How I learnt to love the Pilates Hundred. It was Cent to try me!

The Pilates Hundred Exercise: iconic, demanding and misunderstood

The Hundred is one of the most famous Pilates exercises in the repertoire

It is one of Joseph Pilates’ original 34, as outlined in his 1945 book, A Return to Life Through Contrology

Back then Pilates didn’t have its eponymous name.   Joseph Pilates called his method Contrology

Ages ago I wrote another blog post about Pilates, the man and you can read it here.  I cannot believe it is 8 years since I wrote that!

He intended for each of  these 34 exercises to be done in order and advocated mastery of one before embarking upon the next.

There is a copy of the book available on line and you can see the Hundred exercise outlined on page 20 of the book, here 

What is involved with the Pilates Hundred?

In short, you lie fully flat on your back, raise your head, upper trunk and arms, also raise both legs as short distance from the floor

Next you slowly beat the arms up and down whilst breathing steadily in and out.    Aim for 100 arm pumps/beats.  It is a demanding fusion of strength, stamina, breathwork, awareness and balance (between the front and back of the body)

The Hundred wasn’t just one of the exercises, it was the first one. so this had to be mastered before the others.

In classical Pilates you remain true to this way of doing Pilates and perform  the exercises broadly  speaking in the original order.  My complete inability to do this exercise and many of the other ones,  due to injury, has in large part influenced why I have not bought into the  classical Pilates philosophy.   I and very many other British Instructors  take a different approach, selecting the exercises that best suit the group or client, according to their abilities, needs and stated goals.

It is all Pilates though

What is the point of the Pilates Hundred?

It is an exercise for breathing.  In theory you learn to breathe steadily and for a 100 counts under load of body weight

It shares with other exercises the need for strength, stamina, awareness, control and balance.

Sounds like a good idea doesn’t it?  So what was the problem for me?

My career and the Pilates Hundred

Until recently I never “got” the Hundred due to a combination of injury and failure to understand the point of it all.  I have a fairly big abdominal separation, known as a Diastasis Recti (DR)  which prevents me doing any intense abdominal exercises.  To be honest the classical repertoire is like Kryptonite for my body.  It is almost the worst thing I can do to it.  Too much Pilates training postnatally after my daughter  was born nearly 17 years ago contributed to the failure of my DR to heal properly.  Anyway, I can’t turn the clock back so, moving on…

To be honest, even if I had the best abdominal muscles ever I’d still have failed to understand the Hundred.

Why?

Because I didn’t appreciate the significance of the breathing.  I thought the breathing was just a matter of actually breathing and the order of the breathing.  That is, when you breathe in and out during a particular exercise.  My experience of Pilates over the years has reinforced that.  We Pilates instructors love to tell you when is the in and when is the out breath.

I taught, to the best of my ability, slowly developing experience and knowledge for about 16 years and ignoring the Hundred most of the time.  If and when I taught the Pilates Hundred, it always went wrong.  I am sure I was at fault with my teaching.  In addition though,  it is just too hard for most of us, and often people in class had preconceived ideas of how to do it which mostly made things worse.

Then the Pandemic happened

To cut a long story short, I became really interested in Breathing.    Finally I properly understood the mechanics of breathing and how important it is to try and optimise them.

It is foundational, literally, to get the breathing correct.

Why be interested in breathing?

So many reasons!

  • This Gif shows the relationship of the big breathing muscle, the diaphragm, with the pelvic floor and the deep abdominal muscles at the front of the trunk. This is the deep core and  we all need that to get that functioning well to get primary stability in the body.  For the deep core to stabilise the body properly, the breathing has to be running smoothly and optimally.

gif showing the relationship of the diaphragm with the pelvic floor

  • Breathing well keeps the upper spine mobile because the upper spine is attached to the ribs.    If you move the ribs during breathing you gently move the spine.  It is only a small bit of movement but it adds up over time/
  • The internal organs get massaged gently (in a good way) when we breathe.
  • Each breath involves a contraction and relaxation of the pelvic floor,  Poor breathing disrupts this, as does belly sucking and gripping or over bracing the abdominals
  • Good breathing , somewhat obviously , delivers improved efficiency of gas  exchange from the air: Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide
  • Breathing slowly especially with the out breath can calm the nervous system and help us to get away from “flight or fright” and into “rest , digest and recuperate

So far so good, but I still didn’t get why we all need to bother with the Hundred.  If anything I was even less enamoured with it.

I felt that in a population where many of us need to optimise basic breathing,  why “do” breathing as part of the Hundred,  Instead, why not just do the breathing in a gentler, way?

I still do think that, but that is not the purpose of the Hundred.

