Archives For Carl Paoli

CrossFit > Pilates?

November 20, 2018 — Leave a comment

Though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Pilates teacher suggesting that CrossFit is good for business because “They’ll injure themselves and then come to us” (or words to that effect), too often lately I’ve had to ask myself “Is CrossFit doing a better job of carrying Joseph Pilates’ flame than we are as Pilates teachers?

Or, more simply put: Could CrossFit be the new Pilates?

Full disclosure: though I have been through the CrossFit Level One Trainer course I’ve never advertised myself as a CF coach, and my certificate lapsed about a year ago. Why then should I care about, or pay any attention to CrossFit? The simplest answer is that I’m reminded from time to time, that I feel I have more in common with CF coaches than I do with my Pilates teaching peers.

To be fair, it’s easier to define CF than Pilates – Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, conveniently wrote “Fitness in 100 words”, which does a decent job of concisely describing the CF lifestyle. Us Pilates teachers do have “Your Health” & “Return to Life” to refer to but, as well as being much less concise, I suspect that many of us have lost sight of what he wrote about holistic health, not to mention ruling out some of his original exercises for one reason or another.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw some comparisons between his writing and Glassman’s 100 words: it’s clear that Joseph was interested in much more than exercise. It’s also clear, from archival footage, that his own movement practice strayed well off the mat, and the confines of Reformer or Cadillac. Joseph was ‘selling’ health and I believe that, as Pilates teachers, we should be ambassadors for health, with movement as our primary tool. I suspect that this is what many CrossFit coaches and gym owners would say that they do, too.

So much for trying to lay out the similarities of the two practices. There are specific reasons for me to have had this heretical thought that CF may be doing our job better.

If you’ve been here (reading this blog) before, you may know that I believe pull-ups are a reasonable thing for Pilates teachers to have within their capacity. The broad scale rejection of this idea is as disappointing as it is perplexing and, most importantly, makes me suspect that, as a profession, we have low expectations or aspirations for the people we teach for the reason that we have low expectations for ourselves.

A couple of weeks back I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days at Carl Paoli’s ‘Freestyle Insider’ seminar that was attended by mostly CF coaches and other ‘functional fitness’ professionals. In a lunchtime conversation, with 2 men & 3 women, I mentioned this resistance to pull-ups amongst my peers to universal bafflement. For these movement teachers pull-ups are amongst the more basic skills that they would expect to be coaching. Furthermore, if you have a look at CF’s social media feeds, you will soon see amputees finding ways to do pull-ups (and more amazing feats), AND examples of imaginative scaling of the exercise for people who are not yet able to do a pull-up, so that they needn’t be excluded from their group class.

For sure CF does a better job than we do of promoting community, which is surely a key feature of health, particularly in these times of increased awareness of mental health. I’ve rarely been made to feel as welcome in the many Pilates studios that I’ve visited as I have in any of the CrossFit boxes I’ve been to. I’m sure there are notable exceptions but, if you’d like to feel universally supported in pursuing your best effort then CrossFit is probably a better bet than a Pilates class. (And please don’t think that it makes me happy to write that – it truly makes me rather sad.)

Another specific reason for my pro-CF assertion occurred when I was writing an article for a Pilates newsletter (also published here). I was using the opportunity to suggest that Pull-ups, Pistol squats and Hollow rocks ‘should’ be within a Pilates teacher’s capacity. Early feedback from the editor questioned the validity of Pistol squats as a test for all of us, in part because he has an arthritic hip. This prompted me to contact my CrossFit coach/box owner friend to ask his views on coaching pistols for someone with arthritis. His first observation was along the lines of “He needs to clean up his diet”. Not thoughts about scaling back, doing some sort of preparatory gentle mobility exercise, but an idea based around lifestyle. Even as I write it this doesn’t sound very momentous but it really struck me at the time as significant – I don’t think I’ve ever met a Pilates teacher who would be likely to have a similar response. Obviously I’ve not met them all, and it may well be that Sham (coach friend in question) is an exceptional CrossFit coach yet I still feel that it speaks volumes about how we approach HEALTH.

