Archives For March 2015

41HJGOjnmrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.

The Hundred

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.

The Roll-Over

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 LegsThe 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?

ef968f90d366b4532cfa664a2f58a743Related to, and along with “we now know more than Pilates did“, ‘too much flexion’ seems to be another observation/statement about the original Pilates repertoire that frequently goes unchallenged. To be clear, this seems to invariably mean ‘too much spinal flexion’. This may well be coupled with a faith in the research of Stuart McGill (yes, this is a favourite topic of mine), which may be taken to mean “never flex your lumbar spine under load of any kind”, or worse, “never flex your lumbar spine, ever”.

Brief digression – if you apply load (compression, for instance) to a cell, it will react, perhaps by adapting to that load. The cell is alive, it breathes, it responds to stimulus. If you kill a pig, remove its spine, put that spine in a vice and repeatedly apply load to it in one direction it will only reliably teach you about what happens when you do EXACTLY that. It will not tell you much at all about what happens to a living spine, made of living, breathing, adaptive cells, human or porcine. So we do know one thing about ‘Safe spines’ for sure: don’t allow anyone to remove your spine from your body, put it in a vice and apply repeated uni-directional load to it. Excellent.

So, there’s lots of flexion in Pilates, right? Everyone says so, not least The Pilates Nun: “It’s true that in the repertoire there are way more spinal and hip flexion exercises than extension, side bending or rotation, inward or outward rotation. By “way more,” I mean a ton more, tens of percentage points more, or, put another way (and to properly use a double negative) almost none are not flexion based.” I have only singled out The Pilates Nun because her website was one of the first hits in my Google search and because she states it so vehemently. She’s by no means alone in making this assertion, as you can see here, and (oh dear) here.

(Disconcertingly, The Pilates Nun explains this flexion dominance by stating that we are ‘flexion biased’ creatures, and goes on to claim that: “humans move forward through hip flexion and our bones are set up to facilitate that. If our legs moved as easily backward or to the side as they do forward, we’d be far less stable, less powerful and nowhere near as fast.” Is it wrong to be profoundly alarmed that someone who may be regarded as an expert in our field believes that it is flexion that propels us forward? Pilates teachers often seem to regard themselves as having greater understanding of movement than other fitness professionals but I imagine that the most novice strength and conditioning coach will tell you that hip EXTENSION propels us forward, and more powerful hip extension makes you faster).

My purpose here is not to write about how safe it can be to do lots of flexion, when done properly – you can read about that on The Vertical Workshop blog (though I still take issue with the writer’s willingness to go along with the ‘Pilates is lots of flexion’ dogma). Instead my intention is to suggest that when we look at exercises and classify them as ‘flexion’ we are only seeing half the story, and sometimes even less.

Do we see the shape at the mid-point in the exercise, and then categorise it based on that shape? If so, we forget about the process of arriving in that shape, and then returning to the start position. There are only a few isometric holds in Pilates. I habitually tell clients who are new to Pilates (in slightly different language) that we are as, if not more, interested in the eccentric movement of an exercise than we are in the concentric movement. Are we seeing concentric flexion and forgetting about eccentric extension? Or just as likely, seeing eccentric flexion and forgetting about the concentric flexion? The whole movement counts, and the exercise isn’t finished until you’ve returned to your start position.

In the simplest instance, if you do The Spine Stretch you return to upright to finish the movement (ideally a little longer than when you started, of course), so is it really an exercise of flexion?

Could it be that a position that appears to be one thing is actually about another? How often is a position that looks like flexed spine and flexed hips actually about an action of hip extension to maintain a robust connection of the legs to the spine, and at the same time organisation of the spine itself?

To avoid writing an epic, I plan to write Part 2 of this by looking at each of the classical mat exercises in terms of their movement patterns and objectives, to try to reinforce this point. In the meantime, I’ll be glad to hear what you think. If you usually think of an exercise as ‘flexion’, try thinking of it differently when you next do it, and see what happens.

Thanks for reading.


Part 2 is now available here.


Occasionally, when something causes me to reflect on how little I’ve achieved over the course of my life, I console myself with the thought that Joseph Pilates was 50 years old when he published his first book (1934), and arguably did his best work between then and his death in 1967. It’s not that I imagine I will ever achieve as much as he did, rather that I still have plenty of time to learn and develop, physically and mentally (yes, emotionally too, but that’s a whole other can of worms).

