Ask Rael Q & A: 21st issue

by Rael Isacowitz

When you first meet a client, how do you assess them? What do you do first?

I am so pleased you asked this question, as I believe this point goes to the heart of my approach to teaching Pilates and that of BASI as well. All too often, teachers start a session without adequate assessment of the client. Each person is an individual with individual needs and the program needs to be tailored for the individual. Pilates is not a “one size fits all” method of exercise.

My assessment often starts prior to my meeting the person. Each client is given a chart to fill out with questions relating to injuries, restrictions, prior Pilates experience, fitness level, other activities, gender and age. These are all factors that will affect the workout.

The next part of my assessment is when we walk up to meet each other to introduce ourselves I am continuously assessing the person’s gait, posture, alignment, nature and other factors that could be clues to the type of person I will be working with and the form the session should take. Of course, the person is not aware of my thought process.

After a short introduction I will typically start by demonstrating a few Roll Downs. I explain that this is not to test flexibility so it is not important how far down she or he rolls, it is only to assess alignment and detect possible deviations and imbalances. (Please note that the Roll Down is not suited to everyone; if a person has back issues, for instance, it could be contraindicated. Other options are rolling down while leaning against a wall with knees bent, or starting supine with a pelvic curl).

By this point, I should already know the person quite well. I proceed with the warm up and, from then on out, each and every exercise is a tool of analysis, providing me with a wealth of information. I will later write down my observations and this will guide me in compiling a program for my new client. Each person deserves individual assessment and a program that will fit like a glove!

Whats your advice for achieving a proper Short Spine?

The first question is, what is a “proper” Short Spine? There are certain exercises in the Pilates repertoire that, for some reason, have more variations than stars in the sky! They simply lend themselves to choreographic interpretation. One of them is the Short Spine. Other examples are Double Leg Stretch and Single Leg Stretch on the Mat and Mermaid, Side Over, Up Stretch and Star and the Reformer.

I like to keep things as simple and as clear as possible. We always need to go back and ask ourselves, “What are we trying to achieve with this exercise?” “What are the key objectives?”

In the Short Spine, I am trying to achieve spinal articulation and offer a stretch for the hamstrings. To achieve this, I recommend the following sequence: Start in the frog-position and straighten the legs; transfer the legs overhead, trying to keep the sacrum down on the carriage (although it will start lifting at some point) and take the carriage all the way to the stopper. Once you have reached the stopper keep the carriage still as you roll up onto your shoulders, legs reaching up toward the ceiling and keeping slight tension in the straps throughout. Note that as you roll up, the spine articulates vertebra-by-vertebra. Once on the shoulders, the trunk should be stable, with both the spinal flexors and extensors co-contracting.

At this point, bend the legs into a frog-position and roll the spine down onto the carriage, maintaining a consistent diamond shape of the legs. Again, this articulation involves a vertebra-by-vertebra movement, achieved with deep abdominal contraction. Once the back can go no further, bring the legs across the body, maintaining the frog shape; anchor the sacrum and return to the starting position. (References: Pilates, Human Kinetics, Reformer Movement Analysis Workbook, BASI Pilates, Pilates Interactive Online Videopedia,

This version is slightly different to the classic version, in which the carriage is not brought to a standstill before rolling up, but rather the roll up occurs simultaneously as the carriage moves toward the stopper. This is of course legitimate as it is the original. However, by bringing the carriage all the way to the stopper before rolling up and then keeping it still during the roll up, a greater hamstring stretch is achieved and more controlled spinal articulation is required – both of which are the objectives of the exercise. Achieving your objective is the “proper” way of doing an exercise!


This article first appeared in the June 2012 issue of Pilates Style Magazine. Responses modified with updated event information. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at

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