In short, I think that us Pilates teachers may have a more myopic view of health than Joseph had, and the average CrossFit coach has.

Please tell me I’m wrong. Thanks.

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I’m Not Good at Pilates

September 12, 2018 — 3 Comments

I heard a new (to our studio) client say this yesterday, but this is by no means the first time I’ve heard something like “I’ve done it for two years but I’m not very good.”

I then tie myself up in knots trying to explain to them – without indicating that, in addition to being bad at Pilates they’ve also fundamentally missed the point – that there’s no such thing as ‘good at Pilates’.

I’m particularly interested in this because it seems to involve merging some different ideas. I’d like to try to unpick them, and to propose a test for teachers (not ‘are you good at Pilates?’ but, ‘has Pilates done you any good?’)

As we know, Joseph Pilates was promoting HEALTH, with exercise as a small part of the equation. In pursuit of health we need to consider our nervous system responses (does our sympathetic system switch on appropriately), which is related to our sleep quality, our stress levels; also, do we spend time outside in sunshine and fresh air, with nature in view? And, of course, there’s food – macro and micronutrients.

Can we be ‘good’ at health? How often do you hear people described as ‘fit’ (not the easy-on-the-eye slang), or healthy? And in those cases how likely is it that their lifestyle is actually addressing all aspects of health? (I guarantee that a Tour de France cyclist, who might be well adapted to endurance cycling, is not fit or healthy).

I don’t think it’s possible to be good at Pilates, certainly not by any measure that I can recognise, but I definitely think it’s worthwhile. One of my challenges is to help those people who don’t feel that they’re good at Pilates to find some measure of their sessions’ value, which is external to how competent or not they feel during the session.

I suspect most of these people are at a Pilates class because they feel that they ‘should’ be: perhaps their health professional has advised it, or perhaps something in their sense of self tells them that they will be better (with, I imagine, a large dose of media influence) if they do Pilates. You know – they’ll have less pain, they’ll look better, they’ll align themselves more closely with the apparent lifestyle of celebrity X, or they’ll have a piece of the puzzle of the impossible-to-define-or achieve nebulous ‘how we should live’ that the media presents hourly.

So helping someone to find value from their Pilates well often involve finding out about things that they like to do, and look for ways to enhance that activity; or to learn something that they cannot yet but would like to do, and to map a route to achieving it.

Honestly, I find it a bit strange that anyone loves Pilates for itself. That may well be heresy, so let me try to explain. I don’t love the act of spending 45 minutes on the Reformer. It’s quite fun to do it with someone else, to spur on and be spurred on, and I REALLY value how it can make me feel. I was going to compare it to drinking wine, and I find that in unpicking the comparison maybe I do love the Reformer – I realise that there are moments (Rowing springs to mind) when there is almost a taste to the specific position or movement that I do love. That aside, I drink wine not because I know that I should, that it will do me good. No, I drink wine because I like the taste and, you know, sometimes that combination of a robust Argentinian Malbec with some good rib-eye transcends food and drink in the way that sex with the person you love transcends the other kind of sex.

Woah! Get back on track! I get on the Reformer because I should, and because I know it’s good for me – not because I love it, and another 5 reps of horseback (done strictly in the original order) will get it nearly perfect (“where’s my phone? I feel an Instagram post coming on”).

A great example of a goal that I came across recently was the man who wanted to put his socks on without sitting down. I LOVE this. Sure, it’s a beginner’s goal, and I’d be hoping for more soon, but as a start it’s great – single leg balance, deep hip flexion, spine mobility, ankle flexibility? Yes, Pilates can do that! If you saw this particular gentleman in a class today I doubt you would say “He’s really good at Pilates” but he achieved that goal in ten week, and how good a springboard is that?

