The scoop is a signature concept for Pilates training, as well as a topic for much debate. Every teacher has an opinion on whether the Pilates exercises should be done with a scoop or neutral spine. It's impossible not to land on one side of the political fence or the other with a viewpoint on to scoop or not to scoop.
It seems unrealistic to me to say that there is only one way to do anything! I've always taught my teachers to use their eye and treat each person as an individual. Here's my personal opinion for the use of the Pilates scoop, I hope you find it useful in deciding whether you're going to incorporate scooping into the exercises in your Pilates training programs.
Scooping is a necessary concept for learning how to properly articulate the spine and strengthen core muscles. Since each individual has a unique structure and different strengths and weaknesses, it seems most useful to train the body to work with both a neutral pelvis and scoop since the use of both movement and stabilization are key in Pilates training and teaching the body functional movement patterns.
The Benefit of Learning to Scoop
The ability to articulate into a scoop lengthens low back muscles and strengthens the core, providing the opportunity for a flexible spine able to move freely in flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral bending. A good scoop facilitates the ability to articulate the spine from the tailbone through the sacrum, to waistline, moving the pelvis into a posterior tilt. Scooping lengthens the tailbone away from the head, opening the spine while changing the curves of the back. When the lumbar spine moves into flexion, the neck should complement the curve. Both ends of the body pull away from center.
The Benefit of Maintaining a Neutral Spine
The ability to maintain a neutral pelvis position involves enough abdominal strength to keep the back muscles from taking over and pulling the pelvis farther into an anterior tilt/arch.
Having been a gymnast and dancer (with congenital low back dysfunctions) - I began my Pilates training with a nice anterior tilt to my pelvis, a huge arch in my low back, very tight hip flexors and surprisingly weak abdominals. How many of your students face this same challenge! For me, learning how to articulate my spine and even get into a good position for rolling was almost impossible. In fact it was more than six months of practicing Pilates before I ever made it back up to balance on Rolling Like a Ball and the Seal. Without learning how to scoop, I'd probably still only dreaming about rolling.
Why Practice Scooping?
The length created through the torso with a good scoop facilitates maintaining good flexion of the spine for the Hundred, Rolling Like a Ball, Series of 5, Stomach Massage Round, Kneeling Knees Round & Knees Off, Pelvic Lift...All of the beginner repertoire to strengthen the abdominals and get clients off to a successful start with their Pilates program.
Who Should Scoop?
Every Pilates student should learn and be able to work with a scoop. If when looking at standing posture - you observe the pelvis in a tucked or posterior tilted position, the concept of scooping may be easier to teach, but only because the hips tend more naturally to this position - Typically for this person, hip mechanics are compromised, hamstrings tight, abdominals and back muscles weak. The natural curves of the spine may be reversed! This would be a student who needs to learn proper scooping for correct abdominal strength, and also needs to focus on neutral spine exercises for improved hip mechanics and better gait.
If a client has standing posture with more lordosis or anterior pelvic tilt, hip flexors and low back muscles will be tight, and abdominals still weak. You can't effectively articulate into a good scoop until the low back muscles stretch enough to allow the abdominals to work effectively to change the spine position. Neutral positions may be easier, but there can be a tendency to rely on back muscles to do all the work.
A cue often used is belly button to the backbone, or navel to spine. This cue may give a false sense of scoop. It tends to cut the body into two halves, (a top and a bottom) from the waistline rather than lengthening and articulating the spine as the tailbone curls forward. Rather than just the navel, everything from the base of the torso to the waistline should flatten. If the hip bones move closer to the ribs when working on scooping, it's incorrect. Watch for length, with the hips pulling away from the ribs as the abdominals flatten and the spine lengthens into a scoop.
Initiation for a Good Scoop
Preparatory Exercises To Practice Scooping
Pelvic Curl Supine-
- Pelvic Floor Contraction - sitz bones, tailbone, and pubic bones should pull together, like closing a drawstring. This action starts to lengthen the tail away from the head and articulate through the sacrum.
- Lower Abdominal Contraction - continues the action to articulate through the lumbar spine and provide support for the back, from the front of the body.
- Gluteal Contraction - maintains the length of the spine and supports the scoop.
- Lay on the back knees bent, feet flat, arms by the sides.
- Begin with the spine in a neutral position - normal curves of the spine.
- Inhale and lengthen the spine.
- Exhale to contract the pelvic floor, and low abdominals to curl the tailbone towards the ceiling and the, sacrum and low spine to the floor.
- Engage the glutes to hold the position.
- Inhale and lengthen the spine back to a neutral position.
What to watch for:
Pelvic Curl Prone-
- On the inhale the spine is in a neutral position, eyes focused towards the ceiling.
- On the exhale as the spine articulates into the scoop, the neck should also flex
- Watch for the eyes to shift focus towards the knees as the neck changes position on the scoop to be sure the whole spine is mobile and active with the movement.
- The lengthening that is created here is the preparation for curling the head off the Mat for the Hundred and Series of 5 and being able to keep unnecessary tension out of the neck.
- Lay on the stomach - legs hip width apart, hands by the sides or under the head.
- Start with the tip of the nose on the floor. If needed place a pillow under the forehead to keep the ears in line with the shoulders & adjust the head position. Be sure the head is not tilted to have the chin or forehead on the floor.
- Inhale to depress the shoulder blades and lengthen the spine.
- Exhale to contract the pelvic floor, curling the tailbone towards the floor
- Continue to exhale while pulling the low abdominals up and in - towards the back and away from the mat, to lengthen through the sacrum and low spine.
- Engage the glutes to hold the length.
- Inhale and allow the spine to relax and rock back to a neutral position.
What to watch for
- It's very important that the glutes don't contract first. If they do - there will be no articulation and lengthening of the spine.
- The chest, shoulders, and thoracic spine should stay still. Movement is the tail lengthening away from the ribs.
- There will not be as much noticeable change in the head and neck position when on the stomach, but there should still be some movement through the neck.
Practicing this exercise both supine and prone changes the way that gravity affects the body. Because the legs are straight vs. bent, it is also different for pelvis placement and hip mechanics. Generally I teach the supine exercise to my new students, and the prone exercise in preparation for push-ups, Long Stretch on the Reformer, and other intermediate exercises when the time is right.