Personalizing Pilates' Q&A Blog – by Sherry

September 23, 2009

Abdominal Anatomy & How to Flatten Your Tummy

Hi everyone!

I was working with a new client this week who was referred to me by her chiropractor.   She came to me because she has lower back pain and her core stability needs a bit of work.    When we were chatting to determine her goals, she said that she didn’t understand why her back was sore because she did sit-ups every day and that her abdominals were strong.    When I did a few tests for her abdominal strength, we determined that she was actually very weak.     Once I taught her a bit about the anatomy of the abdominals, she understood why sit-ups weren’t helping her back (in fact, they were making it weaker).    

There are four different layers of abdominal muscles.  

Most of us are very familiar with the outermost, superficial layer because this layer creates the “six-pack” look that you see on fitness models.   This outermost layer is called the Rectus Abdominus.    The job of the Rectus Abdominus is to curl the trunk forward so it’s the main layer of abdominal muscle that  is used when you do a traditional sit-up.     Most people who want to flatten their tummy will start doing lots and lots of sit-ups so that they have a strong outer layer of muscle.   Unfortunately, this is NOT the way to flatten the tummy because flattening the tummy is the job of a different layer of abdominal muscle.

The next two layers of abdominal muscle are called the Outer and Inner Obliques.   These two layers of muscle wrap around the body on an angle and their job is to curl and twist the trunk.   So if you are a golfer, these muscles need to be strong!

The fourth layer is the innermost layer of abdominal muscle.  It’s called the Transversus Abdominus.   It is like a corset that wraps around the body and holds everything in place.    This is the layer of abdominal muscle that supports the spine so that you don’t have lower back pain.   It’s also the layer of muscle that you need to strengthen if you want to flatten your tummy!

If you want to flatten your tummy, here’s an easy exercise that will strengthen the innermost Transversus Abdominis muscle.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat
  • Place one hand underneath your lower back
  • Place the other hand on top of your navel
  • Take a breath in through your nose
  • When you exhale, gently pull your navel down towards your bottom hand (avoid doing a pelvic tilt!)

When you exhale, you will feel that your tummy flattens underneath your top hand!   That’s the Transversus Abdominis muscle doing its job!

It’s important NOT to flatten your lower back when you do this exercise because doing so actually weakens the lower back.  So gently pull your navel down when you exhale but try not to squish your bottom hand!

Need help?  Have questions?   Let me know….I’m happy to help you!



September 1, 2009

How to Exercise with a Herniated Disc

A herniated or bulging disc is a very common spinal condition that causes pain in the buttock and down the leg.   It’s important to strengthen the lower back and abdominal muscles so that the pain is minimized or eliminated.  

However, the problem is that this condition is made worse whenever you bend or curl the trunk forward.   So abdominal curls and any sort of ‘classic’ abdominal exercise is going to not only cause pain, but also exacerbate the problem.    I’m estimating that three-quarters of all classic Pilates exercises involve curling the trunk so that means that you absolutely cannot do these exercises.    Exercises such as The Hundred, Rolling Like a Ball, and the Single/Double Leg Stretch are not to be done!   

So how are you going to strengthen your abs and back muscles if you can’t do a curl up?     

Easy.   The simplest way is to do back-bending exercises and include only those exercises that can be modifed so that they are done in a ‘neutral pelvis’ position.    If you’re not sure about ‘neutral pelvis’, there is an earlier entry on my blog so check it out.   There is also a good back bending exercise that I posted in July.   It’s easy and safe if you have a herniated disc and it will help eliminate the pain you feel.    

I created a workout especially for folks with herniated discs – there’s no forward bending at all but it’s still a great workout for your abs.   You can listen to an exercise from the workout on my website (link on the right side of this page) – it’s on the Shop and Sample page.     It’s downloadable, green (no packaging!) and it’s an MP3 format compatible with iPods and all MP3 players.

If you have any questions about how to strengthen your back safely, let me know.   I’m happy to help!


August 18, 2009

No Pelvic Tilts,please!! How to have a strong lower back!

For many years, starting in the early 80’s  I taught aerobics.  One of the things that I remember clearly when teaching abdominal work was to do a pelvic tilt and press the lower back down to the mat so that it flattened.   We always said that you should do this to protect your lower back.     Even Joseph Pilates wrote that the lower back should be flattened when doing exercises. His reasoning was that when we were a fetus, our spines were rounded like a C and this was the proper curve for the spine – this was the prevailing wisdom in the 1930’s.