As a teacher of this method, you might be looking for a little bit more – especially if you’re focus is on exercises rather than health. I know that a foundation of years of Pilates was invaluable to me when playing with common CrossFit movements (once I’d got past the ignominy of not being able to hip hinge – forever curling my spine instead…) My background was carpentry and construction, not dance, and I’m sure Pilates made it easier for me to pick up the techniques of Olympic weightlifting. If I can do a ring muscle-up (on a good day) it’s because of Pilates – it’s because Pilates taught me really important things about how to move.

So how about some simple tests, to see if your Pilates has served you well? The kind of tests that don’t rely on subjective or aesthetic judgements. There’s no “I’m not very good at it” (as we might say about Balance Control, or The Snake, perhaps), there is only “Yes, I can do that” or “No, not yet”.

So, if your Pilates has been working for you, you should be able to pass these tests:

Hollow Rock

Pistol Squat

Pull Up

Brett feels that they are a bit arbitrary, and that’s true in a way. I learned them in the context of CrossFit, where they might be considered intermediate level skills – probably many thousands of people are doing them every day. I think they’re useful tests because they cover strength and control of upper and lower extremity, and stabilisation of your spine under load – all of which seem like attributes one might expect of a Pilates practitioner. They’re also all scaleable, it’s easy to figure out (especially with the help of YouTube) ways to progress with each of them.

The Hollow Rock is a gymnastic skill that is really just a progression of the Hundred, or Double Leg Stretch. From your Hundred shape, reach your arms overhead and rock, as you would in Open Leg Rocker – it’s really a super long lever OLR. Can you maintain the shape – yes, or no?

A Pistol is a one legged squat (hey, it’s a super advanced Reformer exercise!) without any external support, which may call for the greatest explanation/justification of the 3. My CrossFit coaching friend (CrossFit Brit, Irvine, CA – pay him a visit, he’ll help you be more awesome, for sure) describes the Pistol as a combination of strength, flexibility and balance – Pilates gives us all of those, right? Carl Paoli*, who wrote a book about 4 basic movements, one of them being a pistol, suggests that the major challenge of this movement is resisting internal rotation. Pilates is full of resisting internal rotation, so we’ve totally got this. So, can you sit down to full knee and hip flexion, and stand back up – yes, or no?

And here we go again, my Pull Up soap box. If you’ve only been practicing on a mat you may have a let-off, but if you have a Reformer and/or a Cadillac available to you, you know about pulling, you know about gripping, and integrating your arms into your shoulders and your shoulders into your trunk/spine. And you’re a teacher, so your arms are not weak, so overall, you SHOULD be at least on the way to a Pull Up.

The great thing about these three movements is that they not only provide feedback about the value of your Pilates practice, they also have fantastic carry forward to your Pilates practice. If you have these three skills I guarantee that you will find the more Pilates repertoire more readily available.

Win win.

*Carl also has a lot of instructional videos to help with all of these skills here.

 

An abridged version of this was first published by Pilates Intel.

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?

Neutral?

October 18, 2014 — 13 Comments

This subject may have been done to death, but the last post that I wrote garnered reaction from a number of people, specifically in relation to my writing that “I may have uttered the phrase ‘neutral spine’ at some point in my life” (as if that were a bad thing). So, it seems like something worth addressing, and having done some hunting in books and via the internet, there is plenty of (at least) potentially conflicting information available.

Neutral posture is defined as one “where the joints and surrounding soft tissues are in elastic equilibrium and thus at an angle of minimal joint load”.

(sorry, I’ve seen this quoted repeatedly but cannot find the original source).

If you’re going to be lifting weights, whether a barbell or bags loaded with a weekly shop, neutral is a fantastic place for your spine to be. There will be load on your spine, because it is the transmission from your arms (carrying the weight) to your hip joints, which should be moving the weight, but the load will be distributed evenly through the joints. If you are a Pilates teacher, or enthusiast, you probably know what Joseph Pilates believed about spinal flexibility – he wrote, in ‘Return to Life’ “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” In the lifting example though, the facility to maintain stiffness in your spine is very valuable.

