Archives For classical pilates

My only qualification for writing this is my Y chromosome, there may well be influence of my own neurotransmitter preferences on my views, so while this is written as if I’m speaking for my gender as a whole, please note that different viewpoints may be available.

DON’T

Infantilise me. Babies and toddlers might have ‘tummies’ (perhaps some postpartum women might), but I do NOT have a tummy, or tummy muscles, and I won’t feel that I’m in the right place if you imply that I do.

Teach me to engage my pelvic floor. (Unless I’ve specifically told you that’s what I’m looking for) It works fine, thank you. And if you ask me to think about walking into the sea, or another body of cold water, I’m likely to think of shrinkage – not what I’m looking for in my exercise class (especially if I’m already wondering how manly the class is).

Use my bra strap as a reference point. I’m not wearing one. Yes, I do know roughly where you mean, but you’re reminding me that I’m doing women’s exercise, thanks.

Make me feel ‘special’ by relentlessly focusing on what I’m struggling with. Ok, I’m not great at some of this, but I don’t enjoy feeling incompetent. My ego is fragile. Maybe, if I need it, take me aside after class and show me one thing that might help.

 

DO

Give me some purpose. Don’t assume that I know why I’m doing this movement. How will it benefit me? Maybe not with every exercise, but a few times each class.

Give me some rules. I like rules – they give me clarity. When I’m doing exercise X I know that the rule is my arms should always be in position Y…. It’s like having a manual in my head.

Give me measurements. How will I recognise if I’m doing it right, or not? Like a checklist, perhaps: Are my shoulders off the floor? √ Is the bottom of my ribcage down on the floor? √ Are my legs in the air? √ Are my elbows straight? √ Etc.

Give me something to aim for. Maybe show me something that’s beyond me at the moment, and then give me an idea of what I need to do to achieve it.

Drop some science on me. I’m not the biggest fan of science as the answer to everything, but if you let me know that the ability to perform an isolated hip hinge is well correlated with reduced risk of back and knee injuries, for example, I might feel more like I’ve come to the right place.

Relate the exercises to stuff that I like. Let me know how it’s going to apply to my martial art/tennis/deadlifting/football…. (this may mean doing some research into the requirements of these activities)

Allow me the opportunity to do something well. Maybe I don’t cope very well with fluid choreography, for example. (As I mentioned above, my ego is fragile). Throw in something which plays to my strength/s, so I have something to feel good about.

 

THANK YOU.

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Or: ‘Should your Pilates teacher be able to do a pull up?’

(If you’re time-poor, or just don’t have the patience to read all that follows, the answer is: Yes, they should.)

Hopefully we can all agree that Pilates, the movement practice, as conceived by the man himself, is about health. The integration of mind, body and spirit (if our thinking is reductionist enough to conceive of them as separate in the first place). What does a healthy body look/feel like? Depending upon our starting point with Pilates, it might be a pain-free body. That’s a great beginning for a lot of us, but is it healthy?

If a body isn’t able to express the full available range of movement in all its joints, is it healthy? Not yet. Is a body that’s able to express the full range of movement without strength (control, you might say) through that range, is it healthy? Not really. Perhaps this scenario is even more problematic than the first one.

What is Pilates good for if it is not carrying you along the arc toward expressing your joints’ full range of movement, with control? If it is not helping you to become stronger, why are you bothering? Real suppleness and agility is a product of strength – the flexible spine that Joseph Pilates held up as a marker of ‘real’ age (I’d prefer to classify as mobile) is a product of motion at each of the joints coupled with strength.

As Jaap van der Wal says “You do not have a body, you are a body.” Isn’t it a basic human capacity to be able to move your mass through space? A pull up, or chin up (pronated or supinated grip) is an expression of the ability to manipulate your mass in space. And in certain circumstances that capacity could be a huge factor in survival. The capacity to pull up will make you more human.