Sadly, we were not only misleading people but we probably hurt more than a few people as well with this cue.   

Over the years, we have learned that the lower back should have a natural inward curve to it.    It should not be flat.   When you are lying on your back, there should be two places in your spine that do NOT touch the mat – the back of your neck and your lower back.   The inward curve in the lower back is critically important for a strong and healthy spine.   Think of it like the foundation of a tall building – when it is strong, the rest of the building is strong and solid.    Doing abdominal work with the lower back flattened overstretches the small muscles that support this area of the spine and it creates weakness.   Worse, it can lead to herniated discs, sciatica, lower back pain and other spinal problems.

When doing Pilates, it’s really important to have what we call a “neutral pelvis”.   This position of pelvis is defined by 3 bones – the two hip bones and the pubic bone (see below).

two hipbones and pubic bone


When you are lying on your back, these three bones will form a level plane when you have a neutral pelvis.   In this position, there will be an inward curve in your lower back and it will NOT touch the mat.   It’s hard to see in the photos below, but there is enough space that I can slip my hand underneath my lower back.   It’s not flattened.     In the second photo, you can see that the three bones are level and you could balance a cup of tea on my hands and it would not spill.   (In a pelvic tilt, the tea would be slopping into my navel!)

neutral pelvis


neutral pelvis with hands

If you have any sort of spinal condition (such as sciatica, a herniated disc, osteoporosis) it is absolutely critical that you work in a neutral pelvis position.   Flattening your lower back will cause you pain and can make your condition worse.   My neighbour had one herniated disc at L3/L4 and managed to herniate a second one by doing ab work with a flat back.

All of my downloadable workouts include an Ab Tutorial that teaches you how to find and hold a neutral pelvis.  All abdominal work is done with this position so that you are strengthening the foundation of your spine in it’s optimal position.     Check out the workouts that I have available (my website is on the right side of this page!)   

If you are not sure which one is best for you, email me and I’ll help you!

Take care,


August 9, 2009

Pilates makes you younger!

Filed under: lower back exercises,pilates,sore lower back,sore neck — personalizing pilates @ 8:29 pm

In an earlier post, I talked about Pilates being the fountain of youth and I promised to share my own personal before and after photos.    So here’s my story.

I was cleaning drawers out a couple of years ago and I found this first photo.   I was horrified.   It  was taken in 1989 just before I turned 33.    Note the great 80’s sunglasses (aren’t they back in fashion now?).   At the time, I was working out a lot.  I taught aerobics four or five times a week and I was doing weights as well.   I also worked in the corporate world so I sat at my desk for endless hours every day.   Despite all the exercise, look at how horrible my posture was!!!!   I stood like an old woman.    My upper back is rounded and I had the beginnings of a Dowager’s hump which is directly related to poor posture.   My neck hurt so much that I had trouble turning my head and I had frequent headaches.    I had not started doing Pilates yet, in fact, I didn’t even begin with Pilates for another seven years and my posture only got worse!


Sherry before

My ‘after’ photo was taken 16 years later!   I was standing on the dock and I didn’t hear my husband sneaking up to take the photo – so I didn’t have any chance to correct my posture.   And look at the difference!   I’m standing tall, I’m not rounded forward and the Dowager’s hump thing has gone!    And the only thing that I can attribute this change to is Pilates.     My neck pain is gone and I can put on my socks without my hips hurting!!  


Sherry after


I am sharing these photos to show you that you can change  your posture, how you feel and how you look by being consistent with some basic Pilates exercises just 2 or 3 times a week.    If you need help, please let me know.    My email and website are on the right side of the page.

Have a good one!

August 4, 2009

Pilates Exercise for Herniated Discs

Filed under: herniated disc,leg pain,lower back exercises,sciatica,sore lower back — personalizing pilates @ 7:19 pm

Hi everyone,

I was working with a client who has a herniated disc and thought I’d share a great Pilates exercise with you to help relieve the pain caused by this condition.