It seems that it is broadly accepted doctrine within the Pilates teaching world that science has significantly advanced our understanding of human movement, beyond that of Joseph Pilates. Therefore (the doctrine would seem to go), it is safe to assume that we know more about movement than Pilates did, we understand muscles, mechanics and stabilisation better than he did. In some cases it leads to the notion that many of his exercises, perhaps many of the ‘Return to Life’ repertoire, are unsuitable for normal people. Therefore, we are able to adapt Pilates exercises to be safer and better. Here are a few samples of this manifestation to be easily discovered on the web:

“Unfortunately we only have material from his later days of practice and many of those exercises are very unsuitable for the general public!!! Modern Pilates combines the best principles of Pilates with sports science and research from the 21st Century. Simply that! Modern Pilates is a modern contemporary approach to an old exercise discipline.” (

“Having been taken from the dance community by medical professionals it has emerged within physiotherapy, sports training facilities and in more recent history in general fitness circles. With influence from physiotherapists, dancers, doctors, movement therapists and scientists Pilates continues to change and advance.”(

“But the advances of exercise science have enabled teachers to adapt the technique into a safe effective form of exercise, that can be practiced by almost everyone.” (

“You will also learn variations and modifications that were developed in response to scientific advances and the needs of todays student for work that is safe, effective and fun.” (

“STOTT PILATES® is a contemporary approach to the original exercise method pioneered by the late Joseph Pilates. Co-founders Moira and Lindsay G. Merrithew, along with a team of physical therapists, sports medicine and fitness professionals, have spent over two decades refining the STOTT PILATES method of exercise and equipment. This resulted in the inclusion of modern principles of exercise science and spinal rehabilitation, making it one of the safest and effective methods available.” (

I was about to write “at the other extreme”, but since the above ideas seem to be distinctly mainstream then ‘extreme’ is inaccurate – instead, let’s say that the opposite view of this might be considered the school of ‘everything about Pilates is perfect and nothing should be changed in any way’. Or perhaps – Don’t ask questions, just trust the method.

I would have to agree that we cannot practice or teach Pilates with total disregard for the world outside – as a species we are more captive (see Katy Bowman), more ‘zoo-human’ (see Erwan LeCorre) than we were in the 40s, 50s and 60s, so we have changed ourselves, and probably not for the better. (This is quite different from ‘very unsuitable for the general public!’ – if anything, the general public have become unsuitable, not the exercises.) It is also true that some of Pilates assertions are problematic: “In a newly-born infant the back is flat because the spine is straight. Of course, we all know that this is exactly as intended by nature, not only at birth but also throughout life.” I’m inclined to see this as excessive zeal in an argument for maintaining spinal elongation. Perhaps he did get it wrong – I certainly always thought so until, after years of lying on a Stott reformer, lay on a Gratz reformer with distinctly more cushioning and had a different sense of what he may have meant by ‘flat’. Again, maybe he was wrong about this, but should this be cause for us to think that he didn’t understand human bodies and movement well.

To return to my self-consoling thoughts, even if we only start counting from the publishing of ‘Your Health’, Joseph Pilates had 33 years of watching people move, designing, experimenting and refining. As Andrea Maida puts it:

“Joe Pilates toiled his entire lifetime of 80+ years indefatigably tinkering with and perfecting his method. Jay Grimes insists no detail was left to chance or done by accident in the entire body of Pilates’ work.” (

I’ll be the first to agree that understanding how our bodies work in greater detail is wonderful, and that there are all sorts of technologies that allow us to ‘see’ how our bodies behave that weren’t available to Pilates. It’s also easy to believe, perhaps fuelled by the wonder of our advancing technology, that we know more than we do. Do EMGs, for example, tell us exactly which muscles work during a specific movement, and in what sequence etc? Perhaps they do, but EMGs have also recorded muscular activity in cadavers….

Perhaps as an extension of the belief that we know better, it seems to be another common view that an adherence to a set sequence of exercises is short-sighted, perhaps like literally interpreting the Bible (the ‘Don’t ask questions, just trust the Method’ view). I can’t pretend to teach according to a specific sequence on the Reformer, for example, but I do  follow one when I am working out myself, and it definitely asks more questions of me then not following the sequence does. To paraphrase Andrea Maida again, I tend to shy away from the exercises that I don’t like and, surprise surprise, those are the ones that I know I really need. Following an order makes me do the things I need, and makes me think too “perhaps JP was really on to something here”. Why not? He spent a lot of time working on this. Here’s a suggestion – follow the original order (if you don’t already) 2/3/4 times per week, for a month or two, and then see if you think it doesn’t have validity. I love learning about biomechanics, about movement, about anatomy, and very often the things that I learn I then find are already there within the Pilates system – I just didn’t know to look for them.

In short, if I’ve heard about some studies on TVA activation during lumbar perturbation, or about the effects of repeated lumbar flexion on pig spines (yes, dead pig spines…), or I’ve simply been told that we know more than they did back then, does that really make me smarter about human movement than Joseph Pilates was?