Perhaps my arguments haven’t been sufficiently persuasive, and it still seems unreasonable to expect your Pilates teacher (or yourself) to be able to do a pull up. In that case, how about a push-up? Should you/your Pilates teacher be able to do a push-up? Without equivocation the answer is “Yes, absolutely.” How about 5 push-ups? Maybe check how many repetitions Joseph prescribes in Return to Life. If you’ve ticked that box then maybe we can debate the pull-ups.

 

Afterword

What are your goals, or your clients’ goals, when practicing Pilates?
‘Pain free’ almost certainly incorporates ‘stronger’. ‘More toned’ definitely means ‘stronger’. ‘More supple’ had better mean ‘stronger’. You get the picture.

Pilates Is So Limiting

March 11, 2016 — 1 Comment

AND THAT’S WHAT SETS US FREE!

My degree is in fine art, and all the work I produced as a student was three dimensional. I was never great at drawing, and rubbish at painting. Perhaps that was behind my open disdain for painting, on the basis that (usually) before you’ve put brush to canvas you’ve already determined the size of the painting. Not only that, you’ve decided to make a two-dimensional piece of work. I found this to be very restrictive, or self-limiting.

My exposure in the last couple of years to other movement disciplines, especially some of the MovNat/Ido Portal locomotion work, and learning basic breakdancing moves, started to make me think that a mat to exercise on is a rather self-limiting device – ‘I want to be free to express my physicality wherever it may take me’ – that sort of thing.

A couple of changes at our studio made me reflect upon this a little bit more. Firstly, we changed all our reformers to ones built to the traditional size, shape, springs etc. and started to understand the traditional repertoire a little better. it dawned on me that the frame of the reformer is like the mat, it is the frame for the work, and you don’t move beyond it (unless you’re doing a step-off into arabesque – you know, the everyday beginner stuff….). And it really makes sense. Secondly, we replaced the floor of our mat space with dojo type wall-to-wall flooring, meaning that the whole floor is a mat, and an actual mat became optional. Given that we like rolling around on the floor it’s a great improvement on the thin nylon carpet we used to have. But I’m beginning to see that, for Pilates, it may not be so great not to have a mat.

Just like the reformer, I think mat Pilates needs a frame. It’s a way of imposing discipline. I was listening to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show a while back with a guest called Jocko Willink (subtitle ‘the Scariest Navy Seal Imaginable’) in which he talks about discipline:

Although discipline demands control and asceticism, it actually results in freedom. When you have the discipline to get up early, you are rewarded with more free time. When you have the discipline to keep your helmet and body armor on in the field, you become accustomed to it and can move freely in it. The more discipline you have to work out, train your body physically and become stronger, the lighter your gear feels and the easier you can move around in it.”

These words are obviously heavily slanted toward combat troops, but the underlying observation is the key – discipline = freedom. And Pilates needs/is a discipline.

When you do Pilates you are required to display some discipline, ‘contrology’, one might say. And that’s what can set you free. Proper execution of the exercises and the self-control of working within the defined space creates the power and control that liberates us when we get off the mat/reformer and engage in real life, whether that’s breakdancing, gardening, marathon running, or just going to the shops.

Is Pilates Really Enough?

February 5, 2016 — 9 Comments

This is a question that seems to crop up amongst teachers from time to time, with supporters on either side of the argument. Benjamin Degenhardt reminded me last year that what Joseph Pilates was interested in, was promoting, was overall health. He was concerned with a bigger picture than ‘core stability’, or ‘fitness’ in the gym-focused/endurance event sense (“She’s really fit, she’s run a marathon.”) that tends to be the dominant interpretation these days.

So does the regular practice of Pilates provide everything necessary to be considered fit, in a holistic sense? Perhaps the truth is that it depends. We might run into problems with definitions of the word ‘fit’. I’ve written about this before but, to save you reading more, I like: “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges” (words by Suzanne Scott). I also like to think of fitness in terms of a capacity to express one’s full homo sapien potential – “are you human?”, if you like. Where being human means, to borrow from Kelly Starrett, that you can squat to take a pooh in the woods; and, to borrow from Katy Bowman, you can pull your own weight with your arms, which is to say you can do a pull-up. While they may not be very common, these are normal things for a human to be doing. (Please check in with yourself here – have you started making a list of reasons for not being able to squat/pull-up? or a list of people whom you know who have good reason to not be able to do one or both of these things? If so, why did you do that?)

