Today we break the ab series down into doable pieces, find the real focus of the exercises, and workshop that pesky chest lift. This is definitely a series of exercises you'll be working on in your classes, so you can apply these tips and tricks right away!
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[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to Pilates Students' Manual, a podcast helping you get the most out of your Pilates classes. I'm Olivia and I'll be your host. Join the conversation and share your thoughts on Instagram at @pilatesstudentsmanual. You can support the podcast by visiting buymeacoffee.com/OliviaPodcasts. Let's learn something new.
Hello, hello everybody. Welcome back to the podcast. Today I'm going to be talking about the ab series or the series of five from mat Pilates, and kind of breaking it down into pieces, giving [00:01:00] you some tips and tricks for working on it, or mastering it, even knowing that there is no end game and Pilates and the adventure will continue to continue. But just giving you some things to think about while you are going through that series of five exercises.
Quick announcement as well. Next week is Thanksgiving in the United States. So there will not be a new podcast episode coming out next week, but I do have a nice treat. I'm going to be on Core Conversations podcast with Martin Reid. You can follow him on Instagram at @personalvictory. I will link that in the show notes as well. And I'm going to be going live on Instagram on Tuesday at 10:00 AM. Eastern. If you can't tune in live that's okay. The replay will also be posted to Martin's page at @personalvictory. So there will be some Pilates goodness happening on Thanksgiving week, but it will not be a full [00:02:00] podcast episode.
So what is the ab series? Also called the series of five. I've heard it both ways. It is five mat Pilates exercises, including single leg stretch, double leg stretch, scissors, also called single straight leg stretch, lower lift, and criss-cross. Those exercises happen pretty early in the mat repertoire. They come right after rolling like a ball, if I'm not mistaken.
And it is a marathon of abdominal work even if you're only doing six reps of each of those exercise. It is a sustained chest lift. It is a lot of leg choreography. It is long levers. We've got upper, lower abdominals and there's not really a break in those five exercises. They just go, go, go.
It is pretty challenging and does it get less challenging? In some ways, yes. In some ways, [00:03:00] no. It is an advanced, I'd say, series of exercises, especially to execute them with control, precision, and in a way that doesn't make, you know, your neck hate you or your back hate you as well.
They show up in a lot of classes, and that's equipment classes and mat classes. Definitely in classical, but I would say, you know, even in my classes, when I'm teaching, you know, in a very contemporary style, I'll include those ab exercises, maybe after footwork, maybe during supine arms in straps. They're really easy to put in to your class. And I want to give you some tools to approach those exercises in a new way, with a new confidence.
So, what I'm going to do today is first break the exercises into pieces and then give you a little bit of a progression, perhaps totally [00:04:00] arbitrary, just my opinion, but a little bit of a way that I like to think of working in these exercises. Then just give you some overall tips and things to keep in mind as you are going through this series in your class. Let's dive in.
The first piece I want to talk about in the ab series is, I don't want to say superfluous, but it is definitely an option to leave it out as you're working through the series. It is not the primary focus of the exercises, and if you have something like osteoporosis or anything where you're avoiding spinal flexion, it is something that you're going to leave out anyway. And that's the chest lift.
When we talk about a chest lift, we're talking about lifting our head and shoulders so that our upper body kind of curls up to meet, you know, whatever other adventure we're going on in the ab series. You can a hundred percent leave it out. Depending on how I'm feeling, sometimes I leave it out. I'm not contraindicated for anything, but again, it's just a piece of the exercises.
There's lots of [00:05:00] ways to get into your chest lift and to work in your chest lift in a way that helps you find the muscular engagement to support that shape. Because a chest lift is not a neck lift, and I know that when I first started doing the ab series and lifting my head and shoulders, I was really leading with my chin and really using my neck muscles to try to lift my entire upper body, which is a very short-term strategy. Your neck gets tired very quickly if they're the only muscles working.
So there's a couple ways that I like to introduce the chest lift in my classes. If it is a mat class, one thing you can do is just reach behind you to like the back top corners of your mat and hold onto the mat with your hands. And then when you do your chest lift, sort of lift your head with the mat and that will give you the sensation kind of like of creating a hammock for your head. And then you can feel how [00:06:00] much ease you could have with your head and shoulders lifted.
You can find that same sensation by lifting your head using your hands. And that's an option that I see people exploring as well. And the idea is to not strain your arm muscles, because if you were to strain your arms, when you're lifting your head, then your neck muscles would also be overworking and straining when you lift your head.
You can use a magic circle again, kind of right at that, occipital ridge, just to create a hammock, and use the magic circle to help explore your chest lift. And the whole idea is that you want to feel that there's length in your neck and you're not trying to cram your chin into your chest.
Sometimes you'll hear a teacher cue, you know, that you're holding a tangerine under your chin. So there's a little bit of drawing the chin in, but there's still space. There's enough room for you to have a tangerine right at the bottom of the chin. The big action that you [00:07:00] want to think about is not in the neck, but in the rib cage, really this action of gliding your rib cage towards your pelvis, shortening the space between your bottom rib and the front of the pelvis and this really drawing in sensation of pulling those two places together. And then the opposition, as you're gliding the ribs forward, as of pulling your head back in space so that you keep that length and that ease in the back of the neck.
