Archives For January 2013

The “Fast Diet”, also referred to as the “5:2” diet seems to be all over the UK media at the moment, accompanied by both very positive reviews, and expressions of concern about the dangers of encouraging anyone to fast.

I had this diet described to me as “fast for 2 days (actually, limit calories to 500/600 per day), and eat what you like for 5 days”. The man behind this is Dr Michael Mosley – and he made a television programme all about it, so it must be infallible. Apparently he found evidence that, aside from weight-loss, the Fast Diet is also associated with a range of other health benefits.

I have grave misgivings about any suggestion of ‘eat what you like’, because it seems to suggest that nutrition is unimportant. In other words, there’s an awful lot of ‘food’ around these days of very limited nutritional value. The idea (not Dr Mosley’s, I’m sure, but possibly widely-held nonetheless) that it’s okay to eat crap for 5 days, and then severely restrict your calories for the other 2, sounds like a recipe for very poor nutrition. And food, after all, is meant to nourish us, not simply supply us with calories.

I can’t help but listen to news items about diets without my Paleo-biased brain shouting “It’s what you eat, not how much or how often, that matters”. I’m also trying not to be a 197693_3967280097068_451202589_nfundamentalist about food. I do get a little stressed over vegan parents raising their babies as vegans. Equally, it would take very strong evidence (that I’ve seen no trace of) to persuade me that being vegetarian is as healthy (never mind sustainable) as being omnivorous . At the same time, occasional rants about soy products aside, if someone feels that the way they eat is the best for them, what business is it of mine? None, of course.

Back to ‘diets’. The biggest problem that I can see is that they always appear to be temporary. I may well be wrong, but I doubt that Dr Mosley is proposing that anyone follows the 5:2 ratio for life. This is why I really like the way that I’m eating these days (and why I’m always a little baffled by people asking me if I’m “still doing that diet”) – it’s great because it feels totally sustainable. I choose, generally, not to eat certain things, that were amazingly easy to give up. That’s it. Again, I’m trying not to evangelise.

I was exposed to another idea today (courtesy of Paleo Solution podcast episode 167), attributed to Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit. It seems like a brilliant approach to body composition, health, and (probably) any other outcome one might desire from a diet. Essentially, set yourself some athletic goals that will really stretch you. The podcast mentions double-bodyweight back squats and a couple of other outlandish strength/gymnastic goals, but we can all figure out athletic achievements that will stretch our individual capabilities. Perhaps it’s mastering the entire Super-Advanced Reformer repertoire, or doing “Romana’s Mat Challenge” 4 times in a row, if Pilates is your thing (though I think a more profound strength challenge would be best). Maybe it’s preparing to climb Kilimanjaro for charity. The point is that, if your goal is sufficiently challenging for you, doing what it takes to reach it will inevitably involve eating appropriately, and making positive changes to your body composition. No 5:2, no GI, no Caveman, no South Beach, no Atkins, no Blood Type (and on and on and on and on)

Perfect! Nourish yourself to achieve amazingness, and enjoy the combined side-effects of better health, and the body composition you’ve dreamed of.

Adaptive Athletes

January 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

If I’m uninhibitedly honest, before last years Games, I used to view the Paralympics as a distinctly fringe event. Rather in the vein of “Ahh, that’s nice”, but of minimal personal interest.

Like many people, I suspect, last year was different, in that my family was making a point of watching many of the events on television (and trying to get tickets), learning the names of more athletes (no longer ‘Oscar Pistorious, and all the rest’), and becoming emotionally involved in many of the events.

A big part of what changed my perception of the Paralympics, was seeing GB track cyclist Jody Cundy’s reaction to his disqualification. You can see the full unedited version of what happened here, or the short version (all swearing, no back story) here. Suddenly I understood that, for the athletes involved, this was absolutely as serious as the Olympic Games is for anyone competing there, and that the level of training and commitment is at least equal. (I can only apologise for failing to grasp that previously).

Iliesa Delana clearing 1.74 metres (Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Fiji’s Iliesa Delana clearing 1.74 metres
(Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Over the ensuing days I was consistently awed, humbled, and moved by what I saw of the Paralympics. Some of the highlights for me were the men’s F42 high jump (for single, above-the-knee amputees), and the blind long jump (I can’t imagine many things more terrifying than sprinting and jumping into space blind). The fact that the relay runners with cerebral palsy are required to exchange the baton within the same distance as the ‘able-bodied’ athletes should have made some of the latter, who failed to get the baton round the track, feel distinctly inadequate.

In the following months, aside from the BBC’s ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ awards, paralympic sport seems to have drifted back out of the public consciousness, perhaps to be largely forgotten until 2016. Happily for me, the lustre of last year’s Paralympics, and my associated perception of ‘disability’ sport, has recently been restored by the video below.

The story of CrossFit Rubicon, in Virginia, both rekindled my esteem for ‘disabled’ athletes, and helped to reset my perspective, such that ‘disabled’ (finally) feels like un entirely inappropriate word. The owner of the gym makes it clear that the words ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled’ are not acceptable within the gym, and he describes those athletes working out there, who may be without one, or more, limbs as ‘adaptive’. This seems like a wonderful way of acknowledging the obstacles that people may have had to overcome to be turning up at the gym to exercise, without bringing any negative connotations. I’ve always had an uneasy feeling about the name paralympics – the ‘para’ sounds to me like it refers to paraplegic, defined in Wikipedia as: “an impairment in motor or sensory function of the lower extremities”. The idea of impairment seems completely misplaced in relation to both the athletes from last year’s Games, and the men and women at CF Rubicon.

