“The rider’s thighs should remain flat on the sides of the saddle and should be relaxed…but stretched from his hip, so that the knees stay low and back.”
Charles de Kunffy, “The Ethics and Passions of Dressage.”
“Reach back with your heels, keeping your knees down and back.”
Ange Bean, dressage instructor
“Be sure to bring your leg back behind you, not even slightly out in front of you.”
Me, Pilates Instructor
Don’t you just hate to keep hearing that? Teacher after teacher tells you to get your legs back, reach back with the heels, reach long with your leg, or reach down and back with the thigh or knee. They keep telling you over and over to do that. They might even come up with some crazy contraption or other to help you get those legs back. You’d really like to get them back, if only you knew how.
What you and your instructor don’t know might be getting in the way of success.
Here’s what you probably don’t know: You have to engage your deep, deep abdominal muscles first. Yes, folks, first. If you don’t access that transverse abdominal muscle first, you can’t move your leg. In any direction. Sounds crazy, but it’s true!
In order to move limbs, the trunk needs to be stabilized first. If the trunk or torso is not stable (no puns intended here), then the limbs are just flailing around or might actually be stuck or too tight. If the torso isn’t stable, something else needs to be. The body compensates by recruiting other muscles and body parts to the job the primary “worker bee” isn’t doing. Unfortunately, the substitute rarely does as good a job of it as the intended primary worker.
So that we can all speak the same language, we need to establish some vocabulary. Abdominal muscles that help stabilize the trunk or spine include: Rectus abdominis (RA), external obliques, internal obliques, and transversus abdominis (TA). Back muscles that stabilize the spine include: Quadratus lumborum (QL), erector spinae (there are several), lats, traps, and glutes (gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus). .
The larger, more extrinsic muscles, however, serve more as mobilizers than as stabilizers. The rectus abdominis (RA) or “six-pack” muscle is, therefore, more of a trunk mobilizer than a trunk stabilizer, but it does help stabilize to some extent. That’s just not its primary job. The quadratus lumborum (QL) can also stabilize but is more active in bending the trunk or lifting the hip.
From a Pilates standpoint (‘cause that’s where I’m standing) then, we need to focus on the deeper abdominal muscles – the obliques and, especially, the TA or transversus abdominis. This muscle is the deepest of the abdominals
The TA muscle runs around the body like a girdle. Most people can find the RA muscle. They might even be able to find the obliques. But most people are not on a first-name basis with their TA muscles.
The most fit or normal situation is for the TA muscle to fire as much as 1/10th of a second BEFORE activating a leg muscle – in any direction. That’s before moving a leg backwards, forwards, out to the side, or in toward the other leg. It doesn’t matter where you want to move that leg, you need access the TA muscle first to be effective about it. The worst scenario is for the TA to fire as much as half a second AFTER you move the leg.
If you’re having trouble getting your legs back and keeping them back, it may be because you can’t access your TA muscle to help stabilize the spine and the pelvis so that you can move the legs.
Remember when you were just learning to ride, hanging on for dear life with everything you had, crouched over the saddle and gripping with hands and knees, bouncing around all over the place? And someone asked you to sit tall, get your legs back, and – gasp – relax? Yeah, right. Somehow, over time, you managed it.
But remember how unstable you were, so you tried everything else to try to get stable – gripping, tightening, hunkering down. None of it helped, of course. But that’s what your body instinctively tried to do – compensate with what it perceived as a reasonable facsimile. Unfortunately, close doesn’t count.
So you got through the beginner lessons and now you ride pretty well. Now you’re focused on fine-tuning things a bit. Great. To do that you’ve got to find, and get to know, your TA muscle.
Here’s a way to help decide how well you’re using your abs (RA included). You’ll need a friend to do this, preferably one with a really good “eye” for details. Lie face down on the floor, with your head resting on your hands. With your friend watching carefully, lift your right leg off the floor in an extended position (straight through the knee). Do this slowly and carefully three to five times to give your friend lots of time to notice which muscles you’re using to lift your leg.
The most correct order for the right leg is: Right glutes (butt), right hamstring, left low back, right low back, left upper back, right upper back, and last, the neck.
If you happen to start with the hamstring and then the glutes, that’s okay. But if you’re starting with any other muscle first, you’ve got a bit of a problem. The worst possible scenario is trying to lift your leg with your neck. And as weird and illogical as that sounds, it happens.
What your friend can’t see, though, is that you really need to fire the abs, especially the TA, first before you try to lift your leg. So, now that you know how it’s supposed to go, try very hard to let you body go to its default mode so your friend can get a good, honest reading. Do this for both legs as they may be different.
Once you have your true reading, try again. But this time, focus on using your abs first, then lift your leg. Then try stabilizing your spine with your abs as before, but now engage the pelvic floor and lift your leg. What differences do you notice? It should be easier and more stable (no rolling around). What does your friend see now?
