Whether you're new to Pilates or have been doing these strength and stability moves for years, there are probably some exercises that just don't work with your body. Your shoulders may hate reaching above you for hollow holds, or your low back might scream in protest whenever you sink into anything twisty. If you're working out online, it's harder to ask your instructor for a hand than it would be in-studio. Figuring out how to modify your Pilates routine at home can be a useful stopgap.
Doing something different than what your teacher is saying doesn't mean you're doing it wrong or that you're being lazy, says Helen Phelan, a Pilates instructor who specializes in body neutrality and mindfulness. "I’m all for pushing yourself and wanting to master a new movement," she explains. "But don’t let ego or thinking it has to look a certain way get in the way of the actual function of the movement — to build strength and mobility."
When Do You Need Pilates Modifications?
"Movement should be challenging, but it shouldn’t be painful," Phelan explains. "Understanding the subtle nuance between hard work and pain is important." For example, you definitely need a modification if something feels sharp or stabby instead of feeling that softer sensation of, "Oof, my core is working hard right now."
You also probably need to modify an exercise if the shape of your body just doesn't fit with what your instructor is telling you to do. Think about the "neutral spine" cue a lot of instructors will give during a Pilates class. You might check in with your body and feel that exact sensation that your teacher is talking about — but then you glance in the mirror and see that you look totally different than what's on screen. Phelan says that's normal. "Neutral spine looks incredibly different in every single body because of differences in the curvature of spines, so don’t worry about what it looks like in the teacher or your neighbor. Instead, lean into the feeling your teacher is asking you to find."
How Do You Modify Pilates Moves?
Once you realize that you need a modification, it can still be tricky to find one that feels right. When you're taking a Pilates class online or doing a video, you can't just flag your instructor down and ask for a different way to tackle the exercise. And even if you are practicing IRL, it can be intimidating to ask for help if you feel out of place in class. So how can you make modifications on your own?
Pilates Modifications For Shoulder Pain
"Any quadruped or plank position that requires weight-bearing may be tricky for injured shoulders," Phelan explains. "Play with keeping your knees on the ground to take some of the load out of the shoulder girdle."
Keeping your arms straight with overhead movements might also cause you some shoulder woes, Phelan tells Bustle. "To modify when doing overhead upper body work, such as the 'hug the world' kneeling arm series, keeping a bend in the elbows and shortening your range of motion can help you build strength without exacerbating an injury." Your modifications should still emphasize your shoulders without passing any strain into your neck.
Pilates Modifications For Low Back Pain
"Supine core work is a common position for low back pain to flare up," Phelan says, referring to core exercises you do while lying on your back. Keep your low back actively tucked into the ground, making sure you're not flaring it up and out for the sake of getting as deep into the move as your teacher seems to be.
If you're supposed to be lowering straight legs down toward the floor, focus on pressing the small of your back into the ground. If that means you can't tap your heels to the ground, then that's OK. "Shortening your range of motion and the lever (AKA bending the knees) will lighten the stress placed on the low back and make it easier to feel the core firing appropriately," Phelan explains.
Pilates Modifications When You Live With Chronic Pain
"Every workout for someone dealing with chronic pain is really subjective, so it’ll take a lot of trial and error to test your limits," Phelan says. "Never be afraid to take a rest break so that when you come back to a movement you can keep your form." Even if your Pilates instructor is encouraging you to say consistent and stick with it until you get all your reps in, drop to your knees or otherwise come out of the movement as often as you need to.
If you're holding a plank, for example, Phelan says it's always better to drop onto your knees and rest when necessary. Otherwise, your low back can hyperextend. "This causes the abdominals to stop working, makes the low back ache, and stresses your joints," she explains. So really, taking a break is a good way to go.
Pilates Modifications To Fit Your Body
If your instructor is cueing you to do things that just don't work with your body, Phelan says there are plenty of ways to make adjustments. "To accommodate for things like pregnancy, limited mobility, or varying body size, for example, you can externally rotate your legs so you're hugging the knees more towards the armpits for moves that cue hugging your knees to your chest." When your instructor prompts you to reach for your shin while you're lying on your back, you can also opt to grab behind your thigh instead, Phelan says.
How Can You Tell If Your Pilates Modification Is Safe And Effective?
Phelan tells Bustle that figuring out good Pilates modifications is all about listening to your body. "The exercise should feel challenging but sustainable," she says. "You should feel muscles activating and firing, sometimes really intensely, but never in sharp pain — like a spasm or stabbing." You also want to make sure that you're activating the muscles that the instructor is talking about, rather than firing up completely different parts of your body. "Your modification is effective when you can feel the muscle group your teacher cues in the movement," Phelan explains. "Watch out for nearby muscle groups 'taking over' a movement and creating more tension in the body."
"The best workout is one tailored to your body," Phelan tells Bustle. "It’s always better to make a movement fit your body than strain and potentially activate the wrong muscle group or promote poor posture to make it look like the teachers. There is no 'easy way' or 'girl version,' there’s only the variation that makes the most sense for your body in that moment."
Helen Phelan, Pilates instructor, founder of Helen Phelan Studio