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Pilates Matwork Exercise Tips: Slow Swimming to Improve Hip Extension and Back Strength

Posted Apr 09 2011 1:08am

Today I want to share some fitness tips on the Pilates Intermediate Matwork Exercise Swimming.  Swimming is a lot of fun in a pool, and a little more of a challenge out of the water on the mat in Pilates class.  But practicing this exercise on the mat can really help improve strength in the back of the whole body from your arms, shoulders, and upper back, through the lower back and into the hips and legs.

Traditionally, this exercise is done with the arms in an overhead position.  But today, I’m going to share a version with you that keeps the arms low.  This will help keep some of the tension out of the upper neck and shoulders, and assist in training your muscles to fire more correctly to improve gait when you walk and run.  The action of the leg and arm lifting to the back is exactly what happens when you’re walking or running and swinging your arms!  Since most of what we do in life is in front of us, we sometimes lose sight of what’s going on behind us.   Hip extension strength, and the whole-back-of-the-body-strength and awareness are a part of what keeps our body in-balance and injury free.

Even though this is an “easier” version of swimming, I normally don’t teach this to right off the bat (even though it’s a really important part of good walking technique) because if you don’t have enough core strength in the front of the body to support the back, the back may feel worse, instead of better when you start doing extension exercises.   So be careful as you’re getting started with this, and be sure you’ve been regularly doing your basic Pilates Mat exercises before adding this Swimming exercise to your workout routine.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Pilates Matwork – Slow Swimming Exercise (arms low)

  • Lay on your stomach with your legs together in parallel, arms by your sides, and tip of the nose to the mat.
  • Reach the tailbone towards the heels to lengthen the lower back, maintain some low ab support (but not so much that your belly won’t allow your back to arch.  It just needs to be a supported arch!)
  • Inhale and reach the right leg and left arm up off the mat.  Exhale and lower them back to the floor.
  • Inhale and reach the left leg and right arm up off the mat.  Exhale and lower the arm & leg back to the floor.
  • Continue alternating for 5-10 repetitions on each side.

What To Watch For On This Pilates Swimming Exercise

  1. Strive to lift the arm & leg an equal distance up off the mat.
  2. Keep the pelvis and shoulders level and square to the floor.
  3. Spine can be in extension, just be sure it’s the entire back, don’t overdo it with the neck or low back.
  4. Use your proper muscle firing pattern to lift the arm & leg. It’s a diagonal line of support from the heel to the opposite shoulder.  (Hamstrings, Glutes, Opposite Side of the Low Back, Same Side as Low Back Lats, & Back of the Upper Arm.
  5. Be sure the leg is initiating the lift from the hip joint (thigh bone moving to get to the heel), and the arm is lifting from the shoulder (upper arm bone moving to get to the hand).
  6. The leg teeter-totters with the front of the hip bone (ASIS) going down towards the mat, while the whole leg lifts and heel goes up.
  7. As the arm lifts to the back, keep it reaching for the heel.  The back of the arm should be working, front of the chest opening and stretching.
  8. Feel your Abdominals “catch” the arm and leg as they lower back to the mat with a smooth, controlled motion.

When you practice the Pilates Matwork Slow Swimming Exercise (with the arms low) it’s the same feeling of muscle work you should notice on every step when you take a stride to walk or run.  Can you feel the Giant X of muscle support through the back of the body that alternates sides as you switch from lifting the right leg & left arm, to the left leg & right arm?  Though the front of the body you also have an X of support.  The Oblique Abdominals are working in opposition to your back X to help support the body as the opposite leg and arm is swinging forward.

This happens fast when you’re walking and running, so it’s good to slow things down a bit and focus on finding and feeling the right muscles work to support moving the arm and leg to the back.  Done well, you’re helping to release tight hip flexors and chest muscles by strengthening hip extensors, the upper back, and the back of the arm.

This much needed back-of-the-body strength that you’re developing with the Slow Swimming exercise helps keep your body in balance, for better whole-body health and reduced risk of back pain or injury.

Once you can feel everything working well when you’re practicing your Pilates Matwork, take what you’re feeling back up to a standing position, and incorporate the same muscle firing patterns into your walking and running to reinforce this great new habit of improved X-Support for whole-body health.  Before long, you won’t even have to think about it…everything will just work better, it will be easier to move, and you’ll be getting maximum benefits for better strength and flexibility with every exercise you do!

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