Some other expressions of being human: walking, running, crawling, climbing, swimming, playing, dancing (the last two perhaps equalling physically engaging with other humans). And, beyond the realm of movement, to do what’s required in order to eat nutrient-dense foods from a variety of sources; to tolerate a range of temperatures (as in the definition of fitness above).

I got started in writing this because I sometimes feel, when working with teachers in training, and running a studio where a number of people teach, that I want those teachers to believe in more than teaching Pilates, or to see that their mission could/should encompass more than knowing the Pilates repertoire inside out, and being able to teach it to others (though this would be a good start).

In an interview last year Kelly Starrett said:

“Squat down, feet together, knees together, heels down. Can you do that? Yes? No? If you can’t do that you’re missing full hip and or ankle range of movement. That’s the mechanism for your hip impingement, for your plantar fasciitis, for your bunions, for your pulled calf. That is the £*@<ing problem, and you should be obsessing about it.”

You. Should. Be. Obsessing. About. It. You should be obsessing about it. Let’s hope you don’t have bunions or any of those others, nevertheless, if you’re not able to express your full range of movement, you should be be obsessing about it. Can’t squat to the floor? Obsessing. Can’t do one pull-up? Obsessing. If anything is less than optimal you should be doing something about it.

I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I always enjoy the way Kelly expresses himself. If you have a look at what he’s involved with you will see that Kelly is clearly trying to reach a lot of people, and a ‘black and white’ delivery probably works best for that. I suspect that a lot of Pilates professionals are anxious not to judge, or be judged, which is nice but I don’t believe I’m alone in sometimes needing to be told “what you’re doing is not good enough”. Self-acceptance, as in not hating yourself, is surely to be encouraged; self-acceptance, as in ‘this is as good as it’s going to get’ should surely be discouraged.

I don’t believe that Joseph thought it was enough to do his exercises. After all, he left us with instructions for how to shower properly (I’m not sure that it’s on YouTube but if you look hard enough I’m sure you can find the film). Never mind the biologically mediated challenges – do you have optimal tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters? No? Then Pilates will be a good start, but you’ll need more.

 

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What’s Your (Pilates) Dogma?

September 19, 2015 — 1 Comment

images-2Being so closely associated with ‘dogmatic’, it’s easy for dogma to be something of a dirty word. Yet, if we take my dictionary definition (overlooking the first, which is specific to religion) – “a belief, principle, or doctrine or a code of beliefs, principles or doctrines…” – then it seems essential to any purposeful practice. We may think that we have no dogma, or dogmas, but it is/they are probably always there. Ido Portal wrote about the necessity for, and perils of, dogma and speaks about it eloquently (if you’re at all curious about Ido Portal and want to know what he’s about, this is a great place to start), and he got me thinking about Pilates and my own dogma.

A recent Facebook post (so often the catalyst to writing) made me think about dogmas within the community of Pilates professionals – inextricably linked with the politics and associated flags that get waved, particularly on social media. In this particular case the postee (is that a word?) was expressing (she seems to be a ‘heart on sleeve’ kind of woman) her unease, guilt even, at having enjoyed movement that wasn’t ‘classical Pilates’ in a place that called itself a Pilates studio. What follows is not directed at any individual, aforementioned or otherwise.

