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The Benefits of Focusing on Flipper Toes for Pilates Reformer Footwork

Posted May 31 2012 1:30pm

Recently I focused on “Flipper Toes” with the clients in one of my Group Reformer classes and it was pretty interesting to see very experienced Pilates students with shaky legs because they were actively using their feet a little more than usual!

Footwork on the Pilates Reformer is such a basic skill that it’s easy to take it for granted, blast through the exercises as a “warm-up,”  focus on the abs and back staying close to the mat, and the pushing/pulling action of the legs.

The quicker you finish your Footwork, the faster you can get on with other more “challenging” exercises.  But Footwork done well is much more than a warm-up!  Proper, active work of the foot and toes is an important part of all 4 of the traditional Footwork exercises.  Miss out on this work at the beginning of the workout – and you’re doing your clients a disservice in setting their bodies up for correct muscle firing patterns and balanced muscle development.

It’s no secret that good health starts from the ground up!  So it’s easy to see why Joseph Pilates started the Reformer repertoire with Footwork.

These days, too many people are wearing flip-flops and strapless shoes.  This fact alone makes Pilates Footwork an even more valuable asset to your clients workout program to try and undo the damage to gait and proper foot function being created by biomechanically ruined flip-flopped feet!

“Flipper Toes” are a great concept to teach with Pilates Reformer Footwork to improve body awareness and begin retraining the toes to work well for walking & running with pain-free feet. 

Pilates Reformer: Footwork  Exercise # I – Toes

In the lifted position for Footwork I (whether you choose to work in a V-position or parallel) the toes should be on the bar with the heels lifting away from the toes to rise up on the tippy-toes.  The muscles underneath the toes should be on stretch, to allow the foot and heel to lengthen away from the long toes to help open the joints through the entire foot and ankle in the lifted position.

As the legs work to move the carriage out and in, ideally, the heels should remain in the highest lifted position possible so that the legs do the work to move the carriage out against the springs.  If the heels lower to straighten the legs, you’re cheating the body out of the length you could achieve by keeping the feet working and lengthening away from the feet to move the carriage.

Pilates Teachers: Try spotting your clients by placing your hand under the heels for Footwork I.  As they push the carriage out and in – there should be no pressure against your hand because the heels dropped.  Instead they should be trying to stay lifted away from your hand throughout the exercise.  This is a great feedback tool for feeling what it’s like to really stretch the legs and work from the hips to move the carriage out!

Pilates Reformer: Footwork Exercise  #2 – Arches/Prehensile

The Footwork Exercise #2 can be done with two different foot placement positions on the bar.  While they will definitely “feel” different, the action of the “flipper toes” is the same, regardless of where the foot is placed on the bar.

For the Arch position:  Place the arch of the foot on the bar with the weight more along the outside edge of the foot (so you can maintain an “arch.”)  The heel will be slightly lowered, and all of the toes lengthen away from the arch and flipper down activating the muscles under the sole of the foot.  Strive to elongate the big toe out and down lengthening on a diagonal across the top of the foot without rolling to the inside of the arch.  Maintain this active foot position while using the legs to push the carriage out and return.

For the Prehensile position:  The toes are wrapping around the bar, gripping the bar like a monkey!  However, it’s not the tips of the toes that initiate grabbing the bar.  Lengthen the toes to “Flipper” them out over the bar, then bend from where the toes meet the foot out to the tips of the toes to hold onto the bar.  The heels should stay in a slightly lowered position while the toes lengthen and “Flipper” down to wrap around the bar.

At the turn-around point, when you transition from pushing out, to returning the carriage – be sure that the feet stay active.  There is a tendency to relax the toes to change directions, then re-grip the bar.  Strive to maintain the long “Flipper” grip with the feet, and make the change at the hip to bring the carriage in.

Pilates Reformer: Footwork Exercise #3 – Heels

Ah….the Heels position!  A welcome relief if you’ve really been working the arches and using your “Flipper Toes” on Footwork #2.  In the Heels position, let the toes be more relaxed.  Think instead about lengthening the toes up to the ceiling.  The less you crank the toes back, and the more you lengthen the heels into the bar, the more effective the exercise.

As you move the carriage out and in, the ankles, knees, and hips should be hinging.  This means the sole of the foot needs to remain in a fixed position so the ankle can open and close as you straighten and bend the legs.  If you crank the toes back and hold the ankle in a fixed position, or hinge the toes and ankle back more as you straighten the legs, you are actually jamming the toe bones into the foot, and jamming the foot into the ankle which completely restricts functional movement.

Reach the inner heel into the bar to help activate the inner thighs and help square off the ball of the foot, like your feet are standing on a wall.  This is similar to the mid-stance position the foot should pass through for gait when walking.

Pilates Teachers: To spot Footwork #3 – Stand at the end of the Reformer, place your hands, or 1 knee against the balls of your client’s  feet with the heels on the bar.  Be sure that the balls of the feet stay against your support and don’t budge, so the ankle, knees, and hips WILL move as they straighten and bend the legs.

Pilates Reformer: Footwork Exercise #4 – Lift & Lower / Tendon Stretch

This is the exercise that puts everything together!  The initial push out is in Footwork #1 position until the legs are completely straight and the heels are still lifted.  Then, keeping the legs straight without locking the knees, the heels lower under the bar, while the toes “Flipper” over the top of the bar to the Prehensile – Footwork #2 position.  As the heels lift, the toes hinge to transition back to high heels on the tippy-toes.  (There is a distinct difference between pulling the toes up off the bar to get to the high heel position, and leaving the toes ON the bar and lifting the heels.)  If the toes relax, and the heels lift away from the toes to rise up, the soles of the feet will be much more active.

As the heels lower the toes lengthen over the top of the bar (using the sole of the foot.)  To lift, the heel lengthens away from the toes (using the sole of the foot.)

A Few Final Thoughts on The Benefits of Strengthening the Feet with Pilates Reformer Footwork

Not only will effective Reformer Footwork help strengthen the muscles of the feet, but the entire lower leg will get stronger and learn to work more correctly, (which in the long run is helping to train correct foot and ankle action for the roll-through-the-foot required for good gait work to walk & run.)

Learning to get the length needed to work your “Flipper Toes” increases joint space for improved flexibility of the toes, as well as helping to increase mobility at the ankle.

Increased ankle mobility allows more reach through the heels with helps stretch the calf and lengthens the Achilles tendon to reduce your risk of injury.

Pilates Reformer Footwork done well can be a very valuable asset to your foot health, and is helping to train your feet to work well.   Ideally, when you stand back up on your feet and are ready to walk or run your strong, fit, and flexible Pilates feet will remember what it felt like to work well, transferring these well-trained muscle habits back to your everyday life activities.

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It’s always helpful to have Footwork Exercises to do at-home, in-between Pilates Reformer sessions.  If your feet are weak, working on strengthening your “Flipper Toes” might lead to some moments of unwelcome foot cramps!  Don’t worry, as your feet get stronger and your muscle balance improves using your “Flipper Toes” will no longer result in those pesky foot & toe cramps.

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