“At first you probably will not be able to carry out instructions as illustrated in poses – this proves why these exercises and all succeeding ones will benefit you.” ~ Joseph Pilates
The Hundred is the first exercise in Joseph Pilates’ traditional Mat work. When I began piecing together the evolution of Contrology, the sentence above—from the original book Return to Life—became my guideline in trying to extract the purpose of the movements he carefully sequenced together.
He basically states that the impossibility of an exercise proves its benefit. If overcoming a movement challenge and expanding abilities is indeed the desired benefit and the ultimate goal, then that changes the way we should look at the movements that comprise Joseph Pilates’ body of work.
And the further you dig, the clearer it becomes: the work was—and should be—less about pure muscular benefit, and much more about overall movement ability and control, for its vital role in sustaining good physical health.
So, looking at The Hundred, what is it good for if we have to look beyond the actual physical events that occur (breathing, coordination, abdominal work, warming up, etc.)? What is the movement skill we build?
Here’s my attempt at an answer: we learn to pick up half of our bodyweight off the ground, manage to hold it with central body control and next to no external support—against gravity.
It’s the skill you need to pick up your spine for The Roll Up, the legs for The Roll Over, and your whole body for The Teaser, for example. It’s during The Hundred that you prime the body for maximum success in all the exercises that follow. A warm-up? You bet!
If you allow yourself to look at The Hundred that way, it suddenly makes a lot of sense that Joseph Pilates never modified the exercise (in his own film and photography footage) to a shortened lever (tabletop) position. Whenever taught, two straight legs had to be picked up off the ground, to a position as high as necessary for proper back control, but as low as sustainable for maximum challenge; ideally, parallel to the ground.
And all of that happens before even pumping the arms.
If done right, The Hundred is near impossible! If done right, it turns on all of your body’s systems in less than a heartbeat. If done right, it might be all you need to do that day because it’s a full-body workout. If done right, it sets you up for more success in all the other exercises, and in your life—because being able to unweight the body off the ground against gravity with central axis and breath control is at the heart of almost every movement we make in everyday life.
Of course it’s never a good idea to throw your body into a movement it is not yet able to process, but there is a big difference between modifying a movement to make it “performable”, and providing stepping stones that contribute to actually building the skill required to succeed in the given challenge.
Here are a few suggestions on how to tackle and modify this exercise for both strength building and skill preparation:
On the Mat
• leave your legs on the ground
• unweight your legs (without actually picking them up)
• pick up just one leg (stretching the leg away from you to create the lift)
• pick up both legs as high as necessary, but as low as possible
On the Reformer
• leave the foot bar up to create an elevated start position to pick the legs up from
• use same suggestions as for the Mat
Additionally, there is always the progression that Joseph Pilates suggests: start with 20 pumps, and gradually work your way up to where you can maintain proper alignment for 100.
Of course, there’s so much more to say about this exercise, and ultimately the best way to deeply explore it is to get on the Mat and play with it! To learn more about The Hundred and see it performed and taught in its traditional form, check out my video tutorial on Pilates Anytime.