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black and white swan on lake

Pilates Exercise Dive: uncovering Swan

exercises history matwork pilates
👆 beautiful swan photo by Matthew Henry   

When I first started doing Pilates and learned the names of the exercises I thought geez, Joseph Pilates liked animals.  

I heard that as a young man Joe studied animal movements and in his manifesto, Return To Life, he stated Contrology "was conceived to limber and stretch muscles and ligaments so that your body will be as supple as that of a cat and not muscular like that of the body of a brewery-truck horse..."

 I guess he was an animal lover!

Have you heard these exercise names bandied about in your classes or sessions? Elephant, Crab, Seal, Horseback, Swan?

Maybe you're familiar with the one I'm going to be talking about (and as an added bonus we'll dispel the misinformation surrounding its name)

I bet you've guessed it's SWAN.

This exercise is the first instance in the classical matwork sequence where we extend (arch) the spine and this skill is very important to our health.

But before that let's straighten something out:

I always thought that Swan the exercise was named after Swan the animal 🦢 but it turns out (or else it’s just more of the lore surrounding Mr. Pilates) that it’s actually named after the chest forward, arms outstretched swan dive that if one was not terrified of heights or of standing on a teency ledge of rock high above the crashing ocean, would attempt to do.

The thought of this takes me back to the Acapulco cliff divers that I used to watch on the ABC's Wide World of Sports in the 70s. If you watch this groovy flashback video you'll see exactly why J.P. named the exercise the Swan, and to give the gentlemen proper credit, they were the La Quebrada Cliff Divers.

Photo by José Jiménez


So, now back to Pilates and the swan.

Let's begin with a description of how to perform Swan:

The SetUp: Lying prone (on your tummy) with your legs straight out behind you, either together or hip distance apart, place your hands on the mat with your thumbs aligned under your shoulders as if you were going to perform a push up (don’t worry you won’t be, that comes later…). Your elbows should be slightly lifted like little grasshopper legs and your forehead should be down, resting lightly on your mat. Lengthen your spine by reaching the crown of your head away from your toenails.

The Exercise: Sequentially lift your spine off the mat starting from your head, face, then chest, ribs, etc.. Your goal is to make an even curve from the base of your skull to your tailbone using the muscles in the back and the backs of the shoulders to lift up as you stretch the front of the body.

You're trying to make your spine longer as you lift it so that you support the extension with length, versus pushing back and dumping your energy and weight into your low back.

All of that happens on your inhale and then on your exhale you return your body back down to the mat reversing the movement.


Why do I love this exercise? Why is extension, the movement skill that Swan introduces, so important?

Well, I have one word for you - LIFE!

Yes, not to be too dramatic but the life we lead can be our downfall. Let me explain.

One main reason to keep our extension free flowing is that our every day lives involve a fair bit of “forwardness”. I mean most of us sit at our computers or look at our phones with our head forward - like a turtle - and our shoulders maybe a little rounded - like a prawn, way too much. Is this you? Are you happy with more animal imagery?🤣

Because of this posture our mid backs get recruited to help hold up our bowling ball weighted skulls and they do this by locking down. Those muscles and our shoulder blades get tight and maybe feel a bit stuck. This rounded, head forward posture also compresses our rib cage limiting our lung capacity which reduces our ability to breathe fully. Yikes, how to we survive?!

Well, we extend the spine to bring movement and strength to our upper and mid back, engage our rotator cuff muscles, as well as stretch and lift the front of our rib cage so that we can breathe better. When we breathe better we take in more oxygen which feeds our whole body, including our brain, so we feel better. (There’s a reason that when stretch we want to lift our arms up and arch our back - it helps us take a bigger breath)

The second reason to keep practicing, finessing, and trying to safely improve our extension is that in order to perform a lot of the more intermediate-heading-into-advanced Pilates exercises strength in extension is required.

Here are the Mat exercises that Swan leads to:

- Swan Dive

- Single Leg Kick

- Double Leg Kick

- Shoulder Bridge

- Scissors/Bicycle

- Hip Circles

- Swimming

- Leg Pull Front

- Rocking

- Twist 2

- I could even make the case for needing some extension in the Side Leg Kick series.


So what are some of the reasons that extension might be challenging for you??

We’ve already covered the postural issues but another reason is the very design of our spines.

Our thoracic spine is what’s called a kyphotic curve: on the front of our body it’s concave and on the back of our body it’s convex so when we extend it we are reversing the natural curve. The thoracic spine comprises the 12 vertebra that sit below our necks and above our low backs. Our rib cage attaches to it and because one of its jobs is to protect our spinal cord it's built for stability.

Here's the thing though. Don’t confuse stiffness with stability!

As we’ve already ascertained, our current lifestyles and what they encourage in our posture lead to stiffness in our mid backs. We can also have a sore neck, headaches, a tight low back or hip flexors so we need Swan and other extension exercises to help rebalance our bodies toward healthier alignment. Swan encourages us to keep our hips over our legs, our ribs over our hips, our shoulders over our ribs, and our head above our shoulders on top of our spine, not in front of it.

So I say, SWAN your heart out!

👆 Me doing some Verandalates ;-)

Use Swan to not only strengthen the mid back but also the muscles up and down the whole spine. Use Swan to find movement in the rib cage, a stretch of the abdominal wall, and maybe even a lengthening in the front of the hips and thighs. Win. Win. Win. Win!

Hey, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this deep dive on the Swan.

Be Well,



The opinions expressed and contained above are provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice. Rebecca Forde & Dragonfly Pilates & Movement disclaim all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this post. 

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