If I had to pin it down I would say that my professional dogma (the code that drives, motivates, sustains and nourishes me) is ‘To help people toward their full movement potential.’ It might even be distilled to ‘To help people to feel better about/within themselves’. On the back of my personal experience, and the bulk of my training, Pilates is the method that I primarily employ, in accordance with this dogma. We call our studio a Pilates studio, I will argue for the importance of a systematic approach to Pilates, I will rail against the encroachment of ‘current knowledge and research’ into the Pilates teaching profession, and acknowledge the genius of Joseph Pilates, but my dogma is not ‘Teach people the Pilates Method’. And it’s definitely not ‘Teach Pilates the way Joseph Pilates taught it’. While the latter seems to be commonly viewed as a sign of integrity, or upholding the truth, I’m not sure that it’s even possible. We have various versions of ‘what Joseph Pilates taught’, some of which are asserted more vigorously than others, but they may all be equally true. I suspect the real truth is that only Joseph could teach Pilates ‘the way Joseph Pilates taught’.

If you are a Pilates teacher, what is your dogma? I’m writing this guessing that some teachers’ dogma will be ‘to teach people Pilates’. Perhaps even ‘to teach people true, classical Pilates’. I do believe that there’s value in seeking to preserve a pure ideal (however tricky that may be, in this context, to pin down). At the same time, does your dogma serve you, or do you serve your dogma? Is being good at Pilates an end in itself? Is this the motivation for the people that come through your door? Are many people motivated to learn Pilates as it was originally taught? Or is this comment on Facebook more accurate: “clients don’t seem to care. They want a work-out and they want to feel good about themselves.”?

In the Ido Portal interview that’s linked to above he quotes John Ziman on the subject of specialisation: “A scientist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, until [s]he knows everything about nothing.” If your dogma is to teach Pilates in the classical way (or however else you might phrase it), is there a danger that you become too specialist? It’s almost a law of sports science that specialists will eventually break, whereas generalists show greater resilience. We might say that the more you specialise the less able you are to adapt.

We have an understanding with everyone that teaches in our studio that the end goal, for anyone who walks through our door (regardless of age or ability), is to teach them the Pilates repertoire, on the basis that a) we call ourselves Pilates teachers, and b) Pilates is a very effective tool for at least beginning to move well, and for feeling good. If your dogma is to help people feel better Pilates may well offer the very best tools for most people, and if you’re research has opened other movement/exercise doors for you then you may have all sorts of tools for a given client – Mum of a baby and a toddler whose back pain is such that she can’t pick her children up, for example. However, if your dogma is to teach Classical Pilates (or ‘safe Pilates based on current research’, or Stott Pilates etc. etc.) your tools may be more limited – or worse, absent. In which case your dogma has ceased to serve you, and you are in service of your dogma. I think this is sometimes referred to as the tail wagging the dog.

ivory towerYes, I’m afraid I’ve been browsing Facebook forums again – and becoming struck by the tone of some teachers’ comments with reference to other movement disciplines, and other exercise professionals. Warning, generalisations follow.

Is it me, or is there something within our training that implants the idea that a knowledge of Pilates somehow gives us an understanding of all movement, or makes us a little more expert than other fitness professionals?
I come from a Pilates teacher training background where we were encouraged to believe in, and promote ourselves as having “the highest standard”. There was no-one in the country better qualified, more knowledgable than us. (Perhaps it is just me, or my egotistical interpretation of what I heard and saw…)
It was, and according to Facebook, still is fairly standard to look down on the methods and the level of knowledge of personal trainers, for example. I’m in no doubt that there are some shoddy PTs out there, just as I’m in no doubt that there are some sub-par Pilates teachers out there (let’s not forget that you don’t need to have ever attended a Pilates classes to gain a Level 3 Diploma in teaching Pilates in the UK).
Why do we appear to feel superior?

