Balanced Body Pilates

The phrases often used in Pilates lessons

There is jargon everywhere and Pilates is no exception!  This is a guide to some of the vocabulary and phrases that your teacher may use in a lesson.  Knowing and understanding these phrases will certainly help you get the best out of your lessons.  Remember that the original word used to describe Pilates was “contrology”.


“Through Contrology you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your (…) activities.”  Joseph Pilates Return to Life through Contrology 1945


Rolling or unrolling your spine, one vertebrae at a time. This is to increase the amount of space between the posterior (rear) section of the vertebrae, thereby increasing the flexibility of the spine.

Sit on the Peaks

Sit right up on your sit bones. Imagine that your sit bones are mountain peaks (upside down).  Sit right on the peaks and don’t roll off the back of them helps us to work towards achieving a neutral spine whilst in a sitting position.

Neutral Spine

Ensuring we have the three natural curves to our spine.  This is a fundamental concept in Contemporary Pilates.  It’s an extension of “neutral pelvis” in which the pubic symphisis (pubic bone) and the Anterior Superior Iliac Crests (front hip bones) of the pelvis are in the same plane: either vertical in standing or horizontal in a lying position – coronal and transverse planes, respectively.

Work from the centre

Initiate the movement from the shoulders or the abdomen.  There is a tendency to over use the arms, and sometimes the legs to compensate for lack of abdominal recruitment.


Changing from one exercise to another in a seamless flow.  Once basic exercises are learned, they can be joined together in such a way that each exercise flows into each other.  In this way the flow from one exercise to another can be considered a choreography..  Sometimes there are small exercises that join the two exercises up, sometimes there is phase that can be considered preparatory.  One good example of this might be: “Tabletop”.


A starting position of the pelvis and legs that is the starting position of many exercises.  This position is done is a supine position (lying on your back).  The pelvis is in a neutral position and the thighs are at ninety degrees to the pelvis, the knees are also at ninety degrees.

Pilates Tabletop Position

Pilates Tabletop Position

Toes to nose / Foot Dorsiflexion

Pull your toes, and by extension your feet, in an upwards direction, towards your nose.  This position is knows as dorsiflexion.  It activates the halluxes (the muscles in our shins which point our toes in an upwards direction) and stretches the calf muscles.  If we also have straight knees, this pointing of our toes upwards assists in deepening hamstring stretches.

Engage / Activate / Turn on / Squeeze

Muscle activation or tensing. To create contraction and thereby work in the muscle.  To activate muscles in order to realise a sequence of movement with intent.

Hinge from the hip

Fold (rather than bend) from the leg/hip joint.. To maintain a stable pelvis against with the legs move. This activates the deep spinal muscles (multifidi, semispinalis and rotatores) and the abdominals (transversus abdominis and rectus)

ROM / Range of motion or: “work within your range of motion”

Reduce your range of motion. This is to ensure that you have sufficient strength and control over a joint before moving it further.

Work your "C" curve

To approximate the shape of a letter “C” with your spine. To give a visual cue to assist with the activation of abdominals while in spinal flexion (articulating he spine forwards)

Abs in and up / Scoop / Hollow

Draw your abdominals simultaneously up and towards your spine.
To create length in the waist and space for the internal organs

Pull your navel to your spine

Pull your navel towards your spine.
Usually used in plank or other prone positions to engage the abdominals too protect the spine from over extension.

Powerhouse / Work from your powerhouse

This is your “core” (I prefer to use this in plural tbh – “cores”). It is the “box” formed by your shoulders and pelvis – both front and back.

It includes the inner thighs, gluteals, abdominals/spinals and the muscles attached to the shoulder blades. It is shorthand for activate all the muscles referred to above.

Pilates V / Stand in Pilates stance

Standing with your heels together and toes slightly apart.

This is our natural posture as determined by the angle of our femurs in our pelvis. This stance activates the inner thighs and glutes as well as helping us to discover our midline. Additionally, it reinforces our natural alignment.

Soften your elbows

Maintain a very slight bend to your elbows. Don’t lock them.

To keep the musculature active and to strengthen the soft tissues around the joint as opposed to relying on the body part of the joint.

Soften your knees

Maintain a very slight bend to your knees.

Don’t lock them. Why the phrase is used To keep the musculature active and to strengthen the soft tissues around the joint as opposed to relying on the body part of the joint.

