Related 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.