You can work on your chest lift separately without the leg choreography and the kind of higher intensity work of having to support both of your legs and tabletop or on the diagonal or anything like that. You can work on your chest lift in base pose with the knees bent soles of the feet on the floor while you're lying down and just focus on, okay, can I find this abdominal connection? Yes, your neck muscles are still going to be [00:08:00] working, but they're not working alone. They're not trying to do this entire action by themselves.
Even though I'm talking about the chest lift first, the real focus of the exercise is your primary powerhouse and sort of that pelvic stability, that lower abdominal connection. As you're working on that primary powerhouse, feel free to leave the chest lift out or work on it separately because it is not the first order of business, right? The entire ab series, just about challenging your pelvic stability and your abdominal connection. And we do that by adding the chest lift by adding long levers, by adding leg choreography, by adding arm choreography. But all of that is just trying to challenge that stability.
Ab series is kind of like, again, there is no finish line, but it is closer to the finish line than not. So if you are just getting started with the ab [00:09:00] series or you're looking to build up some endurance, build up some strength, some of that abdominal connection, I highly recommend that you start really small and then build from there.
So the progression I'm going to offer is kind of based on a previous episode in this season, talking about, am I progressing in this idea of like lengthening levers and then adding coordination as like steps further down the line. And really addressing the key elements of the exercises, again, as I said, is that pelvic stability.
So the first thing you may want to do is just be in base pose, lying on your back soles of the feet on the ground. Can you find a neutral spine, a stable spine without moving? Can you just find it statically? And then we begin to add a little bit of movement, a little bit of dynamic expression and still maintain that stability.
And you can start by just sliding one leg straight on the mat, and then bending that knee, bringing that foot back to the ground and [00:10:00] then sliding your other leg straight. So very similar to our single leg stretch, where we are extending one leg long on the diagonal. You're doing that, but your leg is being supported by the ground. Can you maintain pelvic stability without arching the back or without creating undue strain anywhere or kind of losing the connection?
We can take it from a leg slide to a march. Now your leg is bent, but you are lifting one leg at a time off of the ground. So now we're talking. We've got a little bit of more responsibility for the weight of our legs. You can march from the top, both legs and tabletop one leg lowers at a time. You can add a chest lift there. Can I move my legs and lift my chest and maintain a stable spine connection?
When you add that chest lift and then we start lifting the legs or spine is not going to be a neutral anymore. We are going to have a deeper tuck of the tailbone to support, especially as [00:11:00] our legs start getting long and low and straight, like our spine shape is going to change from neutral to a little bit of a posterior tilt, getting that really long curve of the spine, just to support that added weight of the legs.
I would even categorize the abs series in terms of difficulty and maybe and in terms of things that you work on. I would say, work on single leg stretch first because that's very similar to a march, and then scissors or single straight leg stretch. We're doing a straight leg, lower lift, but only one leg at a time.
And from there, I would then progress to where you're responsible for both legs, both double leg stretch and lower lift and criss-cross because it has added coordination and kind of requiring a chest lift for that one. There are other ways to get rotation and to work your abdominals without using a chest lift if spinal flexion is not on the table, but I would say that crisscross is probably the most complicated exercise as everything is doing a [00:12:00] thing, if that makes sense.
A hundred percent, I made this up. You can work on the ab series straight through. I think that working one leg at a time and one piece at a time makes more sense in my body. But of course you're free to explore in any way that speaks to you. This is just one way to look at working in the ab series.
Coming up after the break, I'm going to be giving you some tips to implement as you are working through the series or working up to the series, and just ways to build towards mastery of the ab series. That's coming up next.
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If you take Pilates classes, it's very likely that you're going to get to work on the ab series a lot. And that's great. That is fantastic news because there's so much to work on and think about and grow with in the ab series. First things first, even before your pelvic stability, you have to breathe and you have to breathe during [00:14:00] the exercises.
One of our body's very short-term strategies to dealing with high-intensity things is to stop breathing, which is not ideal, especially. I'm not even going to qualify that, just ever. Please keep breathing as you're going through the exercises. If you notice that you're doing an exercise and you cannot both breathe and do the exercise, we need to change something because it is much more important that you breathe than you do literally anything else.
If you think back to the principles of Pilates from season one, where I talked about breathing, managing your intra-abdominal pressure is very important. And when we're doing a high intensity exercise, like the ab series, We need to manage the pressure that we're adding to our abdominal canister by having both legs lifted by having a chest lift that we're putting a lot of stress and a lot of pressure into that canister. And by breathing, we're able to release some of that pressure. So it's [00:15:00] very important that you breathe.
I would say that when we're talking about the ab series, it's not just your six-pack muscle. It's really deep core stabilizing here specifically, transverse abdominis, is something I think about a lot when we do the ab series. And recognizing that everybody is different and everybody's expression of every exercise is different. If you are in base pose and you do a chest lift and you look down at your stomach, which I don't usually recommend doing in a chest lift because I don't want you to draw your chin all the way to the chest, but if you glance down at your stomach and you see your six pack muscle kind of bulging out, it looks a little bit like a loaf of bread in that it's like a rectangular from your rib cage to your pelvis, bulging towards the ceiling.
