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.
Thank you for continuing this conversation…and making it about movement. Indeed. In one article no matter how small or big, one cannot cover all aspects. It is a process. I appreciate your contribution and thank you for including me in your piece.
With that, in response to your statement of my seemingly dogmatic thought, it’s true…I do think that most Pilates around the world. As I get to travel all over the worldand witness so very much in studios, of training programs, workshops…and all of styles…most Pilates teachers focus tremendously on forward flexion of the spine. Static. Unmoving and compressed. With that…even if an exercise is “holding a shape”…any shape whether it be in forward flexion or lateral flexion or even upright in natural curves of the spine…then we must always seek out the movement in the act of stabilization. The effort to practice our opposition (the reinvigoration of our natural biotensegrity) and decompression of all joints when over compression can be an issue. (When is it not an issue?)
I do hope over focus on forward flexion will change over time. For the classicist, Mr. Pilates had many, many more exercises than is what is commonly seen today. They are accessible. (I’ll teach anyone who wants them.) His aim was full movement of the spine in all ways. It was the earliest programs after Joseph Pilates’ death that focused on a lot of forward flexion…and that is what is still passed down. Let’s move beyond that indeed!
This article you’ve written and many others that have been and will be will hopefully be part of what brings us all toward more movement, more variety of movement…more…
Thank you, again, for writing and for letting me be part of your article.
– Shari Berkowitz
Thanks Shari, I appreciate your feedback. Perhaps too often a characteristic is ascribed to ‘Pilates’ rather than to ‘Pilates, as it is often taught’….
I still hope that, if you read part 2, I will be able to make a compelling case for my ‘actually there isn’t lots of flexion’ thesis.
And you know what…I really ought to even be more specific…it’s Classical Pilates that is often too much flexion…and that is because of the choice of of exercises that has gone into training programs.
And I’m a classicist, so that is why I love to teach the “archival” exercises to teachers so that they can learn the greater vocabulary. And in so many classical Pilates teachers’ styles, there is still a lot of flattened lower backs rather than natural curves in exercises from The Hundred to the Abdominal Series to Footwork on the reformer Leg Springs on the Cadillac to Pumping on the High Chair to The wall…that natural curves get eliminated and become forward flexion. Especially with the additional issue of ‘”closing ribs” and then…it’s all askew! So…that’s when, where and with whom forward flexion is abused.
Once we layer on good biomechanics and have a varied vocabulary of exercises…then we’re in balance!
OK…I’ll zip it now and look forward to Part 2!
Hi, Mike! I will absolutely read Part 2! Thank you for this conversation!!
Oh boy you are on fire! I cannot wait to weigh in on this one myself… I have been so inspired by your recent posts – the one on the Pilates System, the often expressed “we know so much more than Joe Pilates did” *gasp* and now this one. Well done 🙂
I was told once that there are not enough backbends in Pilates, which I think is the same people that talk about there being too much flexion…BTW there are loads of backbends…and I am with you…do you not extend the hips when returning to the mat in both the Roll Up and the Neck Pull (both *flexion* exercises) ? Round, long, round long…all through your workout…
Thank you, as usual, Andrea. (Poster arrived yesterday – very nice).
The Neck Pull came to my mind also after reading this: no client ever attempting it for the first time would consider it a “flexion” exercise, it clearly takes a lot of strength!
On a relevant side note, many of your posts always make me think about the time period that Pilates developed his method, what was going on at the time in the fitness world, and what developed out of it (some key words are Sandow, Yoga, body building, etc). The whole idea was based on movement, the mind-body connection, and physical strength. And he treated the human body as strong and able, not as fragile and dysfunctional (watching him teach makes this evident). I don’t know where along the way this all got misunderstood and as in everything that aims to succeed in selling fear was employed.
I am really hoping the work that you’re doing dissolves some of those fears, because they affect both Pilates practitioners and Pilates instructors, who seriously have a lot on their minds while working to add constant questioning of themselves on top of!
Thank you Theodora, very well put.
Reblogged this on alignment ba and commented:
Interesting blog post on pilates
Yes, yes and yes again Mike! I am going to take your advice to never let anyone remove my spine from my body, put it in a vice and apply a uni-directional load to it. To push your point further about adaptive cells bones and soft tissues are dynamic and adaptive structures. Some bones are made of a cortical shell and a core of trabeculae, literally thousands of little interconnecting bony bridges. These trabeculae organise themselves along the lines of force that pass through the bones from our everyday movement. The last time I checked pigs were quadruped animals whose spines will develop to withstand the forces of quadruped life, I’ll wager not quite as much flexion as a biped animal experiences. So not only were those dead pig spines removed from all their supporting structures, they were never developed to withstand that much flexion. Unless of course they managed to source some pigs that had been doing a lot of Pilates.
If our bones and soft tissues are adaptive to the stresses that we place through them then if we start to limit certain movements that are bodies can anatomically accomplish then the time may come when everyday life calls on us to make that movement and then we are more likely to injure our tissues as they will not be match fit. Movement is essential the health of the intervertebral disc that throughout most of our adult lives have no direct blood supply and receives their nutrition via the porous vertebral end plates attached to the bones that have a great blood supply.
That leads me to my next point. Living tissue in a body, not dissected in a lab is wet, juicy and full of fluid. This alters the mechanical properties of the tissue. Every care is taken in cadaver studies to get the specimen as fresh as possible but it is still not alive, fluids will not behave in the same way as they will in situ.
An excellent point was also made about dissection studies on the website http://biotensegrity.com which has some great anatomy stuff to nerd out on. If the studies on dissected spines were conducted at room temperature the tissues involve will have very different mechanical properties to what they would have at body temperature due to the variable visco-elastic qualities of tissues at different temperatures. Again a spine outside of a body is NOT the same as a spine inside a body. I’m not saying that these studies are complete bunk. The results of any study are open to interpretation and there will always be bias. If someone is admonishing your practice as outdated as “This is science” then this is only their interpretation of science. There’s also some fascinating stuff on this site about how our bodies are not the compression structures that we previously used as models to explain force and load. I’m sure we have elements of compressive structures in us, it’s just not the whole story.
Thank you for writing this piece Mike.
Thanks Jon, do you mind if I paste your reply in another thread?
This whole reply will be copied and pasted numerous times methinks! 🙂 Thanks Jon!