Pilates Lengthening Exercises
The top position of the swan promotes back flexibility.
Pilates aficionados often promote the exercise system's ability to lengthen your muscles, making you look leaner and taller. Muscles can't technically be lengthened, however, no matter how much you exercise. What Pilates can do is increase joint flexibility, especially in the back, hips and knees. This increases your ability to extend through a fuller range of motion so you appear longer and more lithe.
A complete Pilates practice that involves mat, reformer and other equipment work is most beneficial in creating this look of length. Commit to working with a certified instructor multiple times per week to get the most out of Pilates.
If you only have a little time and a limited budget, though, perform some basic Pilates exercises on your own with just a mat to achieve better posture and range of motion. You'll gain the appearance of greater length in your muscles.
Swimming is a basic Pilates mat move that involves extension of the hips. It also strengthens many of the muscles that support the spine, so over-time it can help you stand taller.
To do swimming: Lie face down on a Pilates mat. Reach your legs behind you, set about hip-distance apart, and your arms up past your ears. Inhale and lift your legs and arms to hover above the mat. Pause for an exhale — this is your base position. Inhale and lift your right arm and left leg slightly higher. Exhale to the base and repeat with the left arm and right leg. Continue to alternate at a measured pace for five to 10 repetitions.
Tip: If it hurts your shoulders to extend the arms overhead, let your arms rest alongside your hips. You'll still lift alternate limbs as above.
A variation of swimming has you hands by your hips.
Double Straight-Leg Stretch
The double straight-leg stretch is one of the last exercises in the Pilates abs series. It involves flexion of the hips and provides an awesome challenge to your abs. The trick to making it a lengthening exercise is to focus on reaching through your feet during the entirety of the exercise. Visualize the top of the leg bones pulling away from your hip sockets to make them feel longer.
To do the double straight-leg stretch: Lie on your back and place your hands at the sides of your head, your elbows will point to the sides of the room. Reach your legs straight up to the ceiling; your body forms a letter L with the floor. Engage your abdominal muscles to press your back towards the floor (it doesn't have to touch, just move in that direction). Inhale and lower your legs for three counts. Exhale and return the legs straight up over your hips. Keep your abdominals engaged throughout the exercise. Lower your legs only to the point that you can still keep your abs pulled in. If your lower back arches, you know you've gone too low.
Tip: For a more advanced version, lift your head, neck and shoulders up off the floor.
Repeat five to 10 times. Aim for quality, not quantity.
Add a small ball between your feet to increase the intensity of the double straight-leg stretch.
Leg circles train your core and improve hip mobility. Start with slow, moderately-sized circles. Increase your range of motion over time.
To do leg circles: Lie on your back with your arms alongside your hips. Reach your right leg up to the ceiling. Leave your left leg extended on the mat and pressed into the floor. Point your right toes up and slightly out. Begin to draw a circle to the right — inhale on the downswing, exhale on the upswing. Repeat five to eight in one direction, then switch. Change legs and complete the circles with the left leg.
Tip: Concentrate on reaching the circling leg as long as possible. Press down firmly with your hands to maintain stability through your torso.
The swan is part of the extension series. It helps train your back to be more mobile, enhancing your posture and back health. Move slowly and deliberately until you know your back is OK with the movement.
To do the swan: Lie on your abdomen with your legs extended behind you, feet about hip-distance apart. Place your hands on the mat underneath the pits of your shoulders. Inhale and press into the floor to lift your face, chest and ribs off the mat. If it feels OK to your back, you can extend your elbows fully. Exhale and lower back to the mat; reach your arms to the sides of the room. Inhale and lift up your face, fronts of shoulders, chest and arms. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Exhale and lower. Repeat the first move and alternate the two for five to 10 reps.