DIGGING DEEPER - Get to Know Your Pilates Exercises: Rowing Series

Rowing Series

By Amanda Turner

Comical photo of Clara & Joe Pilates and Kerry & Amanda!
Photo on Left Photo Credit: Photographer Unknown
Photo on Right Photo Credit: A Golden Fox Productions

Welcome, fall! With any luck, the air is getting crisper, routines are settling into place, and everyone is hitting their stride; BUT if I know Maryland - it’s a late summer here and we are enjoying as much time on the water as we can get. With that in mind, I thought it would be a perfect time to go over the Rowing Series. There are 6 individual exercises in this series and they are some of the first advanced exercises you will learn on the Reformer. And, funny enough, you learn them backwards! You’ll learn 5&6 first (Shave and Hug), once that is mastered, you’ll move on to 3&4 (From the Chest and From the Hip), and finally you’ll learn 1&2 (From the Sternum and 90°). For me personally, these are extremely challenging on my tight, upper back and my natural inclination is to round my shoulders forward, but that’s why these are SO important. As always, you’ll use your entire powerhouse to properly execute each exercise, of which you get 3-6 reps, while building strength, flexibility, and length of the spine.


Rowing 1 aka From the Sternum

 I love this transition. After Coordination, you’ll sit up, take another spring off (so you’ll only have one on), and continue to turn around so that you’re sitting on the Reformer backwards. It’s fun to change the scenery a bit! You’ll want a hand’s distance between your hips and the back edge of your Mat. Your legs will be straight out in front of you, on top of the headrest. Legs can either be together, side-by-side, or one crossed on top of the other - either way, squeeze the inner thighs! Sitting up tall, you’ll bring your knuckles together, palms facing away. Begin to roll back behind the tail bone keeping the knuckles glued to the sternum (hint* squeeze the glutes to keep your legs anchored) and then press the arms open to the side, palms will be facing behind you. Then, press the arms back without moving your torsodeepen the abs, round forward over the legs, forehead toward your knees, arms rotating behind you, palms facing each other up toward the ceiling. If you can grab hands, do so but only if you keep your shoulders back. Lift your abs even more as you lift your arms to the ceiling and circle them back over the legs taking a stretch, all while keeping the forehead toward the knees. You’ll repeat two more times - the breath is inhale to roll back, exhale to press open and round forward, inhale to lift the arms, and exhale to circle back over the legs.


Rowing 2 aka 90°

You’ll lift your arms bending at the elbow - elbow is out from the shoulder and wrist is over the elbow (at a 90° angle), palms facing you. Keeping your spine flat (ever notice in Pilates that a sequence starts with a rounded exercise most likely followed by a flat back exercise?!?), hinge back from the hip (hint* do NOT let the arms move down or toward your face - use your abs), and then come forward with the body, lengthen the arms as you bring your forehead toward your knees, flip the palms down toward the ground, hands to the outside of the frame, drag your handles down and back (forehead still down), lift your abs to lift your arms (if you can connect those hands, do so), and then circle the arms back around over your legs and stretch. Two more reps - breathing is inhale to hinge back, exhale to come forward and lengthen the arms, inhale to drag down and back, and exhale to circle the arms back over your legs. After 3 you’ll be out of breath (these are so hard - remember, advanced), you’ll hook your handles and turn to face forward on the Reformer.


Rowing 3 aka From the Chest

You’ll pick your handles up, leather underneath your arm, legs long in front of you squeezing together. Stretch the arms out to straight on the diagonal (I like to think of the fingertips being at eye height), keep your spine lifted as you lower your arms to the Mat, lift your abs as you lift your arms to the ceiling (keep those shoulders down), and press out wide to the side lengthening your spine and growing taller. Try to avoid using your shoulders so much and really use the upper abs and muscles between the shoulder blades (these will strengthen and improve your posture so much). You’ll get 2 more reps - breathing is inhale to press out on the diagonal, exhale to lower the arms, inhale to lift to the ceiling, exhale to press out wide.


Rowing 4 aka From the Hips


Hands will begin on the Mat on the outside of your hip, flex your feet, scoop your abs, drop your chin to your chest, rounding forward, skimming your knuckles along the Mat to straight arms reaching down into the well. Squeeze your glutes and roll the spine up to straight, your arms will come with you, press out wide to the side, lengthening the spine.  Repeat 2 more times - breathing, inhale to round forward, exhale to roll the spine up, inhale pause at the top while mentally checking in with yourself that you’re squeezing your inner thighs and glutes and exhale to press out wide.


Rowing 5 aka Shave the Head

Bend your knees and cross at the ankles sitting like a pretzel. You’ll make a diamond shape with your thumb and pointer finger (fingers are extended) and bring that shape behind your neck. Pitch forward on the sits bones, abs in being mindful that your ribs are interlaced, press the knees down to keep the glutes active. Using the muscles between your shoulder blades, press the arms up to straighten and then bend. You get 6 reps, breathing - inhale to straighten and exhale to bend.


Rowing 6 aka Hug a Tree

 You’ll switch the leg in front and open the arms wide, shift your shoulders back over your hips (you’ll have the guide of the Shoulder Blocks but you’ll also feel the abs engage). Keep pressing the knees down (your upper body doesn’t move), close the arms and open, I like to imagine my upper abs firing when closing my arms and the muscles between my shoulder blades firing to close. Six reps total, breathing - for the first 3 inhale to close exhale to open and then you’ll continue that exhale in the fourth rep as you close your arms and inhale to open for the remaining reps.  


By the end you are out of breath, you’ve been working hard, and you’re ready for your active recovery exercise of Swan. Still zooming and don’t have a Reformer handy? You can perform these exercises seated on the Mat - bonus points for you because you’ll figure out how much you really use those glutes!


Exercises to work on to prepare you for Rowing:




Single Leg Kick

Double Leg Kick



Pull Strap 


Down Stretch


Also - keep practicing the Standing Arm Weights, those are really key!


If you have an exercise that is really puzzling you, or you’d love to learn more about - please reach out - I’d love suggestions for next month! Until then, enjoy the work!