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Ball Props on the Reformer: Helping or Hindering? 

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Pilates Ball Prop on ReformerBy Madeline Black

It is not uncommon to see Pilates teachers use props during a session. The intention is to enable the client to move in optimal alignment. But, is it appropriate to use a prop? Yes, when there is an understanding of why the prop is being used and it facilitates the intended response. But too many times, props are used out of habit.

One common prop habit is placing a ball between the thighs (or knees) while performing Footwork on the Reformer. The ball brings the legs together and/or holds them in place, preventing a client from splaying open her thighs when pressing the carriage out and knocking her knees when returning the carriage home. This can actually hinder the healthy movement sequence intended in this exercise, and I would suggest that we break this habit. Our goal is to encourage optimal leg alignment while executing Pilates in a dynamic and functional way, not in a held position. Here’s a closer look at why it doesn’t serve the client to use a ball during Footwork.

First, we need to understand the dynamic functional movement behind this exercise. The natural movement that occurs at the ankle, knee and hip when extending the joints as you press the carriage out is different from the flexion motion when the carriage is returning home.

Pilates Footwork InPilates Footwork Out

The mechanism at work is a spiral, a rotational motion at the knee and hip. The sequential motion is as follows: the ankle begins plantar flexing as the tibia moves over the talus; the knees and hips extend; as the knee is straightening, an outward rotational movement of the tibia on the femur completes the extension of the knee; the femoral heads spiral inward to match the outward rotation happening at the knee. To close the joint, the tibia outwardly rotates and the femur inwardly rotates. You can see the rotation of the knee by watching the tibial tubercle moving laterally, and at the same time, see femur spiral inward, completing the movement. This happens because of the shape of the femoral and tibial condyles. They are like puzzle pieces fitting together. Look at the shape of the pieces; you will see how the lateral edge meets first followed by the medial side. This gives it a twist to close. What is occurring at the hip is an internal rotation as the femoral heads spin into the sockets.

The movement of bringing the carriage home is the opposite. The hips externally rotate to unwind the twist of the knee. The tibia internally rotates and slides forward over the talus. The ball prop creates a constant contraction of the adductors thereby inhibiting the rotational movement. It also shortens the adductors contributing to less movement of the hip joint. Placing the feet properly on the bar and cueing the spiral movement will give you better alignment of the femurs without the ball prop. In addition, the client is challenged by having to maintain the contact of their feet while moving from the hip. Now you are training a neuromuscular re-education of a better movement pattern. The proper placement of the feet throughout the exercise enables the engagement of the chain of muscles from the feet to the spine to be activated and linked.

You can experience how the feet play an important role in the movement and position of the pelvis, hip, knee and ankles through this simple “Arches In, Arches Out” exercise:

Arches OutArches OutArches InArches InArches NeutralArches NeutralStand up. Roll your arches out so that your weight is primarily on the outsides of the feet. Roll your arches in. Repeat this movement rhythmically. Notice how in the arches out position your feet are supinated, femurs are externally rotated and the pelvis is posteriorly rotated. In the arches in position your feet are now pronated, femurs are internally rotated and the pelvis is anterior. The talus bone is being moved by the bones around it creating the movement of the ankles. When the talus is in neutral, not in or out but centered, the alignment is translated up the leg allowing for better knee, hip and pelvis alignment. You can also do the same exercise while in a supine position with the knees bent.


Anterior PelvisAnterior Pelvis

Posterior PelvisPosterior PelvisThe pelvic position is important to how the femoral head sits in the socket. The femoral head sits deeply into the acetablum of the pelvis when lying supine on the Reformer with knees bent and feet on the bar. If the lumbar spine and pelvis are in a dynamic neutral position, the erector spinae and hip flexor groups are not in tension. The weight of the femoral head is felt in the posterior aspect of the acetablum. However, when the pelvis is in a posterior tilt, the hip is in extension placing the femoral heads anteriorly. An anterior pelvis causes the hip flexors to become synergistically dominant inhibiting the movement of the femoral head. Both of these pelvic positions inhibit healthy movement of the hip, which then affects the knee and foot. Working with the lumbar spine in a dynamic neutral with femoral heads sitting into the socket, as best they can, is ideal for achieving the necessary position for the hip rotational movement.