First, a bit of background about herniated discs.    Also commonly referred to as bulging discs or slipped discs, a herniated disc is most often found in the lower back (and sometimes in the neck).    It’s a bit technical to explain, but here’s my “layman’s” explanation that I hope is easy to understand!   Imagine that the vertebrae of your lower back are like the chocolate cookie wafers in an Oreo cookie.    The discs are like the white filling in the Oreo cookie.    In a perfect cookie, the white filling is even in thickness all the way around the cookie and it acts like a little pillow between the two wafers.   When we herniate a disc in the spine, it’s like squeezing one side of the Oreo cookie so that the filling ‘bulges’ out the opposite side.   The chocolate wafers are too close together without much ‘pillow’ on one side of the cookie while the filling is bulging out the other side.    In the spine, the filling (ie – the disc) contains nerves that run from the spinal cord down the legs.   When there is not enough filling and the nerves are pinched, then we experience pain.   So, in layman’s terms, we need to make sure that the filling doesn’t continue to be squeezed out.   Make sense?

Discs almost always bulge out to the back of the spine so that means that to “squeeze the filling” back into the cookie, we need to do Pilates exercises that involve back-bending.

Here’s one of Joseph Pilates’ classic exercises that will help you out!

single leg stretch

  • Start lying on your tummy, propped up on your forearms.
  • Look down at your fingertips.
  • Reach your heart forward out of your chest and lift your ribs away from the mat, imagining that you are doing a back dive.
  • Bend your knee and slowly pulse your heel in towards your buttock three times.  Switch legs.
  • Repeat 3 times.

You can do this exercise 2 or 3 times a day when your pain is acute.    Once the pain is gone, don’t stop doing it!   Once a day should be good for ongoing maintenance!

You can download a Pilates workout for Herniated Discs from my website.   It’s the only Pilates workout designed especially for herniated discs that is available!    It’s only $8.99 CDN which is an inexpensive investment in your health.   I guarantee that you’ll feel better after you do it.  Just go to


July 29, 2009

Stretch to relieve sciatica

Filed under: leg pain,lower back exercises,pilates,sciatica — personalizing pilates @ 5:04 pm
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I got an e-mail from Liz asking for a way to relieve the pain of sciatica.

First, a bit of background info…..sciatica is a term for pain that radiates from the lower back, into the buttock and down the leg.   The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the human system and it travels from the spine, exiting in the lower back and it goes down the leg all the way to the foot.    Sciatica can be caused by many factors including poor posture (very common!), muscle spasms, wearing high heels (sorry ladies!), pregnancy, being overweight or disc herniations.   The pain generally travels down one side of the body.   Even though you might feel the pain in the leg, it’s important to understand that the cause of the pain is in the lower back.  

Here’s a stretch that you can do to help stretch the tight muscles.   It’s typically called a Figure 4 stretch but I like to call it the Pretzel Stretch because I feel like a pretzel when I do it!

Lie on your back with your left foot on the floor.   Place your right ankle on the front of your left thigh.   It looks like the photo below:

figure 4 stretch prep

Now, pick your left foot up off the floor,  hold the back of your left thigh and gently hug your left knee in towards your left shoulder  (as shown in the next photo):

figure 4 stretch

You will be feeling a stretch in the right hip, hopefully at the back of the thigh and deep in the buttock.

BREATHE!!!   If this is intense for you, you’ll be inclined to hold your breath!     Hold the stretch for 6 long, slow breaths.

Switch sides and hold for 6 breaths.

You will likely notice that one side is much tighter than the other!  And it may be the side that is opposite to where you feel the pain!   That is normal.

I recommend stretching the tighter side more often so you may want to do the tighter side a second time.

Try this stretch twice a day for a week and see if it gives you relief.   

Please post a comment or e-mail me at if you have questions or need help!    I’ll get back to you in just a few hours, promise!

Take care,


July 27, 2009

Is Pilates the Fountain of Youth? I think so!

Filed under: pilates — personalizing pilates @ 9:50 pm

Hi everyone,

Many people have asked me over the years what to expect from doing Pilates.    I tell them all the usual things (stronger abs, stronger back muscles, less pain etc etc) but I find that the best way to explain what it will do for them is to tell them about my “Aha” moment.

Several years ago, we went to Antigua for a vacation.   I had finished my Pilates training and I had been teaching for a couple of years.  We stayed at a small resort that was owned by a British gentleman.    This gentleman was 75 years old.   Yet he carried himself like he was 25!   He stood tall, when he walked his arms swung, his stride was graceful and he looked strong.     Although his hair was white and his face was very lined, he just didn’t move like a 75 year old.  