So how’s this for an idea? The Adaptive Olympic Games, instead of Paralympic Games. I think that labels are often useful for clear communication, and find that many of the attempts in the last few decades to ‘reclassify’ things with less pejorative, or stigmatising language  serve mostly to make communication less clear. ‘Adaptive’ seems to admirably walk the line between clarity, and a description that doesn’t suggest ‘less than normal’.

The video’s not short (27 minutes) but deserves the “heart-warming”, “life-affirming”, “uplifting” cliches of many a Hollywood film poster. If you watch, I defy you to be unmoved by the spirit of these adaptive athletes.

Videos from Channel 4, and

There’s not enough THRUSTING

In a recent conversation with a personal trainer, he made the observation that the components of functional training are: “pushing, pulling, lunging, squatting and twisting”. Similarly, Mark Sisson refers to PEMs (Primal Essential Movements): Squats, Pull-ups, Push-ups & Planks.

A search of the web for components of functional exercise offers up the following “4 Pillars of Human Movement” (coined by ‘fitness maverick’, JC Santana): Standing and locomotion; Level changes in the body’s centre of mass (e.g.. squats, lunges etc.); Pushing & Pulling; Rotation.

Dr. Richard A. Schmidt (author of various books on motor control and learning) defined the six basic human movements as: squat, bend (deadlift), lunge, push, pull and twist.

CrossFit’s Training Guide describes Functional movements as those: “…that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life….Squatting is standing from a seated position; deadlifting is picking any object off the ground.”

You’re probably getting the gyst, and may be wondering what this has to do with Pilates. Well, Pilates is about teaching movement, and hopefully we can all agree that it’s a much better idea to be teaching functional movement over non-functional (isolation) movements.

One of the common themes to these lists is the presence of hip extension, which the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, I’m preparing for my Level 1 certification…) describes as”..the foundation of all good human movement” adding: “..without powerful, controlled hip extension you are not functioning anywhere near your potential.” Perhaps as a result of what I’ve learned from regular sessions of CrossFit, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with hip extension, and aware that the great majority of people that I see, both in classes and in the street, seem to be lacking ‘normal’ hip function.

Surely this is where Pilates should be coming in, and spanking everyone into good function? There’s lots of hip extension in Pilates, certainly when it comes to the equipment repertoire, (not so much in the mat work), so what am I on about? Here’s the thing – we typically approach hip extension, in Pilates, from a static trunk position. Take leg springs lying supine, or feet in straps on the reformer – both great exercises for teaching people how to move at their hip joint without compensating with their spine – but not allowing full hip extension. This doesn’t teach us that much about being upright. In addition, legs move in relation to the trunk, and there is very little Pilates repertoire that requires us to extend our hip joints by doing the opposite (trunk moving in relation to legs, or both moving simultaneously).

It’s been amazing to me to discover, both in myself and other Pilates teachers, how common the inability to dynamically extend the hips seems to be. When I was first asked, from a standing position, to flex at my hips and my knees, keeping my trunk stiff (something like the appropriate position from which to pick an object up from the ground), and then extend at my knees and hips to return to vertical, I couldn’t seem to do it without adding in some kind of spinal articulation. The short version of that rather wordy sentence is: ‘ I couldn’t thrust my hips’. Wanting to consider myself moderately virile, that’s a pretty humiliating discovery.

One of the things that I consider it my job, as a Pilates teacher, to convey to the people I’m teaching, is how to avoid substituting moving with their spines for moving in their hips – yet there I was, incapable of avoiding that substitution, when asked to do an unfamiliar hip movement. This is the crux – do we, or does Pilates, do a good job of teaching people to effectively use their hip extensors when they’re not lying down?

It’s not as if there’s an absence of standing work in the studio (again, mat work is a different story), and maybe I just don’t teach enough of that repertoire – though there’s a lot more squatting and lunging involved in my classes than there used to be. Working from the basic premise that spinal articulation exercises are only to promote flexibility (thus facilitating stability), I wonder if we don’t tend to overemphasise articulating the spine, at the expense of efficient, powerful hip extension. You may argue that powerful hip extension (‘PHE’, from now on) isn’t a part of optimal posture, but I’m willing to bet that someone that has the facility for PHE has a reasonable alignment of their pelvis on the top of their legs. I was tempted to insert pictures at this stage, but it feels too objectifying. Suffice it to say that I was watching a promotional video (from a very well-known manufacturer of Pilates equipment) for a new piece of equipment. The model, who in fairness may not be a Pilates practitioner (though I know of a number of Pilates teachers whose shape is similar), had a pronounced angle at the front of her hips in standing, that speaks to me of lack of hip extensor activity – again, this feels like a common sight to me – generally more noticeable amongst women, but that may simply be down to clothing. In contrast, the elite female CrossFitters seem not to exhibit the same posture, but are ‘flatter’ through the front of their hips. Typical CrossFit movements: dead-lifting, squatting, kettle-bell swings, even gymnastic movements at speed like pull-ups and rope climbs, are dominated by PHE.

Could it be that we could help more people improve their hip function overall, and their posture specifically, by incorporating more standing (& lying) PHE?

For suggestions on how to achieve this (without doing CrossFit) please look out for a forthcoming project, that aims to help make Pilates easier, simpler, and possibly, dare I say it, more effective. Readers of this blog will be the first to know about it.