Teaser is a tease! Apparently Joseph Pilates chose the name on purpose—perhaps because it is one of the more challenging exercises in the Classical Pilates repertoire. It certainly takes a lot of strength, flexibility, control and balance to execute successfully.
For many people, however, Teaser is elusive. To understand why, let’s start by deconstructing Teaser II into the Foundation exercises that underlie it.
What’s in a Pilates Teaser?
Just like the Pilates Rollup, there is a lot going on in the Teaser. It makes demands on many different parts of the body. And they all have to work together!
- First we start lying on our backs and move into an ab curl. BUT it’s an ab curl with an unsupported head! That has all kinds of implications which we will examine in the next section.
- Next we lift our legs to 45°. Note to self: Big load on abdominals. Watch for lumbar compression!
- Then we roll up to balance on the back of our pelvis, legs still extended in front at 45°. We also arc our arms up in front at the same angle. You begin to wonder if Teaser is even possible!
- To complete the exercise on the way up we lift arms and legs to about a 60° Even more demand on core!
- Then, and this is no small feat, we reverse back down to the starting position—with control!
Now that we have an idea of the moving parts, let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.
Unsupported ab curl
Lifting an unsupported head is super challenging. Lifting it without strain is something else!
Our head weighs about 12-13 pounds. And if it’s not balancing right on top of our spine, we create all kinds of tension in the neck and shoulders as we try to lift this weight. Typically we jut our chins forward, which just increases the tension because we shorten the suboccipital muscles at the back of the neck and lengthen the deep neck flexors at the front. To lift our heads successfully, we want the opposite!
If you’re not already accustomed to doing your ab curls this way, try nodding your chin to your throat without lifting your head to lengthen the back of the neck. Then put weight into the back ribs and use them as an anchor to curl forward. Curling forward this way helps keep the head on the spine and chin in and allows access to the deep neck flexors at the front. These are the muscles that should lift the head.
If it strains to curl forward with an unsupported head, use one or both hands to cradle the back of the skull.
Supine leg raise
In the Mat Work Foundations repertoire we have an exercise called Supine Leg Raise. It calls for hinging at the hip and raising the active leg toward 90°. To do this exercise successfully we need to draw in our low belly to secure our pelvis and lumbar spine. With this anchor we are free to lift the leg without involving the pelvis (called differentiating the hip). Clearly, lifting two legs places a much larger load on the abdominals.
If lifting two legs places strain on the low back or causes the pelvis to tip or roll with the legs (undifferentiated hip), try lifting one leg at a time until you get stronger.
Roll up to sit
The challenges of rolling up are legendary (see Why Can’t I Do a Rollup?)! We have to contend with a number of factors, including:
- How well the spine articulates, particularly in the thoracic area
- Strength of the abdominals, with attention to their role as lumbar stabilizers
- Mobility and stability of the shoulder girdle
- Strength of the hip flexors and how well they move and differentiate from the pelvis
- How well the quads straighten the knees
- Ability of the hamstrings to lengthen and anchor the legs
Perhaps the greatest challenge is getting all of these parts to work together. More on this later…
The motions here are flexion of the shoulder and upward rotation of the scapula. So we need enough mobility in both parts to do this. We also need to stabilize the shoulder girdle. Without this stability, we lose support in the upper torso at the top of our Teaser.
The stability comes from making sure the arm bone is deep in the socket (using our rotator cuff muscles) and the scapulae hug the ribs in upward rotation (using serratus anterior plus upper and lower traps). Serratus feeds into the obliques which, in turn, help keep the torso erect. They also support the shoulder girdle. So they offer a two-way support system!
Lifting arms and legs to 60°
At this point, all the ducks are in a row. Now we help them “fly” by lifting the arms and legs higher, to around 60°. This adds more load to the core muscles, both in front and in back—deep core (inner unit, chiefly transversus abdominis, multifidus) and the outer unit obliques and erectors to name a few of the main players.
Reversing back to start
It’s not over yet! Reversing back down to the floor is super challenging because we have to work eccentrically—both in the abs as we lower the torso, and even more so in the psoas as we lower the legs. These muscles have to put on the brakes big time to control the descent back to the mat. Note that Teaser II is one of the best ways to strengthen psoas because of this eccentric phase of the exercise.
Is that all there is?
We have all the component parts now. But there is still something missing: Lumbopelvic Rhythm.
Lumbopelvic Rhythm is what helps all the parts move together like a well-oiled machine—in both the Rollup and Teaser. It’s the coordinated movement of the spine, especially the lumbar spine, together with the pelvis and hips.
For best results we want ribs in line with pelvis and a shallow supported curve in the spine on the way up to the top of our Teaser. The smother the ride, the more core control and the better the Lumbopelvic Rhythm, where everything falls into place as effortlessly as possible (work-in-progress, something to aim for!).
So why can’t I do Teaser?
The answer is any number of reasons, based on the long list above!
The first place to check is whether or not it’s possible to do the component parts of the exercise.
But before you start, think about helping yourself with the following (as necessary):
- Release tight hamstringsStanding Elephant often helps, or Downward Dog (add prancing)
- Mobilize hipsTry Knee Sways and Knee or Hip Circles
- Strengthening glutesBridge is a go-to exercise as well as Lunge or Squats
- Lengthening the low backPelvic tilts and rotations often work
- Conditioning inner and outer units of coreBreathing for inner unit and Side Bridge for core are good choices
- Moving the spine, especially the thoracic spineTry Thoracic Rotation, Cat/Cow, Mermaid/Sidebending
Focus on the midriff first and loosening up the spine. These are key areas to target.
Then go back and try the component parts again and see if there’s a change.
After you master the component parts, try putting the parts together into a Teaaer. Do whatever it takes to get closer and closer to the final exercise, including lifting one leg at a time or bending your knees.
Remember: It is a work-in-progress! Change comes with practice, patience and the passage of time.
Jane Aronovitch is a Pilates & Movement teacher. She is also a writer and author. Her book, Get on it: BOSU Balance Trainer, is available at Body Harmonics, Amazon and Chapters Indigo.
“I love making ideas clear so teachers can directly apply what they learn in concrete and practical ways – and people can make connections, feel better, move with ease, and have fun.”