Top 5 Fridays! 5 Exercises That Maximize Spinal Articulation in Pilates | Modern Manual Therapy Blog - Manual Therapy, Videos, Neurodynamics, Podcasts, Research Reviews

Top 5 Fridays! 5 Exercises That Maximize Spinal Articulation in Pilates

Since moving to San Francisco I have worked purely as a Pilates Instructor. It has been an amazing learning opportunity to work with fit uninjured individuals and continually push the boundaries of their programs as they progress. One focus on my programs is training spinal articulation. It is not good enough to be flexible, we have to move well through range. For this blog I wanted to share with you some of my favourite Pilates exercises that I am using at the moment to help my clients retrain their spinal articulation, thoracic mobility and hamstring length. This blog and many others can be found on my Pilates blog

Spinal articulation is often a key focus on Pilates, to teach people how to use the different levels of their spine in a coordinated and controlled way. It is particularly useful for those who get junction stiffness in there cervico-thoracic, thoraco-lumbar and lumbo-sacral junctions. The weight on all these exercises is low, generally one blue spring. This way they are not pushing through weight but getting enough resistance and proprioceptive feedback to control their movement.

The following five exercises are slight variations from the more traditional movements and I really enjoy teaching them because they either start in an uncommon position or incorporate full body movements. 


I call this one reverse cat stretch because the initial movement comes from rounding the upper spine backwards, protracting the scapulae and flexing the neck. In this position you will feel a stretch between the shoulder blades. The next phase is to roll that stretch through your thoraco-lumbar junction into your lower back as you sit backwards. Then to transition from full flexion into extension as you move forward into a low cat position, stretching the upper back and shoulders into extension. Then we begin with a posterior pelvic tilt and roll all the way back up. 

A video posted by Sian Smale (@siansmale_sf) on


I love this one. Possibly one of my favourite exercises of all time. The bar is on one blue spring and the main focus on the bottom hand is to stay lengthened out of the shoulder region. You don't lean heavily onto the bar, instead focus on lifting up through the top ribs to create opening through lateral flexion. The next important factor is your foot. You need to keep the outer line of the foot down and continue to push outwards through your foot. This creates an amazing traction and opening through the hip, lateral gluteal region, that sticky space between your iliac crest and 12th ribs and then throughout the rest of the ribs.

A video posted by Sian Smale (@siansmale_sf) on


This is a nice progression from your kneeling cat stretch or reverse cat stretch as it teaches people how much their hamstring and calf mobility impacts how they move through their pelvis and lower back. It is essentially a standing roll down at the start and then you move forward into the flattest position you can achieve.

What you'll notice about this video is that I have difficulty achieving the full expression of lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt and for me the limiting factor is my hamstring and calf length. So I allow my knees to soften and try to work through that stiffness with each repetition. 

A video posted by Sian Smale (@siansmale_sf) on
You can start with a kneeling cat stretch and then progress into standing (as seen in the first two pictures). If you're trying to focus more on calf and ankle mobility then I love using the chair to push my ankle down and create more dorsiflexion. It takes the focus of control lower down in the leg.


Maybe you don't have a trapeze table or maybe you prefer using the reformer? This exercise is a mash up of cat stretch and standing heading to knee pose (from yoga) and it stretches your thoracic spine and shoulders, hamstring on your front leg and calf on your back leg. Again a full body mobility exercise for your posterior chain structures and it feels great to floss in and out of the movements.
A video posted by Sian Smale (@siansmale_sf) on


Looking for something more challenging from a balance and strength perspective? This is another great one and my final exercise for this blog. Russian splits demands a lot more control in terms of balance and also hip mobility. The back leg is staying in extension with the heel planted and knee extended and the front hip comes up into flexion. The lever for the movement is the front knee as you push in and out from your foot. It is really great for runners and other athletes who need to master the control of extending one leg and flexing the other. Combining the movement with thoracic flexion/extension makes the exercise more challenging mobility and coordination wise. As you swap sides you can choose to hold a plank or do small arm movements like in this video. I use one red and yellow spring.

A video posted by Sian Smale (@siansmale_sf) on

Clinically I have found that when it comes to stretching, dynamic and active movements work best. All of these exercises are performed slowly and with control. The patient/athlete is asked to control the movement in and out of their full available range and never to push the very end of the stretch.

Instead of pushing for the most range on the first repetition you should use the first movement as a measurement to gauge how your body is feeling. From there, each time you mobilise in and out of the movement you have a new opportunity to refine the movement, focus on your breathing and incorporate the stretch into more regions of your body.

Just a note to finish. I use these exercises for fit and uninjured clients. I wouldn't use them initially on those recovering from neck and back pain but more for those who suffer from stiffness in their back and hamstrings and are looking for more advanced ways to improve their movement. I would suggest trying them yourself and mastering the movement before teaching them and make sure the weight on your reformer is adjusted correctly for yourself and your client.

Hope you enjoy these new exercise variations and the beautiful movement they provide. If you'd like to follow my Pilates teaching journey join me on Instagram @siansmale_SF

Sian :) 
Sian Smale is an Australian-trained and APA-titled Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist. Sian has been writing a Physiotherapy evidence-based blog for the past 3 years called Rayner & Smale. Sian is based out of San Francisco and continues to write and teach Clinical Pilates while working towards her Californian Physical Therapy license. Sian has also created a free, online pregnancy and post-natal home-based workout program Hey Fit Mama.

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