The true purpose of the Hundred is to learn to efficiently breathe  Under Load

My final eureka moment, when I realised this,  was in a webinar with Brent Anderson the Head  of Polestar Education, with whom I did my Reformer training.  I owe Brent for this simple explanation (and much else besides).

To put it another way, avoiding the possibility that when the movement going gets tough, the breathing gets going

Have you ever forgotten to breathe during an exercise?

Alternatively, have you ever held your breath when watching a suspense thriller? How about when opening a potentially difficult email or if you are worried about what someone is going to say you?   We all have a tendency to just stop breathing temporarily and during exercise is a really good example.  Many of us are a bit stiff or grippy in the trunk, or we over brace and it becomes easier to breath hold than to overcome the extra challenge of the exercise itself

Finally I had the answer but what next?

I unpacked the exercise a bit and put it back together although there is nothing spectacular about that. Loads of teachers have done this and Polestar, advocate this approach

How I teach the Hundred

At every single level we need to work hard on each element of this. Take them steadily.  Each one has value in its own right

I have recorded this onto a YouTube clip

First Level:

I always start with looking at the breathing.  I teach this separately from all exercises, not just the Pilates Hundred

Next comes how to correctly forward bend the upper back and neck.  That is the Spine Curl exercise (aka abdominal curl , aka chest lift)

author doing a basic spine curl exercise

At  the same time, but using different  exercises,  I go after the deep core connection.   That is developing sufficient stability in the trunk and awareness of the body as a whole  to  support the weight of the legs.  There is quite a bit of leeway here . Ultimately the legs might be bent at the knee and never straighten fully for some people.  Or they might be higher up from the floor and pointing more to the ceiling which is easier than the classical exercise (pictured below with Joseph Pilates performing the Pilates Hundred)

We learn how to feel/see  how the shoulder and arms  support the spine when it is curved forwards and up from the floor.   This is really crucial to be able to tolerate the spine curl with the hands free and not supporting the head from behind

Next Level:

Author doing a spine curl exercise with legs bent and in the air

Here I teach the spine curl up and down again, with the legs lifted, knees bent,  in the air.    This is followed by  making the exercise more static, ie. holding the spine curl shape.

Finally in this level we look at the possibility of making the legs straighter.  They could be fully straight, partially straight or leave you can have the knees fully bent

Final Level:

The spine is curled throughout with arms by the side, legs (possibly) straight .  We look at timing. that is how long can you hold that.  Of course it does not have to be 100 counts or arm pumps.  The arm pumps  are also part of the final additions and if you pump the arms then there is dynamic movement so, not strictly speaking static anymore

If there anyone for whom the Hundred is unsuitable

In it’s original form there are many groups who would be advised to leave the exercise out

  • People like me with DR or Hiatus Hernia.
  • Pregnant women or who mothers who are recovering from C Section; people who have had  other abdominal surgery within the last 6 months or so.
  • People with Osteoporosis or Osteopenia in the spine.
  • Those of us who are  carrying a lot of weight in the front of their body.  This is especially true for women where breasts get in the way too.   Achieving good spine curls is really hard from lying on the floor.  The curve is conceptually ok.  For example, it is much easier in the context of a Cat Stretch  or a standing side bend

What are the modified versions of the Pilates Hundred?

Common modification are the length of time spent doing the Pilates Hundred.  ie, not 100 pumps and perhaps only 20 or 50.   Or we can change the legs.  That might mean keeping the knees bent, or aiming  straight legs to the ceiling not near the floor.  Both of these iterations involve reducing the load of the legs to a more manageable amount

Spine curl with straight legs and legs pointing towards the ceiling

What are the gains?

Learning, improving and getting really good at the elements that comprise the Pilates Hundred is for many people,  the greatest value.  Most of us can attempt these elements even if we never manage the full exercise.  A great deal of  the elements  in the “unpacked” pre Pilates Hundred are suitable for people who cannot do the full thing.   Joseph Pilates himself advocated complete mastery of each exercise before progressing to the next one and so he knew that there are many things needed for success with his first exercise.

Beyond that, the exercise is requires immense strength and also stamina , both of which are well worth gaining.  Those 2 things: absolute strength in the muscles and the capacity to keep going ie, stamina are fundamental to all exercise disciplines and here they are, neatly wrapped up in this particular exercise

It takes considerable the movement discipline of getting to the summit of the Hundred mountain.  I can mix up my metaphors further and say that it is like that Lao Tzu quote that a journey of 1000 miles steps starts with a single step and part of the journey is completely ok.

original image of Joseph Pilates performing the Hundred, from his 1945 book "Return to Life with Contrology"


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