One of the foremost proponents of spine stiffness is Prof. Stuart McGill (the link is to an article that he wrote) who has spent years researching spines, and apparently gathered lots of evidence that supports his theories.

I can’t disagree with a lot of what Prof. Mc Gill says in the video (and what right, as a layperson, would I have anyway?), especially in relation to the importance of lifting with the hips and not simply bending your knees. I heard recently of research on dancers showing a strong correlation between poor hip hinging (the ability to hinge the trunk around the hip joints without spinal articulation) and both back and knee pain – back pain especially. There would seem to be a strong case for making sure that the people we teach understand how to hip hinge (to powerfully extend their hips, you might say.)

Are there exercises in Pilates that involve the spine acting as a static transmission of load from one extremity to another? Absolutely. And there are also, of course, plenty that require us to sequentially articulate our spines, or to maintain spinal flexion. I suspect that the work of Prof. McGill has caused some teachers to believe that we should be avoiding lumbar flexion (it seems to be regarded as more sinister than thoracic or cervical flexion, presumably because the majority of disc injuries occur there). If you look you can find video online (try “the Pilates Nun”) of the Rollup being taught with a neutral lumbar spine, so as to keep it safe. If you peruse Professor McGill’s ‘Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance’ book you will see that he particularly advocates exercising with lumbar in neutral for people who have had back injuries or back pain: “Generally, for the injured back, spine flexibility should not be emphasised until the spine has stabilised and has undergone strength and endurance conditioning – and some may never reach this stage!” (page 47). This is not at all the same as never, ever flex your lumbar spine, yet this is what some people have taken from his work.

As a concept, neutral spine seems to be predominantly taught lying supine, which is curious to me because it seems to be the one position where neutral has least value or application. Under what circumstances, when lying down, do you need to maintain a neutral spine? If the only answer is ‘during exercise’, then we have to wonder what the purpose of the exercise is. I’m referring to mat based exercise, Footwork on the Reformer, and similar exercises with straps/springs being an exception, because you are applying force from your hip joint against mechanical resistance – they are mimicking deadlifting and squatting while supine. There is not a single exercise in ‘Return to Life’, beginning from a supine position, that calls for neutral spine, so it would seem reasonable to say that any pre-Pilates exercise (that is truly progressing toward an actual Pilates exercise) would not call for it either.

You might want to encourage a neutral spine in standing, in which case this is entirely dependent on the leg/pelvis relationship. If that is well organised – pelvis neutral – then cues related to axial elongation will surely help to achieve an appropriate spine position. After all, as Shari Berkowitz writes in her blog post ‘Neutral Pelvis and Neutral Spine: What are they and why do we care?‘, neutral spine is not a specific shape but unique to each individual. And, with that reference, ‘neutral pelvis’ rears its head.

Neutral pelvis, defined by Ms Berkowitz in her article as: “ASIS and pubic bone in line with each other in the Coronal Plane”, seems to me a more appropriate thing to be talking about than neutral spine, but do we really need to talk about it at all? Yes, it may well be a helpful cue to some, and my discomfort with the term may be a little irrational. (I’m much happier talking/thinking about organising one’s pelvis on the top/end of one’s legs..) Once again, I have to wonder if the term has a place in Pilates – particularly the matwork?

maxresdefaultMany gymnastic exercises involve the hollow body, or ‘dish’ position, and it seems to be central to gymnastics foundational strength programs (Gymnastic Bodies, for example). Having been introduced to the hollow body position it became apparent to me that this was the basis for a number of Pilates exercises – The Hundred; Single & Double Leg Stretches; and even The Push Up (ask any gymnast – push ups aren’t done in ‘neutral’). In fact, the second picture accompanying The Double Leg Stretch in ‘Return to Life’ is identical to the picture above. According to gymnastics coach, and author Carl Paoli, the hollow body is fundamental to learning to control your lumbar spine against the natural tendency to excessive flexion. It seems entirely natural to me that Joseph Pilates would have adopted this idea from gymnastics, which was particular popular in Germany.

