The Five Basic Principles of Pilates work together to integrate the body into a whole system for safe, effective, intelligent movement that will stay with you long after you’ve left the mat. Focusing on these principles will improve alignment, prevent injury, and help expand your mind-body awareness.
Whatever your Pilates goals, always prioritize these five principles: breathing, pelvic placement, rib cage placement, scapular movement and stabilization, and head and cervical placement.
Breathing in Pilates encourages focus and mind-body awareness to relax unnecessary muscle tension and achieve stability. Your breathing pattern should contribute to the quality of your movements rather than hinder them.
Pilates encourages a “three-dimensional breath”, with the emphasis on the back and sides (posterior and lateral aspects) of the rib cage, which in turn encourages simultaneous engagement of the transversus abdominis, pelvic floor, and multifidus, all major components of the deep core. To start, inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Focus on sending the breath deep into the lower lobes of the lungs to promote optimal exchange of oxygen into the body for optimal performance.
Generally speaking, exhalations help going into the effort or “contraction” of the movement, while inhalations help lengthen and release the eccentric portion of the movement. During the exhale, the rib cage closes in and down and flexes the spine forward slightly. This is why we encourage using exhales during spinal flexion. During inhalations, the rib cage expands up and out, encouraging spinal extension.
Although these inhalation and exhalation techniques are great for the Pilates we are using, other breathing patterns may be more effective while performing other movement tasks. Developing an awareness of breathe and understanding its adaptability is beneficial for all activities.
When breathing, avoid shallow breaths; breathing only into the top of the rib and lungs causes overuse of the accessory breathing muscles and causing tension. Also avoid over emphasizing the anterior (frontal) aspects of the lungs and rib cage; this loosens the rib cage connection and abdominal support.
Pelvic placement emphasizes the awareness and stabilization of the pelvis and lumbar spine in a variety of positions. These are important for protecting your low back and hips, while promoting proper alignment for optimal performance. The two positions that help you achieve pelvic stability are “neutral” and “imprint”.
In neutral, Pilates exercisers maintain and support all of the natural curves of the spine. When lying on your back (supine), the triangle formed by the hip bones and pubic bone should lie parallel to the floor. Maintain a subtle curve through the low back without allowing the rib cage to hold tension likely disconnecting from the mat.
This natural curve should not be accomplished by forcibly arching the back or bringing any strain or tension to the muscles; rather, allow the weight of the tailbone rest on the mat, bringing the lumbar spine into a small natural lordosis, or curvature. If this does cause tension in the muscles, allow the lower back to rest into the mat in a posterior pelvic tilt as far as needed to release the tension. This placement promotes the most efficient movement patterns and is the strongest, most shock-absorbing position for the core.
In imprint, PIlates exercisers bring the pelvis into a slight posterior tilt to lengthen the low back into a slight flexion. In this position, the pubic bone should rest slightly higher than your hip bones, but not so tilted that the sacrum curls up and loses connection to the mat. It is also unnecessary to over-tuck the pelvis and firmly press the low back into the mat; this can happen by overusing the abdominal muscles and engaging the gluteal muscles.
This will bring the pelvis and rib cage closer together for a stronger connection of the abdominals through the front of the core. This is used when the load or effort is greater than the strength of the abdominals placing them in a shortened position, and it ensures stability of the pelvis and lumbar spine while protecting the vertebrae in vulnerable positions.
Rib Cage Placement
Rib cage placement plays a huge role in proper activation of both the abdominal muscles and the shoulder girdle, while also keeping the neck and chest free of tension. Often the tendency is for the rib cage to lift up from the floor (when in a supine position) or deviate forward (when sitting), which will make the extension through the spine worse, particularly during inhalation and/or when gesturing with the arms above the head
When supine and neutral, maintain a sense of weight in the rib cage, resting gently on the mat. I like to use the imagery of two bags of sand in place of the lungs. Continue to emphasize the expansion of the breath into the lateral and posterior portions of the rib cage with each inhale. Draw the rib cage down and in towards one another with each exhale to feel the strength and support of the transverse abdominis, but avoid over-depressing the rib cage. This may cause the curves of the spine to become exaggerated, decreasing its natural functional movement and losing core stability and activation of the transversus abdominus.
When bringing the spine into extension, it is necessary to allow the ribs to open through the front of the body to access a greater range of motion. However, be extra mindful that you have not sacrificed stability of the spine and abdominal engagement in order to allow yourself a greater range of motion.
Scapular Movement and Stabilization
It is important to build and balance the strength of the muscles around the scapulae (the shoulder blades, singular scapula), because this part lacks a boney attachment. This allows for a large range of mobility in many directions. It is very important to stabilize the scapulae on the back of the rib cage, because they act as an anchor for the arms and help support the cervical spine. When the surrounding muscles are weak, the natural curves of the spine aren’t supported, and this causes tension around the neck and shoulders.
Be aware of scapular stabilisation at all times, and identify the difference of moving the scapulae separate from the thoracic spine. There should be a feeling of stability, not rigidity, through the shoulders, width across the collar bones, and opening of the chest through the front. The shoulder blades should lie flat on the back of the rib cage and glide across it without giving in to any exaggerated movements.
Keep in mind the scapulae will naturally move and react to movements of the arms and thoracic spine. They are free to do so without sacrificing placement and connection of any of the previous principles. Scapular stabilization should be part of the initiation of all exercises and established before movement begins.
Head and Cervical Placement
The last basic principle, the cervical placement should continue the line of the rest of the spine and hold its natural curve. If there is an over flexion (forward head posture) of the thoracic spine, it is recommended that you use a small pad or cushion under the head while lying flat on your back. This will help you avoid any unnecessary upper body tension.
When bringing the spine into flexion, use the idea of a slight chin nod. This can be accomplished by lengthening the back of the neck away from the shoulders, nodding the chin towards the chest on just the first two vertebrae, then continue to deepen the flexion into the thoracic spine. Avoid jamming the chin in towards the chest. Leave enough room that you could hold onto a lemon.
When bringing the spine into extension, make sure you do not over extend through the back of the neck. Eyeline will affect your cervical extension so think of keeping your gaze in the appropriate amount of flexion to match the curve of the rest of your spine.
These Five Basic Principles will help improve any Pilates practitioner get the most benefits out of their routine. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t get them right; keep practicing and getting used to the principles as go through your routines. You’ll get better, and in the process improve your posture, strengthen your core, and bring balance to both your body and mind.