A deep dive into the high scissors
Joe demonstrating the scissors in his book "Return to Life Through Contrology"
Today’s #MarchMatness exercises are the high scissors and their bestie, the high bicycle. The high scissors are a
nemesis exercise of mine (my white whale, if you will), so, like Captain Ahab, I’ve been low-key obsessed with them for a few years. (They remain elusive but significantly improving, with ongoing effort.)
Me trying to do the high scissors
I’m about to get incredibly nerdy and specific about classical Pilates here, so if you’re quaking to wrap your head around this exercise, or if you’re a Pilates nerd, or if you’re a Pilates instructor who is interested in exploring the original classical matwork, this blog post is for you. If your eyes have glazed over and I’ve already lost you, no hard feelings! You have my full support to close this internet browser window and go on with your day.
Here’s the biggest truth I’ve learned over the years of my hyperfixation on the high scissors: It’s almost ALL about that pesky front leg reaching away from you.
That front leg can either make the whole exercise feel really useful and meaningful, or it can make it feel like a struggle.
For fuller context, if you look at where the scissors (and bicycle) are in the Return to Life Through Contrology order of exercises, they’re meant to precede the shoulder bridge, and with the classical transition between exercises, you go from your high inversion right to your hips finding enough opening and reach that you can literally land your feet on the floor (hopefully gracefully but very probably not), ready for the shoulder bridge, without changing your upper body or hand position from where you already had them for scissors and bicycle… Wow.
Of course the leg coming toward you is far from passive, but let’s be honest here: Gravity and the design of the hip joint definitely makes it a bit easier for that leg to fall downward toward your face into hip flexion. That back leg is (almost?) easy… as opposed to that forward leg finding the monstrous reach away from you into hip extension -- especially enough hip extension for the foot to eventually touch the floor in bicycle.
the reach of both your legs should be balanced and equal, like actual scissors
“Ideally”, both legs match each other’s energy so that you end up with true, proportional, balanced “scissors” (like actual scissors), and not lopsided, wonky scissors where one “blade” (leg) is achieving more oppositional range than the other. But most humans will struggle with that big reach, and instead we’ll end up with one leg flopping down to our face, and the other one kind of half-heartedly fighting to just stay up to the ceiling. Humbling.
The thing that really made this exercise *click* for me and when I started to make progress was doing it on the spine corrector… That’s probably the most effective and practical place to practice the choreography/mechanics of that balanced reach happening with both of the legs, and personally, I think it’s my favourite place in the Pilates studio to do the exercise. Doing it on the spine corrector gives you all the hip height, body positioning, and movement benefits of the classical matwork scissors, but none of the struggle with supporting the inversion on your own. In fact, if you look at the photo of Mr. Pilates doing the scissors in Return to Life, you could pretty much just photoshop a spine corrector right where his hands are, and it would totally look the same, which is really cool!
The spine corrector makes the high scissors MUCH nicer
But the hip/leg choreography is really only one component of the scissors… Another part is having the upper body strength (and shoulder flexibility) required for your hands to hold your hips up in lieu of the spine corrector…. And in order to achieve the big reach of the classical scissors which would eventually enable you to gracefully transition to shoulder bridge, you really do need to position your pelvis and spine into hyper-extension, not a passive neutral.
In that photo of Joe, if you take a look at how his pelvis/spine are set up, you can see how they follow the shape of how it would look if his pelvis was resting on the spine corrector — the tailbone is heavy, the pubic bone is kind of spilling forward, and his hips fully rest in his hands/elbows/upper body.
Often, that position feels really hard for people, so the more natural compromise is to position your pelvis in a neutral position, with the pubic bone pointing straight up into the air, not away from you (more like a supported jackknife position). The catch with that, though, is that if you choose that position, your available hip extension in that front leg is going to be limited, and there’s no way you’ll be able to get that front leg to find a big reach toward the floor when it's time for bicycle and then shoulder bridge. Roadblock.
So really, to do it Joe’s way in Return to Life, it does require a hefty amount of upper body strength to balance your hips in such a way so that you even CAN reach that forward leg so far into extension… and that’s not always readily accessible for someone’s body. Personally, I have a more petite upper body with a much heavier lower body and I also have hyper-mobile wrists, so training my hands and shoulders to support my pelvis and whole body weight in scissors while also executing Joe’s stretchy choreography has been a battle, but one I’m not giving up on yet 😆
Honestly, the high scissors and bicycle are just such spicy, athletic movements, so I personally feel like even if you can’t really pull off the Return to Life version, as long as you’re just trying your best to find a big stretchy reach into hip extension with that forward leg, then you, my friend, are rocking the high scissors and deserve a crisp high five.
Clear as mud? Left with questions? Want to nerd out further? I’m here to chat!
And if the high scissors/bicycle are goal exercises for you and you feel like you’d like a hand making progress, I’m ready to help with ideas, approaches, and modifications to make the exercise work for you.