Work in opposition / Two way stretch

To pull the body in two different directions at the same time.
To create a dynamic stretch: using all the relevant muscles to create a maximum stretch in the body.

Work with resistance

Don’t move passively.  Create a resistive force.

This is especially when you are working with the springs (as opposed to against their resistance) on the return to what is often thought of as the “starting position”.

Lengthen your … waist or spine through the crown of your head.

Sit as tall as you possibly can

… in order to create maximum axial (vertical) extension with the result is that the overall length of the spine is increased. This is often used in exercises in which we have to work against gravity such as in the rowing and stomach massage series.

Pinch and lift your bottom

Engage your glutes

… in such a way that you lift your seat off the mat or carriage. In htis way you are engaging your glutes (and pelvic floor) as part of the powerhouse.

Wrap your Thighs

Slight external rotation of the femurs in the hip sockets combined with squeezing together the backs of the upper thighs.  This assists in engaging the glutes and adductors rather than the quadriceps and hip flexors.

Bring your wings down / Drop or depress your shoulder blades ? You're wearing earrings!

Bring your shoulders down away from your ears: There is a tendency to rely on the Upper Trapezius (a large and important diamond shaped muscle that connects the neck and upper spine to the clavicle [collarbone] and the scapula [shoulder blade]) and this counters that tendency and so assists in lengthening the neck.

Open your chest / chest wide / sternum up and out

Deepen inhalation to further stretch the chest.  This is to prevent the shoulders rolling forwards, especially in rolling back moves which allows us to maintain scapular (shoulder blade) stability.

Pull your ribcage in / Close your ribs

Puling in the lower (just below the sternum) ribs.  Engages the upper abdominals and stabilises the spine.

Crack a walnut / squeeze your shoulder blades together

Pulling your shoulder blades together.  This engages the middle back: Trapezius and Rhomboids and opens the chest.

Pull/Push your Tailbone... down, out, in, up

The direction indicated by the words above are dependent on your orientation: supine or prone.  These phrases describe the orientation of your pelvis: rolled forwards (anterior tilt or backwards (posterior tilt).

Pelvic Orientation

Pelvic Orientation

Wring out the air / squeeze the lemon / wring out the cloth / don't balloon

Continue to exhale, with force, until all the air is out – every atom!  This engages the intercostal (rib ) muscles, but more importantly engages the upper abdominal muscles fibres (around the loweest part of the thoracic cavity), preventing a ballooning of the abdomen.

Square your box

Align shoulders and hips (superior iliac crests) to each other.  This ensures that you are in alignment and not compensating one side of your body with another.

Counter stretch

Stretch out in opposite directions.  Encourages you to take fulll advantage of a stretch in which both pulling and pulling forces can be used.

Work within your frame / within your joint / less ROM

Limit your range of motion of a particular moving joint or limb. This is to ensure that you have full control over a movement in order to perform it correctly before making the movement bigger.  Small correct movements can be made larger and they will still be correct and under control.  In contrast, large and inaccurate movements will not become more accurate with practice.  Always practice accuracy, not errors.

We are what we repeatedly do.

Work within your frame / within your joint / less ROM


Pull toward your mid-line

The midline is the notional line that vertically divides your body: the median plane in anatomical terms.  Symmetrically, work towards the central vertical plane of your body – don’t leave one part behind.

Anchor / pin / ground your feet

Stabilise the part of your body referred to.  By stabilising one part of our body and moving another limb against that stable platform, we are actively controlling our body: we are practising “Contrology” – Joseph Pilates’ own name for the discipline now known as Pilates.

Work with a minimum of motion

Smoothly transition form one exercise to the next.  Practice “flow” – one of the Principles of Pilates.  Some elders took this to the extreme, referring to the practice of Pilates as a “dance” and the apparatus as your dance partner, specifically Ron Fletcher (May 29, 1921 – December 6, 2011).

Commit yourself / Ferocity of intent

Think.  Then decide.  Then execute your intention.  Mentally rehearse beforehand. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.

Also be realistic in objectives and goals: make them specific, achievable but out of your comfort zone.  Be, simultaneously, the Lion and the Gazelle.  There is no “try”, there is only “do”.  (It’s a Miguel-ism borrowed from Richard Grannon @ “Spartan Life Coach” – thank you Richard.


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