If I were to ask you to describe the typical posture of a teen, what would it be? For my part, every day I see teens slumped on one leg, head hanging forward and shoulders rounded. Why, oh, why are more teenagers not doing Pilates? If anyone needs Pilates, it’s teenagers – now more than ever, after months of inactivity, learning lost, and online-only socializing through a screen. Recent research showed 62% of girls do less physical activity than before the pandemic – and the impact on their posture and alignment is clear to see.
What can Pilates to do help?
Pilates works for all teens. It provides a positive, non-competitive movement for those who shy away from the sport, and it conditions athletic teens. It stands head and shoulders above generic exercise because it tunes into body awareness, creating that mind-body connection. When teens tap into this, they learn to avoid the aches and pains of life and to lead happy, healthy, active lives.
What are the main things I see?
- Dominating back extensors
- Lack of lumbar and pelvic stability
- Tight chest muscles leading to rounded shoulders
- Weak lower trapezius and serratus anterior
- Thoracic spine held in flexion
- Overworked neck extensors
- Upper body breathing
Generally speaking, I notice boys are inflexible in their lower bodies, resulting in short, stiff muscles, while girls are often stiff and weak in their upper back and shoulders. For both, it’s all entirely natural, and we can remedy it with practice – the kind of practice that makes progress not perfection. We need teens to find ease with movement – by adding Pilates to their toolkit rather than adding to the pressure of perfection.
Here are my top 5 Pilates exercises for improving posture and strength:
1. Wall roll down (aka the wilting flower)
Why is it so helpful?
- It challenges the abdominals to work against gravity
- It encourages the spine to move sequentially as it peels away from the wall, head first
- The wall provides sensory feedback – this “peeling” motion engages the brain and facilitates the mind–body connection (more details in Part 3)
- Release tension by letting go of the arms and neck completely
- Be careful not to hinge from the hips – keep the pelvis upright by scooping the abdominals up and in
- Don’t let the abdominals collapse as the spine restacks to standing (like stacking cans of tuna).
2. Clam arms (or the book opener)
Why is it so helpful?
- It opens the upper body and stretches the pectoral muscles, which can be tight/rounded from sport or sitting/studying
- The pelvis and spine are in neutral – keep the waist lifted off the floor
- Let the head roll naturally with the movement, supporting it with clasped hands or a pillow
- Keep the gap between the ears and shoulders as the spine sequentially rotates
- Keep the knees and hips flexed in front of the body. To deepen the stretch, extend the top leg
- Add the breath control to the rotation – the movement is with the exhalation (engaging the brain once more)
3. Standing swimming (or hailing a bus)
Why is it so helpful?
- Teen girls often find it uncomfortable to lie on their front, so this modification is great
- It works the upper body and adds dynamic balance (standing on one leg), creating whole body movement
- The combination of balance and muscle coordination (requiring concentration and focus) supports participation in and out of school as well as in sports
- Keep the arms and fingers long
- Focus the eyes forward and the abdominals connected
- Keep the pace flowing
4. Lower body stretches – lying down
This stretch helps teens to guard against falling into their midline when standing. So often teens roll inwards, causing tight inner leg muscles and rounded shoulders. Bring one knee to your chest. Place a hand on each knee and slowly open the legs. This also works well lying down with feet against a wall.
- Avoid arching the back – stay in neutral
- Don’t hold your breath!
- Don’t go too wide initially
Tight hamstrings affect the lower back – they connect to the lower part of the pelvis, causing a posterior tilt. This in turn affects the top part of the pelvis, which connects with the lumbar spine. Lying on the back, use a towel or scarf to slowly straighten the leg (aiming for 90 degrees). Flex the foot for a deeper stretch, keeping the tailbone on the floor. Bend the knee and release.
- Keep the pelvis long and stable as you straighten the leg
- Keep the knee softly bent and shorten the range if the hamstrings are tight
- Relax the neck and chest
- Soften the handgrip if using a prop
Side-lying quadriceps and hip flexor stretch
Lay on your side, bend the top knee, taking hold of the front of the foot (using a scarf or towel if necessary). Gently take the leg behind you.
- Keep the pelvis neutral and avoid arching the back
- Pull the shoulder blades down the back
- Keep the upper body open
- Keep the knee and foot on a level plane
5. Standing wall push
Why is it so helpful?
- Avoids crunches, which shorten muscles by pulling forwards
- Prepares you for planks, which are effective when done well, but lacking core and shoulder girdle strength makes it hard for teens to hold effectively
A good exercise to create functional strength is curl-ups from extension (with a ball) or the series of 5 with the head down.
What every teen Pilates class should cover:
- Stimulate stability and balance using softballs, wobble boards, spikes balls, and bands
- Introduce circuit training in pairs to encourage social interaction
- Begin with linear movements, progressing to more complex coordinated and choreographed sequences
- Incorporate standing work because they sit enough at school. It also gets them to apply the technique learned on the mat into their everyday activities
- Use rhythm work to keep the brain engaged
- Jumping, walking, and lunges
- Music, either in the background or as a way to encourage teenagers to walk, jump or lunge (I get the teens in my class to add to our playlist so they feel included)
- Keep the class pace fast to avoid boredom
- Use verbal cues rather than tactile cues
- Avoid inversions at this age as the spine is still growing
Pilates teaches teens efficient movement sequences and patterns and maintains joint health as well as balanced muscle development to help when growth spurts occur. Teenage is challenging, but it’s also hugely rewarding. It’s a privilege to see children develop into young adults and connect their minds and bodies.