Find those abs
Being the Pilates instructor that I am, here’s how I teach people to find the transversus abdominis (TA) muscle:
First, you need to completely bypass the rectus abdominis (RA) muscle. Why? Because it is so easy to use, the body goes for it instead and ignores the TA. So we need to skip the RA and focus on the TA. To do this, scoop your abs up and in, just like back in high school when you were trying to impress the opposite sex.
Keep your abs scooped up and in while doing core or abdominal work, such as “crunches” and leg extensions. Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your knees up and about hips’ width apart. With your arms by your sides, inhale and tuck your chin a little. Exhale and scoop up, reaching your arms toward your feet but off the floor by your hips. Look between your knees and inhale. Exhale and roll back down. Repeat five times. Remember to lead with your forehead, not your chin. Only come up far enough to leave the bottom points of your shoulder blades on the floor.
If your belly bulges up while doing this exercise, you’re using the RA muscle. Do your best to avoid using that puppy! If necessary, make exercises easier until you can reliably avoid using the RA muscle. Then begin to increase the difficulty.
In that exercise, your legs were separated. To help engage the TA even more, squeeze your thighs, knees, and calves together. To help do this, you can put a book, a small pillow or a small, kid’s play ball between your knees. If you’re really bowlegged, you’ll need a slightly larger pillow or ball. Once you have established good core strength and stability, you’ll be more efficient in using your legs.
Stretching helps too
Even though you need the TA muscle to help you, stretching helps too. Here are a couple of stretches for the quads and the hip flexors to help you. The quads are the four muscles that make up the front of the thigh. That’s why they’re called the “quads”. The “hip flexors” are the same muscles, but we usually mean the upper insertion of those muscles at the point of the hip when we say “hip flexors.”
I’m sure you’ve seen many people at the gym and other places attempting to stretch their quads. You know what I mean. Someone will hold up one foot or ankle behind them and pull their knee back. I hate to say this (actually I love to say it), but most people do it wrong. They either lean forward or arch their lower backs. You just can’t stretch the quad this way. You have to stand up straight and tuck your butt. You might not be able to get your knee very far back (I sure can’t), but at least you won’t be wasting your time – you’ll actually get a good stretch.
Another way to stretch the quads is by lungeing forward on one leg. The back leg with the knee bent is the one stretching. Tuck your butt and straighten your back leg by pushing back through the heel. If you push the middle of your thigh forward with your knee bent, you’ll stretch the quad. If you press the point of your hip forward, you’ll stretch the hip flexor. You can also deepen the lunge and vary the stretch.
If you need more tactile help, you can do this in a doorway: You’ll need clear wall space next to the doorway in order to stretch a leg back. Stand in a doorway with your back to the jamb. Your standing leg needs to be about a foot from the jamb, with the knee slightly bent. Press your lower back into the jamb by tucking the pelvis. Then reach back with the toes of the other foot. Now press the heel back and down. If you’ve done this correctly, you should feel a good stretch in the hip flexor.
You can also kneel on the floor and, with a tucked butt and stretching tall, lean back to stretch the quads. Then you can turn this into posting by coming down onto your calves and rising up again, keeping your torso stretched up tall and not leaning forward or back. Use your newly found abs and pelvic floor to help you.
Most of us spend way too much time sitting – sitting in the car (maybe for hours at a time), sitting at our desks, at the computer, watching TV, eating. I could go on. This means that our quads and our hamstrings are shortening and tightening. And the glutes are stretching and “blossoming” – getting bigger and flabbier!
Walking, running, and even standing more will help tighten the glutes by using them. This will help the quads and hamstrings a little, but you really need to do focus on strengthening them.
Bringing the leg back means using the glutes. Plan to walk at least 20 minutes a day, preferably twice a day. Some other things you can do is back leg raises while standing at the copier or waiting in line (as long as you have clearance and you aren’t going to kick someone). Do leg raises while brushing your teeth. Just tightening the glutes while you’re standing will help.
Try this while brushing your teeth: Stand up tall, with your butt tucked, and raise your right leg out behind you. It can be either straight or bent at the knee. Point the knee down. Lift the leg to a comfortable height and then raise and lower it only a couple of inches every time you count a second for the place you are at your teeth. Take 30 seconds to get from one way-back tooth on the top all the way around the outside to the other way-back tooth on top. Change legs. While brushing the bottom teeth on the outside, lift and lower the left leg 30 times. Now, while coming around the inside of your teeth, lift your right leg slightly out to the side to mimic actually being on a horse, and lift your leg 30 times. Change legs and do the same with the left leg as you brush the insides of the top teeth. You can also try slightly bending the knee of the standing leg.
Straighten up and get those legs back!