Firstly, thank you to everyone who read Part 1 – something about this topic clearly resonated because more people have viewed that post than any other that I’ve written (no, it’s not saying much, but ‘from little acorns’ etc…)
Some of the comments that were made in response to Part 1 indicate that I didn’t do a very good job of arguing that there isn’t too much flexion, AND indicate to me that there are plenty of teachers who will happily declare that ‘there is too much flexion’, or ‘classical Pilates is mostly flexion’ as a gospel truth – as one of those things that’s so manifestly true that it needs no qualifying. When I asked for an example of a particular exercise that symbolised ‘too much flexion’ there were no examples forthcoming. The argument seems to go: “Just look at ‘Return to Life'”, and that’s exactly what I plan to do.
Before that I would like to quote Jean-Claude, from Bluebird Pilates in Munich, whose comment on the Facebook pilates-contrology-forum very neatly sums up what I believe:
“If you ask the question, if there is too much flexion in the Pilates Method and you generalise like followed: Roll Up = Flexion , Swan = Extension , I believe it is a black and white approach.
Looking closely at the Roll Up for example, I can see an important part of extension, lying flat reaching you arms up and over you head without lifting your middle back, reaching into the two way stretch through your feet and finger tips. For me that is clearly an extension that most clients have to work on pretty hard.”
So, trying to see the original mat exercises in glorious technicolour, here we go. In case it’s not obvious, I’m assuming that the ‘too much flexion’ accusation refers to the spine, and not to other joints.
My understanding is that The Hundred is about breathing, and that it is about chest expansion (thank you Kathryn Ross-Nash, this was so helpful to me). I’ve argued elsewhere that the position of this exercise is essentially the gymnastic ‘hollow body’ or ‘dish’ position. A big part of which is hip extension – JP is pointing his toes in the pictures in RtL, which is (as Carl Paoli says) an expression of pushing. I would suggest that, if you are thinking of holding your legs up in The Hundred, then you are mistaken – you need to be pushing your legs down. The action of hip extension will help to centre your femurs well in your hip sockets, and assist a posterior pelvic tilt (which is different from tucking, of course) that will lengthen your lumbar and flatten it into the floor. Yes, there’s some lumbar flexion, but as always in Pilates, it’s coupled with elongation. For me, the component of hip extension is far more significant than lumbar flexion. It is my upper thoracic that really has to flex, meaning that I have to find some extension from my lower thoracic, which is where the chest expansion challenge comes in – can I flex my upper thoracic without closing the front of my shoulders? (Yes, if I really concentrate).
In short, not a flexion dominant exercise.
The Roll Up
The instructions begin “Lie flat with entire body resting on mat…” Yes there’s lumbar flexion to achieve that, but it’s about flexing to lengthen rather than flexing to curve, and the pelvis/leg relationship is the key, so the facility for hip extension is central again. I bet too that the thoracic extension challenge is significant for many to achieve the desired start position. I won’t pretend that the movement itself doesn’t in involve flexion, but the ability to move efficiently at your hip joints is the key. I saw it asserted on Facebook this morning that the 3 challenges to doing The Roll Up are: “the proportion of the body; the mobility of the spine; the strength of the abdominal muscles” No! If you can’t assume the start position – lumbar lengthened and hips extended (that slight posterior tilt will require you to be in hip extension). If you can’t dissociate at your hip joint your spine will have little chance of moving appropriately and this, I believe, is the usual reason for people to struggle with The Roll Up.
As I mentioned in Part 1, my understanding is that the eccentric (resisting force) phase of any exercise is at least as important as the concentric (applying force) phase. So you are always resisting gravity or, in the studio, the springs. Therefore rolling up from the floor is not the big challenge, rolling back to the floor is where the control really occurs, and this is when you have to be able to extend your hips, and your thoracic (see Jean-Claude’s observation above). The alignment of your spine is (pathology aside) a product of the orientation of your pelvis on the top of your legs. If we disagree on this we will probably disagree on most things movement related.
So The Roll Up is an exercise of hip dissociation, spinal flexion and extension.
This exercise is almost a reverse Roll Up, so many of the same ideas apply. Spinal control becomes more significant than hip control, because part of your spine remains the anchor to the floor, whereas in the Roll Up your pelvis and legs are the anchor. The eccentric phase is, as far as I’ve seen, always harder than the concentric phase (again, it’s Pilates – that’s how it’s supposed to be).
Of course there’s flexion, with elongation, and it’s working your hip extensors that will help to maintain that length (ie. Resist gravity) but the hard work comes in maintaining shoulder placement (there’s that chest expansion idea from The Hundred) and extending your upper thoracic, so that you’re not over extending your neck, on the way down – and then maintaining that while you extend your lower thoracic too.
So the shape looks like flexion but The Roll-Over is an exercise in controlling spinal extension.
The One Leg Circle
It’s the Roll Up start position again – there’s as much thoracic extension as there is lumbar flexion..
Rolling Back (Rolling Like a Ball)
Yes, it’s in flexion – I would say a (-curve, not a c-curve. As with earlier examples, it is hip extension that will help to maintain lengthened lumbar flexion – you push out against you own pulling in – that’s the opposition that creates length in the shape and gives you dynamic control. If you’re rolling and only pulling in then balance is going to be more a matter of luck than control.
So it is flexion but you’d better not be just thinking about flexing.
The Leg Stretches
Just like The Hundred, the lumbar flexion is really about elongation, and once again hip extension, and the capacity for deep flexion at your hip joint. And there’s the chest expansion element again – can you keep that as your draw your knee(s) in?
They looks like flexion exercises, but maybe that shouldn’t be the focus if you’re doing them well.
The Spine Stretch
In truth, I’m not thrilled with JP’s start position in RtL – it looks like there’s a bit too much posterior tilt to be able to really maintain length while going into lumbar flexion….
Here the flexion happens on the eccentric phase, so you work hard to lift into flexion against gravity wanting you to collapse. The concentric phase is all extension and, for me at least, this is one accession when it’s just as demanding as the eccentric part – to really sit up without hinging at my lumbar-thoracic junction, to really extend my thoracic, takes a lot of concentration and control.
It’s another exercise in both flexion and extension – the middle position of any Pilates exercise rarely tells you what the exercise is all about.
With just a few exceptions, I’ve already written about the exercises that follow, or (hopefully) they obviously don’t involve spinal flexion to any significant degree.
Rocker with Open Legs, The Seal, The Crab = Rolling Back (and The Crab gives me the most fantastic upper thoracic stretch, in the area that so few exercises reach).
The Corkscrew, The Jack-Knife, The Control Balance = The Roll-Over, and you’d better be using your hip extensors to organise and lengthen your spine.
The Saw, and the spinal articulation component of The Push Up = The Spine Stretch.
The Teaser is The Roll Up but with less feedback, and a harder involvement of your hip extensors (yes, they have to work to help organise your spine and maintain the length in your lumbar).
It’s tempting to say that, if anything, there’s too much hip extension in Pilates, because your hip extensors need to be working in (borrowing a generalisation) ‘pretty much everything’. This is where the idea that when Joseph Pilates devised the system people had different lifestyles and needed different things (which is often the underpinning of the ‘too much flexion’ argument) seems to fall down. In my experience everyone could have more efficient hip extensors, and I guess that JP had this worked out.
To try to summarise, many exercises, seen in a snapshot, appear to be flexion biased but we do the whole exercise, not a snapshot. Inevitably, how we think of an exercise, our perception as we approach the movement, influences what we do and feel. If you believe that Pilates is flexion biased then that will probably be your experience. What happens if you allow your perception to change?