Swan Dive: A Challenging Classic Adapted for Everyone

swan diveSwan Dive is a classic Pilates exercise that incorporates movement with spinal extension. Honestly, unless you’re a dancer, athlete, or regular in a limbo contest, I’m not sure that you really need to move and extend at the same time. However, since Joseph Pilates worked with many dancers, they needed this and so we have Swan Dive today.

This exercise can be extremely challenging for anyone with a tight spine, so I’ve also included some modifications for those of us who don’t limbo regularly. These modifications are from STOTT PILATES and not from Joseph Pilates himself. (For a fella creating rehabilitation exercises, he was not very big on modification.)

However, back before I had kids, when my spine was more limber, there was nothing more fun that doing full Swan Dive. As I work on recovering, I hope that I will get my body back to the point where I can successfully do full Swan Dive again.

My suggestion is that you do the preps and, if you’re feeling enthusiastic, give the full version a try. Obviously, stop if something feels wrong or painful.

Swan Dive Prep 1–Legs

  1. Begin on your stomach with your fingers stacked on top of each other. This allows enough space for your collarbones to be broad and your shoulders away from your ears.
  2. Laterally rotate your legs (so that your kneecaps face out to the sides) and bring your big toes out to the corners of your mat.
  3. Take a moment to lengthen through your spine and feel the front of your pubis on the mat. You don’t want to have the pubis grinding into the mat, but you don’t want it hovering either.
  4. We will be using Pilates breathing.
  5. Inhale and lengthen, reaching head through toes. Draw your low belly up to your spine to protect your low back. Maintain this abdominal lift throughout the exercise.
  6. Exhale and lift both legs off the ground. As you lift, think of reaching out for the wall behind your toes as opposed to thinking about lifting up. If you lift up, it’s more likely that you will hurt your back. So, think of reaching out.
  7. Inhale and lower your legs to the ground.
  8. Exhale and lift again.
  9. Do 5-10 reps.
  10. When you have completed all the Swan Dive Preps that you want, press back into Shell Stretch to stretch your back the opposite way.

Swan Dive Prep 2–Spinal Extension

  1. Begin on your stomach with your legs laterally rotated (to the outside) with your big toes touching the corners of your mat.
  2. Slide your arms out so that you make a big X on the ground. Make sure that your hands are off the mat.
  3. We will be using Pilates breathing.
  4. Inhale and lengthen, reaching head through toes. Draw your low belly up to your spine to protect your low back. Maintain this abdominal lift throughout the exercise.
  5. Exhale and lift your thoracic spine into extension. This means that the lift comes from your upper back moving and working, not from your lower back. In fact, if your lower back is lifting, your abs have completely stopped supporting you.
  6. As you lift into extension, let your arms straighten and let your hands slide toward you.
  7. Hold here to inhale and lengthen through the top of your head.
  8. As you exhale, keep your hands planted and let your elbows bend to help you lower to the floor. For your other reps, your hands will stay in this position and your arms will help your spine lift you.
  9. Inhale to lengthen.
  10. Repeat steps 5 and 7-9 for 5-10 reps.
  11. When you have completed all the Swan Dive Preps that you want, press back into Shell Stretch to stretch your back the opposite way.

Swan Dive Prep 3–Putting It Together

Now, we’re going to combine Preps 1 and 2. With help from our arms and the contraction of our posterior chain, we’re going to do a slow rock back and forth.

  1. Begin on your stomach with your legs laterally rotated (to the outside) with your big toes touching the corners of your mat.
  2. Slide your arms out so that you make a big X on the ground. Make sure that your hands are off the mat.
  3. We will be using Pilates breathing.
  4. Inhale and lengthen, reaching head through toes. Draw your low belly up to your spine to protect your low back. Maintain this abdominal lift throughout the exercise.
  5. Exhale and lift your thoracic spine into extension. This means that the lift comes from your upper back moving and working, not from your lower back. In fact, if your lower back is lifting, your abs have completely stopped supporting you.
  6. As you lift into extension, let your arms straighten and let your hands slide toward you.
  7. Hold here to inhale and lengthen through the top of your head.
  8. As you exhale, keep your hands planted and let your elbows bend to help you lower to the floor. When your upper body lowers, your posterior chain engages and lifts your legs. This constant C-shape of the spine is preparation for the rocking motion that will come with the full exercise.
  9. Do 5-10 reps this way with the upper body lifting on the inhale and the lower body lifting on the exhale.
  10. When you have completed all the Swan Dive Preps that you want, press back into Shell Stretch to stretch your back the opposite way.

Swan Dive Prep 4–Rock and Catch

Okay! Now we’re ready for some action! Rock and Catch is just that. We’re going to get set up like we did in Prep 3 and, instead of keeping our hands on the floor for support, we’re going to lift them. This requires focus, coordination, and back strength.

  1. Begin on your stomach with your legs laterally rotated (to the outside) with your big toes touching the corners of your mat.
  2. Slide your arms out so that you make a big X on the ground. Make sure that your hands are off the mat.
  3. We will be using Pilates breathing.
  4. Inhale and lengthen, reaching head through toes. Draw your low belly up to your spine to protect your low back. Maintain this abdominal lift throughout the exercise.
  5. Exhale and lift your thoracic spine into extension. This means that the lift comes from your upper back moving and working, not from your lower back. In fact, if your lower back is lifting, your abs have completely stopped supporting you.
  6. As you lift into extension, let your arms straighten and let your hands slide toward you.
  7. Hold here to inhale and lengthen through the top of your head. Get ready…
  8. Exhale and reach both arms in front of you as your lower chain lifts your legs. This will cause you to rock forward. You will not rock so far forward that you hit your face. If you lose your abdominal engagement, you will flatten like a pancake.
  9. As you inhale, you will be completing the second phase of your rock. Your upper body will be lifting. When you are lifted, bring your arms back to support and catch you.
  10. Do 5-10 reps.
  11. When you have completed all the Swan Dive Preps that you want, press back into Shell Stretch to stretch your back the opposite way.

Swan Dive

Holy cow!We’ve finally made it to the actual exercise. For the full exercise of Swan Dive, you just keep rocking. You get set up, complete 5-10 rocks back and forth, catch yourself, and lower down.

  1. Begin on your stomach with your legs laterally rotated (to the outside) with your big toes touching the corners of your mat.
  2. Slide your arms out so that you make a big X on the ground. Make sure that your hands are off the mat.
  3. We will be using Pilates breathing.
  4. Inhale and lengthen, reaching head through toes. Draw your low belly up to your spine to protect your low back. Maintain this abdominal lift throughout the exercise.
  5. Exhale and lift your thoracic spine into extension. This means that the lift comes from your upper back moving and working, not from your lower back. In fact, if your lower back is lifting, your abs have completely stopped supporting you.
  6. As you lift into extension, let your arms straighten and let your hands slide toward you.
  7. Hold here to inhale and lengthen through the top of your head. Get ready…
  8. Exhale and reach both arms in front of you as your lower chain lifts your legs. This will cause you to rock forward.
  9. Inhale as your upper body lifts. Exhale as your lower body lifts.
  10. Complete 5-10 rocks.
  11. To finish, use your arms to catch yourself on an inhale.
  12. As you exhale, lower the upper body to the mat.
  13. Press back into Shell Stretch to stretch your back the opposite way.

Swan Dive Video

Because of all the motion, I think Swan Dive is particularly tricky. Here’s a video for visual learners or for the folks who read all that and went Huh? I rock?

Which version of Swan Dive is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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