I have a certain affection for CrossFit so I may be particularly sensitive to Pilates teachers taking a swipe at it (though I’m sure that CrossFit HQ isn’t at all worried). It seems to be a widely held belief that CrossFit ignores bad form in its athletes, or maybe even teaches bad form. I’ve done the Level 1 CrossFit Trainer course and can attest that bad form is not encouraged, and that trying to coach someone who is moving at a speed not usually seen in a Pilates studio is a tricky skill. Never mind – looking in from the outside us Pilates teachers can see enough to ‘know’ that CrossFit is bad, the coaches aren’t bothered about technique, and the practitioners are sure to be injured soon. We may even crow that those poor mugs will be knocking on our door fro help once they have injured themselves – I’ve seen comments like this many, many times. In short, we (Pilates teachers) understand and can coach movement much better than a CrossFit coach can.

It may be true that more people injure themselves doing Crossfit than injure themselves doing Pilates, but just because you see something in a gym, or on YouTube that makes you wince, doesn’t mean that high numbers of CF athletes are hurting themselves. (On the other hand, figures suggest that in the USA, between 37 and 56% of people who run regularly are injured every year. Yes, up to half the Americans who run regularly are injured annually. That’s a dangerous activity, and one in which poor form and technique routinely goes unnoticed.)

Pilates is about whole body health so let us consider the health outcomes from CrossFit. I can’t speak for every facility, of course, but I believe it’s safe to say that the majority of regular CrossFitters will be encouraged not only to move a lot – to challenge their physicality – but also to think about health fundamentals like their food quality and their sleep quality. Not to mention that they are encouraged to “regularly learn and play new sports” (from founder Greg Glassman’s ‘World-Class Fitness in 100 Words’) Ido Portal, who does not suffer fools gladly, has said: “I think the CrossFit community is a very open community….they’re hard workers, they’re open-minded, mostly…..Most Crossfitters are not humble enough to see what is missing but, once you show it to them, they accept it.” Can Pilates teachers truly, routinely boast the same kind of outcomes, or the same kind of approach to overall health?

Getting back to movement, I will always agree with anyone who says that the pursuit of Pilates (in the original/traditional form) will provide an excellent foundation for understanding human movement but does this make us omniscient? Firstly, for Pilates to really teach you about movement I believe that it has to be treated as a system, without unpopular movements being left out, and to be seen as a series of patterns. It was very interesting for me to see recently that there was broad agreement among the Pilates teachers commenting on it that a particular picture of a press up represented ‘bad form’. However, when it came to solutions to fix this bad form the answers were quite varied, indicating a lack of (amongst that small sample) collective understanding. Most alarmingly, while none referred to the hip joint’s role in spinal stability under load, there were suggestions that abdominal muscles should be pulling into the spine. I suspect a great many CrossFIt coaches would know that you do not effectively create spinal stability, especially under high load, by drawing your stomach in.

Until, as a profession, we raise our game, do we have any business to be feeling superior to our movement teaching colleagues from other disciplines?

 

 

Ivory Tower image borrowed from: http://3menmakeatiger.blogspot.co.uk

Whilst there may be vigorous debate, and plenty of argument on social media’s Pilates teacher forums, it seems that there is usually broad agreement on the ‘teach the body in front of you’ mantra. I take this to usually mean that we shouldn’t adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching, and make allowance for individual capacity, restrictions, pathology etc.

There wouldn’t seem to be much to take issue with there, except that (while I’ll never argue that human bodies aren’t totally amazing) we are so much more than our bodies. At least in the muscle, fascia, bones sense. I’ve often felt uncomfortable hearing a teacher say to their client at the beginning of a class “How’s your body?” The teacher may well know all about the non-corporeal factors influencing their client’s life, but I’m sure that there are times that the question is implicitly stating “I’m only interested in how you are physically, and not interested in anything else going on in your life.” I’ve met teachers who know nothing about their clients’ hobbies or interests, and even one who didn’t know what a client did for a living. Can you teach a body if you know so little about its context?

Are the exercises we teach actually helping people’s lumbar spines to become more stable? Unlikely. Is there something particular to Pilates exercises that helps people to ‘improve’ their posture? No – posture is a manifestation of our entire system, not of biomechanics alone (thank you to David at AMN Academy for helping me to understand this).

