Archives For Crossfit

I’ve made attempts in the past to write about what it means to be a Pilates teacher and, happily, my understanding has grown in the last few years such that it seems worth revisiting.

If one’s view of Pilates is that it’s a series of exercises (possibly with some variations, contemporary ‘improvements’ etc), then I think being a teacher is probably pretty straightforward. However, as Eve Gentry said, “you can know every exercise, on every piece of equipment, but that does not mean that you know Pilates.” Because Pilates is a concept and if you’re teaching exercises then you’re not really teaching Pilates – you have to teach concepts to be a Pilates teacher.

So what are the concepts? I find it simplest to express them as questions, such as:

Do you know where you body is in space?

Are you able to organise your body in space? (Meaning you have to organise parts of your body relative to each other, as well as to your environment)

And, as expressions of the above:

Can you stabilise your spine while you move your extremities?

Can you sequentially articulate your spine?

However, these are not unique to Pilates – I know of CrossFit coaches and martial artists who do the same thing, and I’m sure there are yoga teachers and others from all sorts of disciplines (dance, gymnastics etc) with similar intentions.

So what separates Pilates from other disciplines? The core concept that we try to adhere to in our studio is that the practice of Pilates is for Your Health – it was not an accident that this was the title of Joseph Pilates’ first book, and the text makes it clear that his interests were a lot broader than ‘can you stabilise your spine while blah blah blah’.

I cannot speak for the other disciplines mentioned but I believe that this is what CrossFit is about, too. It’s hard to be involved with CrossFit and not hear discussions of nutrition, sleep quality, sun exposure and circadian rhythms (not to mention that their crusade against the sugar industry is truly laudable). The only time that I’ve heard sleep, sun exposure and circadian rhythms mentioned in a Pilates training context is when a visiting lecturer on my wife’s teacher training course is at our studio (she’s a big fan of cold exposure, too, and she truly glows with health).

I don’t believe that being able to differentiate oneself from teachers of other disciplines is a necessary part of being a Pilates teacher, but I do think it probably helps to have some clarity about what we can offer, and where we might fit in the grand scheme of exercise practices/movement disciplines. Perhaps something that separates me as a Pilates teacher from my friends who are CrossFit coaches is that I’m more likely to be approached by people who feel or are ‘broken’ in some way. And, I suspect, that many people who take up CrossFit have a clearer idea of what they’re getting into than a lot of people who may have been advised by their doctor/osteopath/physio etc. that they would benefit from Pilates.

So I guess I’m aligning myself with a notion of a Pilates teacher as a health coach with a strong movement bias. To be effective, I need to be clear (both in my mind and in speaking) about what I believe I can offer; I need to know my shit, that is, the repertoire, safe use of the apparatus, first aid, basic musculoskeletal anatomy, common conditions affecting that anatomy, implications of various mental health conditions, the biology of chronic pain, the physical effects of pregnancy/post-natal, and a basic grasp of the demands of a wide variety of sports and other activities.

I’m sure that I’ve forgotten something/s on the list of ‘stuff I need to know’ but it doesn’t much matter because, when it comes to teaching, what I need to know pales in comparison to my ability to communicate. To communicate with anyone who might walk through the door. Going back to Eve Gentry, you might know all the exercises and, yes, you might understand Pilates inside out, but if you’re not able to communicate with the person in front of you, none of that matters.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few Fighting Monkey workshops, and to discover that much of their movement practice is aimed at being a better communicator – I certainly have a lot more to learn, but I know that I had to look beyond the narrow confines of the Pilates world to confront this idea (more of this to follow).

Before I can communicate well I have to be able to reflect – I have to get to know myself better (and how fantastic that a movement practice can facilitate that!), and I have to have a growth mindset. I have to be willing to embrace my failures and find the seed of discovery within each one. I have to acknowledge my own fallibility. I have to ask myself tricky questions like: “What did I do that provoked that reaction?”.

To communicate well I have to be fully present – I have to feel grounded (and more on this to follow, too!). I have to understand the way that I move, my own compensations and limitations. I have to have a degree of confidence that includes being comfortable with what I know and what I don’t know. And I think I have to love what I’m doing. These are the selfish elements of communicating, or just half of the conversation, because I haven’t taken the other person into account yet.

For this I need to be curious, and I have to watch and LISTEN. What are the people I’m going to be teaching telling me (with words, tone, posture, facial expression and movement) before they’ve set foot in the studio? I may have goals and objectives for their session and I’d better be ready to let them go, based upon what I see and hear. After all, it’s not as though I’m an actor or musician whom they’ve come to see perform. So it doesn’t matter how great a session plan I have, how ‘good’ my verbal cueing, imagery and tactile cueing is (The answer to ‘what’s the best cue?’ is always ‘it depends’) – all of those things have to be right for the person in front of me, on that day, at that time. so I need to do my very best to recognise the signs that I’m given to help me decide how to proceed. Listening also means being alert to the things that don’t get said, reading between the lines – clearly this has to be done with caution, and sensitivity – this is perhaps a mixture of intuition and speculation, and both of these things should be treated with a degree of caution (and cultivated over hours and years of working with people).