One of the most valuable elements of the hollow body position for me was the understanding that my spine is organised by my glutes. My abdominals can then go to work to help to sustain that organised position but, under load, my glutes (the auto spell check is determined that I use my flutes to organise my spine…) are paramount. In a supine position this has the effect of lengthening my lower back into the ground, rather than jamming it down, and it becomes a much more sustainable position than it used to be for me. I would go as far as to say that my abdominals depend on the efficient functioning of my flutes (see?) to be able to function efficiently themselves. This does not equate to neutral pelvis.

Aside from it not seeming to be what Pilates himself was teaching, the problem with ‘neutral pelvis’ is that, once you take yourself away from either vertical or horizontal, the term has no meaning, except in relation to your spine. So, when a teacher calls for a variety of exercises from the original repertoire to be performed in ‘neutral pelvis’, I suspect that what they are really saying is ‘lumbar neutral’. If that is what’s intended, why stop there? If you flex your thoracic but not your lumbar then one would think that there would necessarily be significant intervertebral compression in the lower thoracic. If it is truly important to keep the lumbar in neutral, then why not the thoracic and the cervical? Where does that take us? Everything neutral in the sagittal plane only allows us to include The Twist, Side Kick Lying and Kneeling, and The Leg Pull (if you’re careful).

Under those circumstances, Pilates, as an exercise method, is dead – killed by the creeping influence of physiotherapy and disc injury and rehabilitation research. If you think that gymnastics may not hold all the answers to sound movement then I’d agree – practiced at an elite level it’s probably not fantastic for your health. That doesn’t mean that the basics haven’t been worked out over a long period of time – at least a century more than Pilates has been around. Gymnastics, like Pilates (I hope) is also very much concerned with having control over one’s body in movement. Can the same thing be said for the advocates of ‘neutral’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I seem to have frequent epiphanies these days – or rather the idea that things that I ‘knew’, perhaps in the darker recesses of my mind, suddenly crystallise into sharp and sometimes powerful ideas. Simple things, such as ‘Pilates doesn’t cure back pain, good movement cures back pain.’ Of course, Pilates is an excellent vehicle for teaching good movement, and it certainly ‘fixed’ my chronic low back pain years ago. Now I recognise that it wasn’t that my various Pilates teachers waved their wands and cured me with a dose of magic – they taught me better movement (and positioning) than I was accustomed to practice at that time (God love ’em).

There’s another conversation that can be had later/elsewhere about various methods some Pilates teachers seem to have for appearing to do magic, to be filed under ‘Disempowerment’.

Another closely related epiphany that I had recently (thanks to the wisdom of Kelly Starrett finally sinking in) is that whether we are teachers of Pilates, or yoga, or salsa, or karate, or tai chi, or…almost any other movement discipline, the work is the same – teaching good movement. (Pilates called it ‘right movement’). Some of those disciplines may involve a broader scope than Pilates but, in as much as they are movement disciplines, they should be teaching good movement.

I was leaving a health club today, after teaching, when one of the PTs approached me and asked if I just teach Pilates, or if I teach yoga as well. To my surprise, when I answered “No, I don’t teach yoga.” her immediate reply was “Why?”. My internalised response was something along the lines of: “Because I’ve found a really efficacious method for teaching movement (and spent years trying to do it well), why would I want to train to teach a different method with the same purpose?” I understand that people are drawn to yoga and Pilates in ways that I am not, so no disrespect to the multi-disciplinarians out there. To me, she may as well have said “Why aren’t you a personal trainer?”, given that I think that job should be essentially the same – teaching good movement.

This is what gets me excited at the moment, the idea of helping people in my classes to move, or position themselves well. And Pilates is such a brilliant means to this end. I had another revelation today – that the Hundred is a fantastic assessment tool. It can tell you so much about someone’s awareness and competence – Is their thoracic sufficiently mobile for their head to be well positioned? Can they stabilise their scapula? Are they able to disassociate their arms from their trunk? Can they stabilise their midline under the load of their legs? Can they keep breathing while doing all of the above? And so on. All questions that relate to activities outside the class.