At a time when it seems we can be less and less certain about exactly how our teaching affects our clients, don’t we need to be teaching the person in front of us? Perhaps a bit like the ‘person-centred approach’ in psychotherapy – we help to create the appropriate environment for each individual to make their own changes.

‘Teach the person, trust the body’, maybe?

The Dirty Secret

April 4, 2015 — 11 Comments

Or, ‘Clinicians, what have you done to Pilates?’100910doctor

“We only hire experienced Physiotherapists trained in Pilates to teach in our Pilates studios: we dig the bloke that started it, but can’t understand how you’d let anyone who can’t relate your pain and pathology to your problem come anywhere near you!” 

(‘Clinical Pilates’, http://www.sixphysio.com)

There seem to be frequent scuffles in the Pilates teaching world (at least in the forums that I see) between ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’ Pilates teachers. I’ve no interest in pursuing that particular debate here, not least because I think it may not be the right on to be having. Rather, I’m interested in the influence of physiotherapy and ‘clinicians’ on Pilates, and the profession of teaching Pilates.

It seems appropriate that, over the years, different teachers developed what may be termed ‘pre-Pilates’ exercises, to provide a kind of ‘on-ramp’ to the original work for those who may need it, for whatever reason. I guess that this is how some ‘contemporary’ Pilates developed. However, I suspect that ‘contemporary’ Pilates is routinely intermingled with ‘clinical’ Pilates, and the ideas that underpin the various ‘clinical’ Pilates brands (yes, there are lots of them) are increasingly exerting a pernicious influence on much of Pilates teaching.

Why the ‘Dirty Secret’ title? I was recently listening to an interview with Kelly Starrett, a physiotherapist particularly well know in the CrossFit community. In the interview he refers to what he calls the “dirty secret” of physiotherapy – the phrase “within normal limits”. He describes the tenets of physiotherapy training as getting the patient functional -‘can you do your daily activities’, and resolving pain. Clearly these aren’t bad things but, as Kelly says, “within normal limits” does not mean “full function”. So, allowing for the fact that this is a generalisation, and that there are many excellent physios in the world who are committed to their clients high achievement, the fundamental measure of a successful outcome for a physiotherapist might well be ‘can you walk to the shops without pain?’

Joseph Pilates wrote of his method: “You will develop muscular power with corresponding endurance, ability to perform arduous duties, to play strenuous games, to walk, to run or travel long distances without undue body fatigue or mental strain. And this is by no means the end.” His ambitions were a little higher than ‘can you walk to the shops without pain?’

The term ‘evidence based exercise’ seems to be increasingly popular, and probably underpins a lot of the colonisation of Pilates by clinicians. Clinical Pilates™ have a video on YouTube called “What is Clinical Pilates™” which makes reference to “recent research into spinal stability“. The APPI (The Australian Physiotherapy and Pilates Institute) website tells us that “Pilates focuses on building an efficient ‘central core’. In Pilates, ‘central core’ refers to the TrA, multifidus, pelvic floor and diaphragm. In Pilates, abdominal hollowing techniques are utilized to activate this central core.” (About Pilates, http://www.ausphysio.com) The Clinical Pilates™ video goes on to explain that “Some of the original exercises have been cut from the regime, as research cannot support their efficacy. What’s left over is a set of proven, effective exercises, now known as ‘Clinical Pilates’“. (What is Clinical Pilates™, dmaclinical pilates, YouTube). So, research tells us that we can prove the efficacy of certain exercises, but not others. Best practice is therefore to exclude anything that we cannot prove is efficacious. This may be a line of reasoning that appeals, but does it have anything to do with Pilates, or real life, for that matter? I’m in no position to question the merits of research, like Hodges’ & Richardson’s ‘A motor control evaluation of transverses abdominis’ (published in 1996), that concluded “The delayed onset of contraction of transversus abdominis indicates a deficit of motor control and is hypothesized to result in inefficient muscular stabilization of the spine.” In case you are unfamiliar with this, their research found that in healthy subjects – those without back pain – EMG readings showed that their TVA fired in anticipation of movement, whereas the back pain suffering subjects showed delayed TVA firing. I do wonder, though, about it’s application to Pilates.