The line of muscle activation from the feet to pelvis to spine is stimulated by the placement of the feet. It sets up the link, starting with the neutral talus, in any of the three starting positions (balls, arches, heels). The contact of the MP joint and the fifth metatarsal on the bar sends a message up to the hip to work in its natural healthy pattern. And no prop is needed between the femurs.

An ankle prop may be helpful in guiding the tracking of the ankle joint during footwork. The size of the ball needs to be considered to match the whole leg alignment from the talus up to the center of the hip joint. It will vary from person to person depending on their pelvis width. Having a variety of small ball sizes available is ideal. This prop assists the client‘s awareness of how the ankle is tracking. I like to say, “The ball is an egg, stay in contact with the egg but don’t crack it.” The ankle tracking provides a moving alignment of the whole leg into the pelvis.

Coach your clients to feel the feet placement in relation to the knee and hip line so that they can naturally align the bones of the pelvis, femur and tibia. Cue their movement pattern to match the spiral of the femur. As they push out, help them maintain the neutral talus and spiral inward. As they come in, help them spiral outward while maintaining the neutral talus. To activate the whole leg in this way will also require the intrinsic work of the lower leg muscles, hip joint and pelvic floor muscles. This pattern is a necessary one to develop a strong connection of the feet to the pelvis and lower back (core).

The training effect described above is the healthy movement pattern we are working toward achieving. When we hold a prop between the thighs, it locks up the hip movement and inhibits the movement flow of the foot to the spine. Use your light touch and specific cues to guide the client through the movement flow. This will keep them in optimal alignment and help them gain functional strength from the feet to the spine.

Madeline Black, Pilates InstructorAbout the Author
Madeline Black has 20 years of Pilates teaching experience and currently directs Studio M in Sonoma, CA. She has a B.S. in PE and Dance from Skidmore College, has ACE, ACSM, Gyrotonic® and PMA certifications, and is currently studying Integrative Manual Therapy. Madeline presents advanced continuing education seminars for Body Mind Spirit Expo, Pilates On Tour and the Pilates Method Alliance, and at studios in around the world.


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Posted on Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 12:48PM by Registered CommenterPilates-Pro in , , , , , | Comments5 Comments | References2 References

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    Ball Props on the Reformer: Helping or Hindering?  - Pilates Pro - Pilates-Pro.com: The Pulse of the Pilates Industry
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    Amazing Web page, Carry on the fantastic work. Thanks a ton.

Reader Comments (5)

hi madeline; i haven't had a chance to take a workshop from you yet but my friends who have speak incredibly highly of you so i'm looking forward to it when i finally make it happen!

more and more i've been losing the inner thigh ball for footwork on the reformer. i used to use it incessantly, out of habit as you say, but i started to really dislike the effect. to me it looked like it impinged the action of the knee. the only time i use it now is for clients who literally can't feel their knees knocking and then only until i can move to a ball at the ankle.

i'm not sure when i started putting a larger (relevant to where their legs live and the like) ball at the ankle but i have seen a drastic improvement in leg alignment since then with all of my clients; especially the ones with unstable knees! (i've always looked for the neutral pelvis and the heavy femoral head in the socket but this ankle evolution has only been in the last few years.)

i do use an inner thigh ball for an exercise involving pushing the wall away to activate vmo; but it's there for feedback and to encourage a slight internal rotation of the femur at the end of the movement and it's always cued from the foot.

thank you for so eloquently explaining this idea; it's nice to have a better way to express what i could see with my eyes and feel with my own body but not put into words nearly so well!

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterangela barsotti

Great article Madeline! I'm so proud I trained with you.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMargy Verba

Hi Madeline,
Excellent article in a much needed subject. Your explanation of the biomechanics of the "screw home mechanism" was very comprehensive and was written with great care and completeness. I look forward to reading more articles from you in the future.

December 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeah Putnam

Great piece. Thanks!

I did my teacher training at Core Conditioning in L.A., a program with an emphasis on physical therapy and Pilates. I was taught not to use a ball between the thighs or knees on the reformer exactly as you explain so well.

I was however taught that certain people with patellar tracking issues due to weakness of the VMO could benefit from actively squeezing a ball between the ankles while doing the footwork up on toes, feet parallel. As you say the size of the ball must fit the individual. I’ll check your site in case you have any feedback on this practice.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristian Solem

What a great description of the spirals and bone movements that happen in this movement chain! I'd love to hear some of the cues you'd recommend using to encourage this pattern with a lay-person.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristine binnendyk

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