If I can see that someone is struggling with any of those requirements of the Hundred, what are the most effective ways that I have for helping them do better? Obviously there are many ways to skin this particular cat, and I have a question for any teachers that are reading this: Is cueing muscles the best way to help people to move well?

The organisation under which I trained is holding their AGM around the time of writing, and an internationally renowned teacher has been invited to present workshops over the weekend. One of them is apparently titled “Pilates in Clay”*, and offers the chance to sculpt muscles, in clay, onto a pvc skeleton. The description continues: “Once you have made a group of muscles, we will use the Pilates apparatus to understand how they are engaged and in what functional capacity on the reformer.”

Now, it’s probably just me, but isn’t there a significant disconnect between teaching ‘right’ movement and understanding how (which) muscles are engaged and in what functional capacity on the reformer? Perhaps I would discover that my clients left tibialis anterior is over-recruiting during the tendon stretch. Then what? Do I then devise a program of tib ant recruitment timing exercises, along with a stretching program? What would Joseph Pilates have made of this? We might be able to look wise to our clients if we can suggest to them that their serratus anterior is failing to do its job of scapula stabilising correctly, but does that help them to move better? If you know the muscle that’s working/not working, are you a better teacher?

I would argue that this is an illusion. Yes, certainly knowing muscles and their function can aid in understanding movement. And I need to be able to have a conversation with a physiotherapist, osteopath, or surgeon using anatomical language. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of moving, my brain is simply giving instructions for one body part (or more) to move relative to another, and the muscles are just accessories. Your brain doesn’t actually know that you’ve got muscles. Poor muscle balance is a product of poor movement, not the other way around. Aside from this, focus on muscles when teaching (in addition to appearing clever) can easily disempower the client, and help to reinforce the notion that Pilates is in fact magic, to be performed on you by your teacher. Can’t differentiate between your gastroc and your soleus? Oh dear, this is worse than I thought.

After years of being excited by analysing anatomy, and trying to ‘see’ muscles working/not working in my clients, I’ve been very fortunate to stumble upon the understanding (again, hat off to Kelly Starrett – and Gray Cook, Mike Boyle, Carl Paoli etc.) that Pilates is simple. Brilliant, and simple. The fundamentals of joint positioning for transmission of force, or resistance of load, are the same for Pilates as for any other movement discipline. ‘Force’ and ‘load’ are perhaps not words commonly associated with Pilates, but this is just different written/spoken language to describe the common language of movement.

If this approach to Pilates strikes any type of a chord with you (or if you hate it and want to come and heckle), I’m running a seminar: ‘Pilates Made Simple’, in West London on June 15th. More details to follow on the blog.

*This may well be a brilliant and highly instructive workshop, it’s just that the description made me feel like chewing my fingers off.

I have had the good fortune, in the last 4 weeks, to take workshop/seminars with two fantastic presenters. They were both representing Crossfit (which might be the best and/or the worst thing to happen to fitness in the last ten years, depending on your world view) and, between them, they taught me more about Pilates than I’ve learned in years. Okay, some of it I already knew, but I needed reminding – or I needed to hear the ideas put together in a way that I hadn’t heard/been able to hear previously. The net result was a renewed enthusiasm for teaching, and a really strong urge to translate my fresh understanding into helping the people I teach become STRONGER. I remember hearing a yoga teacher – the lovely David Sye, in fact – a few years ago saying that flexibility is great, but it is strength that holds us up as we age.