That’s when it hit me!!   If you do Pilates, you won’t age the way that many people do.    Aging doesn’t mean that we have to ‘get old’ and this gentleman personified that.   Joseph Pilates is often quoted as saying “You are as old as your spine”.     So when I’m 75, I am going to have a 40 year old spine!    

Stay tuned – in my next post, I’ll show you my own personal “before” and “after” Pilates photos – taken 16 years apart!     

Take care!

July 22, 2009

How to avoid a sore neck when doing ab work

Filed under: Ab exercises,sore neck — personalizing pilates @ 9:07 pm

Hi there!

I was working with a new client today who was having trouble doing ab work because her neck hurt so much.    This client is in her 40’s, sits at a desk all day and has what we term a “kyphotic” or “round-shouldered” posture.   This type of posture is really common nowadays because many of us sit for long, long periods of time.   If the spine is not properly supported, the upper back rounds too much and the head goes forward.   This puts a lot of strain on the neck.   Over time, the neck muscles become overly tight and cannot relax.   All that to say that when you do Pilates, the neck tends to strain a lot. 

Here’s my trick to help this little problem.  

Lie on your back, with your knees bent.    Interlace your fingers together and place them behind the back of your head.    As you lie there, feel how heavy your head is in your hands.   It weighs between 8 and 12 pounds depending on the person so it will feel quite heavy!   Now, drop your chin slightly and bring your elbows forward just enough that you can see them in your peripheral.    As you exhale, pick up your head with your hands so that it is just 1 or 2 inches off the floor.    With your head lifted, feel how heavy it is.   If your head feels lighter than it did when you were resting on the floor, that tells me that you are over-using your neck muscles and they are going to get cranky!    Now keep your head lifted and see if you can let it rest heavy in your hands.   Feel the difference?   Your neck relaxes!   

When I teach, I always cue my clients to have a “heavy head in their hands” when doing any sort of abdominal work.    

Try it and let me know how it works for you!


July 12, 2009

Sore back after gardening

Filed under: Uncategorized — personalizing pilates @ 9:18 pm
Tags: , , ,

Hi everyone,

I just worked with a client who spent yesterday in her garden and today her lower back is really sore.    

Here’s an exercise that I recommend for all gardeners.   It’s not really a “true” Pilates exercise but one that I borrowed from a physiotherapist named Robin McKenzie.  Robin is one of the world’s experts on lower back pain.   

When we garden, we are almost always bent forward!   That puts a lot of strain on the muscles of the lower back because they are stretching as well as holding the weight of our upper body.    So I recommend this exercise be done every half hour while you’re out in the garden.   It only takes a minute and it will make you feel SOOOO much better!

  1. Stand with your feet wide apart.   standing mckenzie back arch
  2. Keep your knees fairly straight.
  3. Place your hands behind you, in the small of your back.  Your fingers should point inward.
  4. Now imagine that you are doing a back dive and arch backwards over your hands.  
  5. Hold for 2 or 3 breaths and relax.
  6. Repeat 2 or 3 times and you’ll feel great!

Let me know how you feel and if you have any questions!



Hi World!

Filed under: Uncategorized — personalizing pilates @ 6:22 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Hi everyone!

I have just set up my new blog!    I’d like to introduce myself and let you know that I am here to help you with any questions that you may have about Pilates.

First, let me tell you a bit about me.   I am a PMA Certified Pilates Teacher.   What that means is that I have passed a National Certification Exam that was set by the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA).   Pilates teachers can do their training at many different facilities and the curriculum and quality of teaching can vary so the PMA has set the standard for Pilates teachers.   There are less than thirty PMA Certified Pilates Teachers in Canada and I am proud to be one of them!     I did my Pilates training through the PhysicalMind Institute which is based in New York.   I am certified to teach mat Pilates as well as Pilates using the reformer, cadillac and wunda chair.   I’m also certified to teach Standing Pilates.  

I have taught fitness (as an ACE certified aerobics teacher  and personal trainer) for over twenty five years and Pilates for more than ten years.   I have a private studio where I work with clients with various needs including general fitness to herniated discs, sciatica, amputations, osteoporosis and motor vehicle accidents.    My studio is in a chiropractor’s office and over the years  I have picked up some really great exercises and tips to help my clients and I will be passing these along to you over time! 

I will be blogging about exercises and ways that Pilates can help various spinal conditions.   However, I am much more interested in helping you with your specific questions and needs.   So please send me your questions!   I’m happy to help you.


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