The Pilates reformer gives a sweet ab workout, if you could only get your darn hip flexors to quit hogging the movement. Your hip flexors, which connect your thighs and pelvis, engage during many Pilates exercises. In many, they engage too enthusiastically, says Michelle Olson PhD. If tight hip flexors already plague your daily existence, these exercises deliver you to the depths of the discomfort zone. Fortunately, some reformer workouts release tight hip flexors.
Here's the problem. Pilates developed his method in early 20th-century Germany. People didn't spend hours sitting at their office desks. Tight hip flexors weren't an issue. Pilates sessions began in a supine position with your legs lifted and extended. After performing exercises in this position for the first few minutes, you did the hip flexor tightening roll-ups, a fancy name for a straight-legged situp. No biggie, back then, but a century later, after eight hours of sitting, your hip flexors might respond with "you've got to be kidding."
Luddites insist upon following the outdated Pilates sequencing. Progressives change the order, and start the session with hip flexor mobilizing exercises. Eve's Lunge, named after dancer Eve Gentry, does the trick. Kneel on the reformer with your hands and one foot on the foot bar, and the opposite foot against the shoulder pad. Inhale to prepare. Exhale, press the carriage out with your back leg. Inhale and pause in the end range of the position, imagining that you can increase the space between the top of your leg and the base of your pelvis. Exhale and return to the starting position. Do six reps on each leg.
Eve's Lunge not only stretches your hip flexors. Its hip-extending movements --which move your leg behind your body -- strengthen your gluteal muscles. The process, called reciprocal inhibition, occurs when one muscle group decides to work overtime. In response, its opposing muscle group gets lazy. While you sit throughout the day, your hip flexors work overtime, and their opposing muscle group, your glutes, succumb to quiescence. Although stretching your hip flexors seems like an obvious solution to the tight hip flexor problem, if you've ever tried to stretch a muscle that is stubbornly uninterested in letting go, you know that this is easier said than done.
Get Hip to Hip Extension
Physical therapist Brent Anderson, head of Polestar Pilates, suggests minimizing hip flexing exercises and emphasizing glute-engaging hip extension. This comes as good news for anyone who has suffered through the iconic Pilates Hundreds exercise, which keeps your legs in a lifted and extended position for 100 counts, while your poor hip flexors beg for mercy. Substitute supine ab work by assuming a plank position, with your feet against the shoulder pads. Engage your core for spinal stability and inhale, bending your knees, stopping at the point where they align with your pelvis. Exhale, contract your glutes and straighten your legs. Do 12 reps.
The scooter exercise uses the same hip extension pattern as Eve's Lunge, but your standing leg stays on the box, a reformer add-on device. The box sits next to the reformer during this exercise. It's perfect for really tight hip flexors, because your standing leg remains in an extended position, instead of the hip flexion position used in Eve's Lunge. Your working leg stays on the reformer, with your heel against the shoulder pad. Hold onto the foot-bar when you first learn this exercise. As you gain core strength, stand upright, with your hands on your hips.
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.