This happened before my introduction to Pilates, but I imagine that, because Pilates was recognised to help people with back pain, it was then deemed necessary (by whom – who knows?) to incorporate conscious, isolated TVA contraction into Pilates. As APPI told us above, Pilates uses ‘abdominal hollowing techniques’, though I can’t find any reference to it in Pilates’ own writing. I recently had an online conversation of sorts with a former Pilates teacher and studio owner who described herself as a ‘master trainer’. The conversation started because she had blamed Pilates for her ‘weak’ rectus abdominis, and she explained to me that: “The pilates priciple of navel to the spine creates an imbalance in the abdominal muscles.” I have no wish to impugn the integrity or sincerity of this lady, presumably her view is a reflection of what she was taught herself. But where did it come from? I’d be very interested to hear if anyone who was trained by Romana, Kathy, Eve, Ron, Carola or any of the other first generation teachers ever heard a ‘navel to spine’ or abdominal hollowing cue. Again, Pilates himself never mentioned any such thing in ‘Return to Life’. I know from other exchanges that I’ve had on Facebook forums that, amongst plenty of teachers, the importance of cueing transversus, and the correct usage of transversus are, beyond question, fundamental to Pilates.

So, research appearing to indicate that transverses contraction is normally reflexive, we find that it is being cued nearly constantly in Pilates. The truth is that, having had a lumbar disc injury, I probably benefited greatly from some simple spinal stabilisation/hip dissociation exercises when I first started Pilates, but these were in preparation for doing Pilates, not central to it. In other words, these were pre-Pilates exercises that seem to have somehow morphed into what Pilates is perceived to be. Indeed, organisations like APPI and Clinical Pilates™ will teach their students that this is how Pilates should be – “The APPI Pilates Method provides Physiotherapists and equivalent degree therapists with a clinical and user friendly tool for retraining correct activation of the Multifidus, TrA muscles and pelvic floor muscles.“(The APPI Pilates Method, http://www.ausphysio.com) I should say here that, of course, physiotherapists do a very important job of helping people to be pain-free, and I am sure too that there are many great and dedicated teachers trained under these and similar methods. My concern is, to revert to the analogy above, that the on-ramp becomes the freeway, first in the perception of teachers trained in this thinking, and then in the public perception.

I’ve written recently about our willingness to believe that we understand bodies and movement better than Pilates did, and I assume this is the reason that Pilates teachers were apparently so willing to adopt clinical concepts in their teaching. The slightly bizarre thing to me is that at the same time some of those clinicians were busy declaring that physiotherapists are the natural bearers of the Pilates flame – that they are the people best qualified to teach Pilates. It’s an idea that is routinely promoted now -“Pilates instructors may be able to teach Pilates but are they qualified to give rehabilitation to someone who has an injury or medical diagnosis? We would suggest not. Physiotherapists can give full rehabilitation and can be taught to teach Pilates.” (The Benefits of Physiotherapist Led Pilates, http://www.pilatesandtherapy.co.uk) and, of course, in the quote at the top of the page.

Intertwined in this is the notion that actually Pilates is for people who are injured, or in pain. This brings us back to the ‘within normal limits’ outcome, and the idea that repertoire that hasn’t been validated by research should be discarded – “We don’t know for sure that this will help to resolve your pain, or increase the efficacy of your spinal stabilisation strategies, so you shouldn’t do it.” What was devised as a system is reworked (unsystematised, perhaps) and then, weirdly, appears often not to work. I have a strong suspicion that there are plenty of teachers who have arrived at Pilates after pain or injury, followed the unsystem approach and failed to enjoy the outcomes that Pilates intended. They’ve trusted the clinicians instead of the system, and thus find themselves ‘within normal limits’, when Joseph was trying to offer “godlike attributes” – what a compromise!

 

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.