Core exercise is almost synonymous with Pilates exercise, and many think that it’s all about doing abdominal exercise. There is more to the word core rather than working with your abdominal muscles. In fact, this is only a fraction of the term as your back, hip, and part of your shoulder muscles are considered core muscles. That is one of the reasons why a Pilates swimming exercise or its variations will be done on any Pilates mat class.
Pilates Swimming exercise is the 24th of the Classical Mat exercises written by Joseph Pilates. This movement is done lying down in a prone position on the exercise mat with arms extended overhead. The opposite arms and legs then move alternately as if you’re doing a swimming exercise in a dry land.
How to do the Pilates Swimming?
Start lying facing down on the mat with your arms extended overhead and legs straight and parallel.
Lift one arm and the opposite leg, followed by the other and the other leg alternately, making sure that your abdominals are engaged fully while doing the movement.
Keep your neck long and in line with your spine as you lift up the upper body and avoid looking forward as this will shorten your neck muscles. Your leg muscles will be straight and fully engaged all throughout the movement.
Aim to start with 20 kicks on each leg and gradually increase to 30 kicks as you get stronger.
Benefits of the Pilates Swimming
This exercise is excellent to strengthen the back extensors, your glutes, and the middle back muscles. But aside from just working on these specific muscles, the Pilates swimming exercise is a very functional movement to balance up your posture.
Most of our daily activities require us to hunch and bend forward, and over time, our back muscles get weaker and our spine slowly adapts this posture and will slowly round forward.
The swimming exercise is one of the best exercises to prevent this from happening.
The motion of lifting one arm and the opposite leg, referred to as cross-pattern, is commonly used in our daily activities like walking, where we step forward with the left leg and bring our right arm forward at the same time. The Pilates swimming movement will reinforce this pattern which will strengthen these muscles and activate them more efficiently.
Muscles working on the Pilates Swimming exercise
This simple yet very challenging exercise will strengthen the entire back muscles of your spine, your middle back, upper back, and your glutes muscles.
But what makes this movement unique compared to other back exercises done in the gym is the cross firing of the opposite sides as you do the drill. This gives it a more unique training effect even though you’re still technically working with the same muscle groups.
Modifications and variations of the Pilates Swimming movement
Since most of us have already weakened our back from sitting long hours in front of the computer, the Pilates Swimming exercise will be too challenging for these muscles. The exercise needs to be modified accordingly to suit your level.
For first-timer, it is good to start with the easier versions of this exercise and gradually progress until you have built enough strength to do the classical version of this exercise.
These are the modifications that I normally teach in our Pilates Mat class. Here are the different variations of the exercises, starting from the easiest one.
The Fish back extension variations
The Fish exercises are one of the best ways to prepare your back for the Pilates Swimming exercise. Instead of extending your arms overhead, your arms will be held at the side of your body, decreasing the load on your back extensor muscles.
Though it's supposed to be an easier version, it actually packs a lot of benefits in it that it will work on almost all your back muscles. That means the entire back muscles from neck to tail bone, the back of your arms, the back of your thighs and hips, and the back of your shoulders.
It comes in different variations; here, I will show you 4 common versions of it.
You start the exercise lying down on your belly. Slowly lift your face and chest off the floor. Focus on lengthening your spine from tail bone to the top of your head as if you want to reach it to the wall in front of you.
Don't look forward, as this will shorten the back muscles of your neck. Hold the position for around 10 seconds while breathing normally, then slowly go down.
Start the same way as the basic lift but this time lift the arms off the floor. There are 4 things to check as you lift the arms up.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together to the spine
- Lift your arms higher than your hips
- Bring the arms closer to the center
- Keep your elbows straight
You should feel intense work on your triceps and upper back muscles if you do it correctly. Hold the position for up to 30s, then lower down.
This will be the same as the previous variation except that you lift both legs. Keep your legs straight and together to activate the inner thighs in this version. And make sure you engage your abdominal muscles so the lower back will not take over all the work in this position. Hold the position for up to 30s, then lower down.
Lift again into the full fish version. This time keep your arms and legs lower than normal but not resting on the floor.
Lift your right arm and the left leg higher, then go down. Then lift the left arm and right leg, then lower down. Alternate the lift between the opposite sides. Start slow and go faster as you get familiar with the movement.
The Swimming Fish version will challenge work on your coordination to prepare you for the Swimming exercise once you progress.
The Prone Airplane exercise
Once your back extensor muscles have gotten stronger from the Fish variations, it is good to challenge them by opening your arms to the side. This will increase the load on your back muscles more than doing the fish versions but not as much as doing the actual Pilates Swimming exercise.
To benefit more from this movement, make sure you open your arms wide and squeeze your shoulder blades together to the center. This will strengthen the muscles of your upper back, which is needed to correct your posture.
The Superman exercise
This is the closest exercise towards the Swimming movement as your arms will be overhead but instead of moving the arms and legs, you only hold the position. This will make it easier and more stable; thus, it will be a good preparatory exercise.
Ensure that you are engaging your abdominal muscles in this exercise to not overload the back muscles entirely.
A good way to challenge further with this version is to get your hands higher than your shoulders. This will be very tough if you have tight shoulders, but the attempt to bring it higher will benefit you a lot in developing your strength on the shoulder muscles.
The Fish to Superman combo
Before moving on to the actual Swimming variation, one way to develop more strength is doing this version. You simply start in the full version of the Fish exercise where you lift both arms and legs, then slowly open your arms towards the Airplane position, and finish it with the Superman pose, then slowly go back to the fish version and repeat the sequence.
The Child’s pose to counter-stretch the tired back muscles
Your back muscles are going to feel tired with these exercises, and you will feel tightness in these areas. The Child’s Pose stretch is a great position to go into after doing any version of the extension movement to relax the tight back muscles.
Start by sitting on your heels, rounding your spine, and reaching your arms forward. Breathe normally as you are in the position and just allow the back muscles to fully rest and relax.
Common mistakes in doing the Pilates back extension exercises
There are a few things that you need to watch out when doing these exercises to make the exercise more effective and avoid straining your muscles.
- Looking forward instead of looking down. It is very common to look forward when doing any extension exercise, especially if trying to lift your chest higher. This will shorten the neck muscles, and you will not be able to lengthen your spine fully with the position.
- Trying to lift the chest of the legs too high - instead, you think of reaching your head forward to lengthen your spine further and reach your legs backward. This will reduce the strain in your lower back and will also engage the right muscles. Once you have developed enough strength and mobility, lifting higher will no longer be an issue.
- Not engaging the abdominal muscles - if you feel too much pressure in your lower back when doing any extension exercise, you are either lifting your legs and chest too high or not engaging the abdominal muscles.
- Holding your breath - these movements will be quite challenging to breathe, and it is very tempting to hold your breath as you hold the position. Concentrate on breathing normally as you do the exercise; it will help you last longer.
Can you do the Pilates Swimming exercise as a stand-alone exercise?
Nothing is wrong with doing extension exercise only but it is best if you pair it with an abdominal exercise for better development with the entire core muscles. The Pilates Hundreds is a great way to balance the work of the Swimming exercise.
Another Pilates mat exercise that you can do is the Pilates Roll-up. This will loosen up the spine and stretch the hamstring muscles that are worked up in the extension movement.