You’ve Gotta Get Your “Joe” On!

by Amy Taylor Alpers

As we all know, bodies come in many shapes and sizes and are often categorized in certain ways. In fruit metaphors such as apple-, banana-, or pear-shaped; geometric forms such as rectangles, triangles, or circles; and scientific terms such as mesomorph (naturally muscular), ectomorph (thin, non-muscular), or endomorph (plump).

In Pilates, our mission is to help “uniformly develop” the body – to bring it into ideal balance and alignment, no matter its type, so it can move with ultimate efficiency and effectiveness, thus enabling detoxification and re-oxygenation through enhanced breath capacity and power, and unhindered circulation and oxygen absorption.

It’s very important to remember that all the Pilates exercises came from a singular mind/body – that of Joseph Pilates himself. Joe was a classic mesomorph – short, stocky and naturally muscular all over – with exceptional upper body strength, mass and weight distribution. And having been a boxer, he was particularly powerful in his chest, arms, wrists and hands. Are you? Is your client?

​​​​​​​The clear majority (although, thankfully, it’s certainly changing) of Pilates clients and teachers are women. In comparison to men, women usually have less upper body strength and muscle mass, tend to be more flexible, and carry a greater proportion of their weight in their lower bodies. However, men still struggle with many of the exercises today, so all men are not “Joes” either. Not to mention that our modern lifestyle doesn’t often ask much more of our arms and hands than to push buttons. So, we immediately run into one major and undeniable issue in making the Pilates exercises work effectively for everyone – our upper body strength is sorely limited. So it’s time to Get Your Joe On!

Regardless of gender, genetic programming, or lifestyle issues, it is possible to enable anybody to become more uniformly developed through Pilates. It’s essential to remember, though, that this doesn’t always happen automatically. It requires that the teacher truly acknowledge all the essential facts about the body in front of her/him – where is their mass, muscle development and weight; what is their strength, flexibility, and shape; etc. Then it’s key to realize that the Pilates method will need to be applied in such a way that it will very intentionally focus on redistributing and balancing each person’s unique needs. It’s basically a physics problem. How do we make the Pilates exercises fit each person’s specific design to help achieve our ultimate goal – uniform development? We’ll need to actually beef up certain areas, lighten others, strengthen around overly mobile joints, etc.

After 28 years of teaching classical Pilates to every shape, size and type, the one thing I see missing the most is that clients are not cued enough to use their back, chest and arms. It is entirely possible to do Pilates with mostly leg power, and for most clients today – especially women – that will only continue to over-develop certain familiar muscle groups and joint ranges of motion (read: hips and quads) at the expense of strengthening the back, shoulders, chest and arms. It’s quite easy, when allowed to rest back onto the mat or carriage, to simply relax the upper body and perform the exercises by moving the legs around in space.

Let’s look at a simple beginner level exercise such as Leg Circles and Frog. It’s important, of course, to learn to be in control of the spine and pelvis with the abdominals, but it is not the only key element to these movements. If you look at these exercises as preparatory for Short Spine and Long Spine, it becomes very clear that more emphasis on what the back, chest and arms are doing is essential.

Try pretending you are Joe as you do these exercises. He would have automatically used his upper body and back power without even thinking much about it. It was simply there and available. It would have jumped right in to help. We, on the other hand, often relax the back, shoulders and arms, rest into the mat, and simply move our legs around, riding the wheels on their track and even using the ballast of the leg weight for momentum. If we don’t prepare correctly here, then Short Spine and Long Spine become a bit dangerous for the spine itself. All the roll over exercises fall into this trap: Roll Over, Jackknife, Corkscrew, etc.

In fact, we actually learn to relinquish our spine power, cave our chests in, roll our shoulders forward and lose our wrist/hand connection as we throw the weight of the legs over to get the force necessary to lift the hips and spine up and over. This clearly puts the spine at risk. Instead, fill the chest with air, press the whole backside of both arms into the mat, and pick up the whole body – legs, hips and spine – with your strong, powerful chest, back and arm muscles. You can begin to see how not doing this can make the exercises vulnerable, especially to the spine and neck. Typically then, we simply modify the exercise or consider it potentially contraindicated or too difficult for the client, when in fact, we need to cue them differently. We need to Get Our Joe On!

As you lie there on the carriage doing your Footwork or your Leg Circles and Frogs, remember you are actually preparing for lifting your hips up in one powerful full body integrated movement – not just doing leg exercises or pelvic stabilization exercises. In other words, always perform Chest Expansion at the same time as you move your legs. This will unite your whole body into a singular powerful entity ready to be lifted with upper body power. Think of that great bust picture of Joseph Pilates on the cover of Return to Life. It’s a truly inspiring image. His chest is so lifted and powerful and open. It will inspire you to expand and strengthen your chest and shoulders and activate your back.

Pilates requires this strength; otherwise, our clients begin to complain of wrist, elbow and shoulder pain and weakness in many of the Pilates exercises. How can we start strengthening these areas from the start – in non-arm weight-bearing exercises like Leg Circles/Frog – so that as we progress through the system and levels of difficulty, we truly prepare the upper body as well as the lower? Even in 100, clients often hang their spines off their shoulder girdles and have hyper extended elbows and limp wrists, rather than lifting their whole body up to their powerful arms with upper body strength and muscle support. Imagine you are a huge eagle and lift your body up with your wings. If you keep coaching this idea from the start, then when your client gets to arm weight-bearing exercises such as Long Stretches, they will be truly ready, having built the required upper body strength.

As you can see, this need to “get our Joe on”, starts right away and pervades every single exercise. Don’t miss any opportunities to coach this. By using the upper body power from the beginning, all the exercises begin to make more sense and be more understandable, with less stress on spines, necks, shoulders, arms and wrists. Let’s start changing that now. As one of my clients said to me today, “It feels so good to be strong!”