I am tempted to write this post talking about ‘we’, referring to Pilates teachers in the UK. Whilst I am confident that the following view represents more than my own thoughts and, in fact, involves some paraphrasing of others I will try to keep to ‘I’. I have thought for some time that Pilates teachers understand movement better than a lot of other exercise practitioners. I have wondered what the point of lifting weights was, other than vanity. I have thought that my understanding of the human body and biomechanics was probably superior to Joseph Pilates’ because I have the benefit of scientific advances and so much more technology to explain anatomy and movement to me. I have believed that Pilates would have done some things differently, had he lived longer, and known what science has shown us since his death. I have revelled in theory and terminology that complicates anatomy, and movement. I have over-analysed movement, and tried to understand musculoskeletal anatomy in excessive detail. I have imagined that I can tell which specific muscles might be working or not working when looking at movement, both efficient and less so. I have taught “evolved” Pilates….

More fool me, more often than not. Let’s be clear: I don’t believe that the various things I’ve owned up to have made me a bad teacher, and it’s certainly fascinating to delve into the marvellous complexity of human anatomy, yet I may be guilty of seeing the trees in detail, and thereby missing out on the beauty of the whole wood. The journey toward what feels like my current enlightenment (next step on the path to better understanding, perhaps) began with a lecture by Jaap Van der Wal: ‘Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system.’ He opened my eyes to an alternative way of considering anatomy, based around the idea that movement shapes our form, rather than our form shaping our movement. One of the most compelling things that Professor Van der Wal said was; “the brain doesn’t know muscles, it knows movement”. It represented a great argument against isolated exercises, and felt like a strong validation of Pilates.

And so to my more recent revelations. The first was Kelly Starrett presenting the ‘Crossfit Movement and Mobility Trainer Course’. The first significant point is that Kelly is a phenomenal presenter, (and I would love to get him talking in front of a room full of my Pilates teaching peers) who talks with knowledge, confidence, experience and great panache. Bearing in mind that he was addressing a room full, predominantly, of Crossfitters, remarkably, as he spoke I kept thinking “that’s Pilates!”, and “That’s what Pilates was saying in the 1930s”. It seemed that, the truth is, the language of movement is actually much less complicated than I had previously been willing it to be. Some of the basic principles he spoke about: importance of midline stabilisation; the hip joint as the major engine in the body; the first joint that is loaded in a movement is the joint that will bear the most load; with the right movement and the right lifestyle we are perfect healing machines. He also made the point that humans are highly adaptable, and the consequence of this is that we need to practice good positions all the time. I had previously heard it asserted that it’s okay to slouch if you know how to organise yourself – to sit or stand properly. The trouble is, our adaptability means that we’re very good at the things we practice most, and this is exactly why the posture of someone who spends hours stooped in front of a computer terminal is so easy to identify. I spent yesterday afternoon in a lecture hall full of Pilates teachers and some of the postures on view were shocking…

The second was a gymnastics seminar at Crossfit Thames, with Carl Paoli, another great presenter, and teacher who, addressed decidedly un-Pilates movements (handstand push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups) but brilliantly illustrated how so many apparently different movements are closely related to each other – just as in Pilates. He also showed us how to identify movement faults in very simple ways and, equally, how to fix them in simple ways. How’s this for a simple principle?: “The hips are the main engine, the spine is the transmission, and needs to be stable to translate power to the second engine – the shoulders.”

Interestingly, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen fellow teachers posting links to some quite brilliant anatomy animations, and the voice in my head has been saying: “It’s not about the muscles!” I know how easy it is to give in to the temptation to look at something that is going wrong with a client’s posture, or movement and to try to work out what particular muscle isn’t working/is weak/is tight/is inhibited etc. But the brain does’t know about muscles, and I’m not cleverer than Joseph Pilates was. One of the most striking things about Kelly and Carl was that they clearly understand movement very well, and there’s the link with Pilates – he clearly understood movement well. He probably hadn’t heard about local and global muscles, he didn’t talk about stabilisers and mobilises, low threshold exercise and so on, but I suspect he knew, for example, that external rotation of the hip gives more torsion and, therefore strength, to flexion movements (and that principle is applicable to so many movements).

I don’t think that I can empower people by trying to identify what muscles they do, or don’t have working well. I can empower them by helping them to understand movement in simple terms, and to become stronger (by working hard), before I try to introduce subtlety.