Washer Woman I, also known as Roll Up 1, Hamstring 1, or Hamstring Stretch, helps to strengthen upper body control and lengthen the back of the body. With so many things to focus on in this exercise, we mustn’t forget to keep our knees actively straight but not locked. Locking your knees will turn off the muscles around the joint and can cut off blood flow.
What if your knees just love to lock, though? Let’s take a look at this postural fault and see how to improve it.
When Standing, Your Knees Should Be Straight, Not Locked.
Many of you have been told to always keep your knees bent during exercise. “Don’t lock your knees.” If you’ve ever practiced Bikram yoga, then you were told to always “lock your knees”. What now? Make up your mind already!
Are you aware of what position your knees are in when you’re not paying attention? When you’re standing at your desk, or waiting for your to-go order at the coffee shop? Locked or bent? Those moments when you are day-dreaming are just as important in regards to knee health. If you spend most of your waking time in poor alignment, then the one or two hours of Pilates won’t make a big difference. It’s time to be aware of our posture even when we’re not practicing. Or maybe we should be practicing outside of class, and I don’t mean at home on a mat. But all the time. Catch yourself as often as you can.
I can tell you what my knees are doing when no-one's watching.... they are locked. Because they are weak and hypermobile. Bummer!
The muscles, tendons, and ligaments around the knee are supposed to stabilize the joint. As for me, I'm hypermobile (read loosy goosy joints). My ligaments are genetically long and lax, which means they’re not doing a great job stabilizing my joints.
The only option for a weak knee to endure long periods of standing, is to lock, which puts it into a pseudo-stabile position where the two bones that form the knee press against each other. After doing this for hours, the knee joint will complain in the form of discomfort or pain. You might describe it as “my knees are tired”.
On the flipside, in athletes such as cyclists, or runners, or anyone who's sitting most of their waking hours, the muscles on the back of your legs (hamstrings and calves) have become shortened and pull your thigh and lower leg bones towards each other, which bends the knee. If those muscles are never lengthened, then your knees will lose their ability to fully extend. (The body very efficiently gets rid of what it doesn’t need. How’s that for a twist on “Use It or Lose it”?!)
I'm about to show you an extremely easy and quick fix for your knees. But remember, what’s easy to do is also easy not to do. And because I know tons of smart sayings, here is another one: “Wisdom is not doing, wisdom is remembering.”
Start By Intentionally Locking Your Knee
Push your knees all the way back as far as they go. This might feel common to you - if your knees like to hyperextend, like mine) - or this might feel extremely uncomfortable to you if your usual pattern is to keep your knees always bent. Stand sideways to a mirror. Can you see that the leg has a slight backward curve to it?
Now Do The Opposite and Bend The Knee
Notice that it feels like the leg has a forward curve. Which it does, of course. It just seems a lot more obvious in this position.
Now Bring Your Legs Into a Straight Line
The knee will be somewhere between the two previous positions, where it feels neither bent backward nor forward. Now your knee is straight, but not locked. It might not feel stable (yet), just straight.
Remember that correct alignment does not always feel right at first. We perceive as right what we are used to, what’s familiar. In the beginning, you will need to pay a lot of attention to correcting this on a daily basis, until it has become second nature.
Here is one more cue to help you straighten your knee out of the locked position:
Resume the (wrong) locked position again, and then think of pushing the calf muscle against the shin bone. Or imagine someone is pushing against your calf from behind you with a lot of power and you are fighting them by stabilizing your lower leg (you don't allow them to push your around). Immediately, you should feel the muscles of the whole lower leg engage.
Try it (maybe with a partner to get a good feeling for it) and let me know how it goes. I'd be happy to answer any further questions in the comments below.
Are you going to practice or teach Washer Woman I this week? Try these tips to help improve the position of the knee and let us know how it goes in the comments!
In the Pilates Encyclopedia, we look at every detail of Washer Woman I, from head to toe, to help you get the maximum benefit from this exercise.