That's not the muscle that we want to be [00:16:00] working the most in our chest lift. It's definitely working. But we want to balance that contraction with our transverse abdominis contraction, which would be if you were to take that same chest lift, but think about pulling a draw string taut across the belly and kind of this drawing in sensation instead of this pushing out or bearing down sensation. That also comes with breathing because if you are not exhaling and you're just kind of pushing out and like grunting, that bearing down, pushing sensation. Like you can't engage your transverse abdominis and bear down at the same time. So we're not looking for that bulging abdominal thing. We're looking for this drawn wide abdominal connection, which is a little bit deeper muscular adventure, and that's what's going to help also stabilize, I would say, your low back a lot. We want to find the balance. [00:17:00] And it's going to be different and it's going to click differently for different bodies and different brains, but we want to find that deep transverse abdominis connection.
Even if you're going through the entire ab series in class, I would say go slow. Go slow in a way that you can manage the pressure and the additional effort of the exercises. Even if you're going slower than other people, or even than the teacher cuing. It, it's a much better to do two rounds, in my opinion, that you had control over than a sloppy six rounds where you got through it, but what were you doing? And that's a personal preference, but that's kind of the way I look at it.
You want to understand the movement and give yourself the time to make the brain connection to what your body is doing or your body's connection to what your brain is asking it to do. And that might mean going slow. [00:18:00] That might mean working one piece at a time.
I learned from Leslie Logan, who is a really cool Pilates teacher, this exercise called elbow slides, which is really great for finding this really deep abdominal connection. And when we're talking about this brain, body connection and really drawing your abdominals in, this elbow slide exercise gave me a really great way of looking at it. And so I'm going to share that with you.
That is, from base pose, where your knees are bent soles of the feet on the floor, you're lying on your back. You lift your head and shoulders and bring your elbows underneath your shoulders so you're kind of propped up on your forearms. And you do want it to be an active prop where you're broadening your collarbones. You're pressing the forearms down, but then you want to find the abdominal support to keep you in that shape.
That gliding your rib cage towards your pelvis is happening that deep contraction of both rectus, abdominis and transverse abdominous. Your [00:19:00] belly's kind of pulling wide and flat instead of pushing out, all like a hundred percent rectus abdominis, right? And then you take one elbow and kind of drive it down into the mat and then slide it long and off of the mat so that you're just on one forearm. And then notice if you shifted to one side, and then pulling that elbow back, sliding your other elbow long and get that reach through the other arm, making sure that we stayed centered, we didn't shift all of our way to one side. And maybe do that just one arm at a time, maybe you play with both arms at a time extending and trying to not lose any height or lose any connection.
Because that's what you want to be doing while you're doing the ab series. This really deep spinal flexion all the way from the crown of your head to your tailbone. I haven't really talked at all about the arms and legs because they are even more sprinkles, I think, than the chest lift. Really, I would say your pelvic stability first, then throw in your chest lift. And then we think about what our [00:20:00] arms and legs are doing.
Part of it's a coordination thing, which is great. The fact that those legs and arms are moving is challenging your brain, is also challenging that stability because now you're juggling more balls mentally. And things like increased flexibility in the hamstrings is going to help with some of the exercises like scissors, where you're drawing that leg towards you to keep the leg straight and also draw it towards you is going to require a baseline flexibility. So it's great that you can work on that.
There is some choreography with the arms, like which hand is higher than your other hand and single leg stretch. And those are things that you can really play with, I would say, once you've mastered the first two pieces. That abdominal connection and that secondary powerhouse of upper abdominals and shoulders and everything.
Always, always, always do what you can do, what feels right in your body, if that means taking breaks, if that means going slow, if that means going fast, if that means pushing [00:21:00] through, but always doing what your body needs and understanding that your growth isn't linear. You're going to get the chance to practice this. And it's fun to practice without obsessing over it, without getting attached to the finish line, because there isn't a finish line.
Once you master this it's can we add the stability ball in and then do it? Can we do this with our pelvis on a foam roller? Can we do this on a different piece of equipment, on a smaller base of support? There's always something else to work on. So don't get too obsessed with perfecting it, just practice and enjoy what you're learning as you do.
The ab series is a kind of iconic Pilates set of exercises and can be a lot of fun, the same way planking can be a lot of fun, the same way teaser can be a lot of fun once you understand the pieces of the exercise, both in your [00:22:00] mind and also in your body. And that takes time and that takes practice. And I know that you'll keep working on it and hopefully have some fun along the way.
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I hope you have a great week. I hope you have a fabulous Thanksgiving, my American friends. Stay safe, and I'll talk to you again soon.
Thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of Pilates Students' Manual, a podcast helping you get the most out of your Pilates classes. Be sure to check out the podcast Instagram at @pilatesstudentsmanual and subscribe wherever you're [00:23:00] listening. Interested in teaching Pilates too? Check out Pilates Teachers' Manual, available everywhere you listen to podcasts.
I hope to see you next episode. Until next time.