomechanically, some exercises it may be difficult to do out of sequence and then, yes, you may find the body is in conflict. If the hamstrings haven’t first been lengthened and core activated, it would be very difficult for most people to even do Open Leg Rocker, let alone do it properly, for example.

Check out the schedule for Flex’s Mat Pilates classes here and experience the intricate sequencing created by Pilates for yourself.

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