Pilates, from the ground up?

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

71064I have heard Kelly Starrett describing functional movement as ‘a wave of contraction from core to extremity’. This seems to fit very well with the theory of local and global muscles. The idea that we need to stabilise our spine prior to loading/moving is embedded in Pilates. It is easy, too, to find ‘scholarly articles’ on the internet (Paul Hodges, to name one author) exploring this idea, and correlating poor stabilisation in anticipation of movement with lumbar disfunction and injury.

It all seems very logical, but could it be flawed? Things seen in a lab may not have a strong relationship to ‘real life’. The fact that turmeric added to cancer cells in a Petri dish has a measurable negative effect on those cells, does not equate to consumption of turmeric ‘killing’ cancer cells in a living body. Similarly, the research that supports the concept of an anticipatory, local muscle stabilisation strategy may struggle to replicate real life situations, simply because it’s hard to measure a lot of human activity whilst accounting for variables. I imagine it’s really hard to wire someone up to any kind of measuring device and gain significant data if they’re engaged in anything other than fairly pedestrian activity. One of the challenges to the straightforward ‘centre-to-periphery’ concept that I’ve had is its failure to take into account the influence of part of our body coming into contact with the ground, or some other surface. That contact will send feedback to our brains, perhaps triggering further stabilisation strategies, for further anticipated movement or force through the joints. Therefore, the periphery is triggering the action at the centre. Where does that leave our ‘wave of contraction’? Is it blown out of the water, or can it be salvaged?

In the last couple of weeks I met two people who, separately, caused me to start to ruminate on this. One was explaining that her strategy for getting from sitting on the floor to standing was the way it was (alarming, I thought) because she had issues with both her foot and her knee. She was endeavouring to find stability in her foot, and then her knee – working from periphery to centre – on the basis that she needed to have a stable foundation of foot-to-ground before she could stabilise more proximally. It kind of makes sense – you can’t stand a vase on a wobble-board. The other instance was someone who, to my eyes, clearly had habitually internally rotated femurs and matching externally rotated tibias, and was talking about the orthotics that her podiatrist had recommended/prescribed. The podiatrist was apparently relatively disinterested in what was going on at this person’s pelvis (i.e. hip joints) because the thing that needed dealing with was her point of contact with the ground. It felt like a mini-epidemic of periphery to centre thinking. And again, there is a certain logic to this – the lady in question had knee pain. Every time she planted her foot on the ground her inability to stabilise her foot caused an inappropriate load at her knee joint, ergo: stabilise the foot with orthotics.

I should perhaps acknowledge at this point that I’m not at all a fan of orthotics. I can see that they may be a stepping stone toward getting someone’s joints into better positions, but they aren’t a substitute for actually sorting out alignment and strength issues that can have a lasting effect. I’ve worked with too many people who have orthotics for life (i.e.. someone in their 60s who’s had orthotics since their 40s). It seems akin, to me, to putting someone in a neck brace as a long term solution for poor control of their head position.

So, do we have compelling evidence to support an argument that stability actually works from the periphery to the centre (and then back out again)? I don’t think so. In both cases the idea is that a stable point of load, or contact with the ground, is more significant than a stable trunk. I can only assume that the idea is that in that case the trunk will take care of itself. I’ve used the workshop “Pilates Made Simple” to explore the idea that there are three basic demands of any Pilates exercise (that, of course, relate directly to real life) – these are: Stabilising your spine/trunk while moving your extremities; sequentially articulating your spine; and transferring load from your extremities to your centre. The latter is the one that I’m most interested in here – it seems to me to be fundamental to what we teach in Pilates, to functional movement, joint health, longevity etc.

In order to transfer load from your foot to your centre (core, if you like) you need to have control over all the joints in between. If there is a ‘break’ in that chain of force transfer then the load gets absorbed by the more distal joints. This is easy to see in people doing all fours exercises who are not able to effectively stabilise their shoulder blades against their ribcage and consequently feel the load most in their wrists and elbows. (When training I learned that, if a client was injured, Pilates always worked away from the problem – Kelly Starrett talks about “upstream” and “downstream” implications of poor positioning/control. I think the ‘fix’ for an elbow problem will more often than not be found at the shoulder than the wrist – proximal, not distal.) In the medially rotated femur/laterally rotated tibia/orthotic scenario, the orthotics may wedge the foot into a better shape but this won’t transfer into improved hippo control. However, working on laterally rotating at the hip joint whilst maintaining a straight foot (please try this yourself) will have a significant effect on foot activity. This is (for me, at least) very challenging to achieve in open chain exercises, but working on closed chain exercises on Pilates apparatus and standing work in mat classes, seem to really help to manage knee/ankle/foot alignment in open chain exercises.

The short version of all of the above: Yes, feedback from our periphery is instrumental in establishing positions, but we cannot effectively create stability and control from the periphery to the centre, it HAS to work the other way.

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