I was about to write: ‘If you’re a Pilates teacher reading this, and all of your clients/students are coming to your classes to work on their beach body, you may not recognise this.’ But I realised that the job is no different, even if the responsibilities may be less than I’m thinking. There have been a number of times that I’ve been truly humbled by the trust that a new client has put in me – I’m not medically trained (I just teach movement, for God’s sake!…and I’m male), yet the willingness that many people, women in particular, (when explaining why they’re taking up Pilates) have had to declare a variety of personal/intimate problems or challenges made me very aware of  how vulnerable some people may be making themselves in taking up Pilates. (For example, particularly if you’re a male teacher, you’d do well to know what the terminology around vaginal prolapse treatment/surgery is…..)

So if I have a new client who has been diagnosed with a “slipped disc”, and who has made it clear that they’re nervous about exercising, it doesn’t matter how many workshops I’ve taken, how many books I’ve read, or how many wonderful exercises I have up my sleeve, if they don’t feel safe. Which brings us back to my communication – everything that I’ve learned from the person I’m teaching – body language, what they say, how they say it, diagnoses etc. all has to inform my body language, what I say, and how I say it. Do they need more felt experience, or more explanation? Do they need some science? Or do they need humour? Can I relate what I need to say to what they’ve told me about their interests, or their job? How do I meet their needs and still stay on track with what I believe they need?

I believe that Pilates should empower people. I don’t believe that teachers ‘fix’ anything, nor do I believe that Pilates ‘fixes’ anything. The ‘fix’, whether it’s movement, mindset or something else, comes from the individual. Our job as teachers is to facilitate that self-healing, or self-discovery. If I am to be empowering, my communication also needs to encourage the idea that the client/student has the answers within them, rather than that I will give them the answers. If you believe that you have the answers, that you are the magician doing the magic to them, you may have clients for life, but I don’t think you’re teaching them Pilates.

If you’re anything like me, this is already a lot to take on board. Not daunting – it’s wonderful, but definitely something to be taken very seriously. I never understood the Pilates teacher who applied for a physiotherapy degree because she didn’t want to be “just a Pilates teacher” – like it was a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession. I may not have the knowledge of anatomy and physiology that a physiotherapist has (nor should I) but I do have a professional responsibility to be able to communicate clearly with a referring medical professional. Which leads me neatly to one more part of my responsibility – I have to be able to say “I don’t know”. It’ll definitely promote me to do some research, but it may be the greatest responsibility of all to be clear about my scope of practice AND to acknowledge what I don’t know.

 

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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

courtesy of Pilates Style

courtesy of Pilates Style

2013-09-24-HeidiPowellOvrheadPressPrego

Courtesy of Huffpost

One doesn’t have to look far to find many testaments to the value of Pilates during pregnancy. Though it has not received a specific endorsement from any UK health authority (RCOG for example), I doubt that there are many Pilates teachers who would tell a mum-to-be that Pilates wasn’t a good idea. Searching for ‘risks of Pilates during pregnancy’ doesn’t yield many results.

Equally, though perhaps less numerous, there are a number of women who will attest to the value of (appropriately scaled) CrossFit during pregnancy. Indeed there is a website, and social media pages and websites for ‘CrossFit Moms’. In this instance the doubters are a bit more vocal. While they may be largely lay people, photos of a heavily pregnant CrossFitter doing weighted squats caused a storm of controversy, with commentators declaring that she was endangering her baby, and that this activity should be regarded as child abuse.

I am an enthusiast for both of these exercise modalities, but recently I’ve had cause to reconsider my beliefs around pregnancy and exercise.

I’ve also had cause to wonder, prompted by social media threads in particular, about the prevalence of pre- and post-natal sacroiliac joint problems and symphysis-pubis dysfunction. Of course, the release of relaxin, not to mention hyper mobility, will have an impact on joint stability. We know that relaxin is released for a reason, yet it seems a very inefficient (thus unlikely) natural response if it causes lasting problems. I don’t believe in the ‘we just spontaneously break’ model of health that we generally adopt in the developed world. Something about our inputs, or our environment causes ill health – whether it’s joint problems or heart problems, for example. If we are (symptomatically) hyper mobile I suspect it’s because something in our diets, or parents diets (inputs) led to changes in collagen structure leading to lax connective tissues. There appears to have been a variety of research around the subject of diet and collagen (a protein), particularly in relation to caloric, protein, or cholesterol restriction – here’s a study on rats, if you fancy it. Thus, pelvic instability is not a random luck of the draw occurrence, but has an underlying cause. This is not an attempt to lay blame on anyone who has suffered with this problem – rather, to suggest that they have been unfortunate in their genetic inheritance and expression; or have not received the best guidance.

To get back to comparing exercise, first off, what are the most important exercises, or important muscles to be worked during pregnancy? Pelvic floor, right? You’ve got to do your pelvic floor exercises, for heaven’s sake! I’ve certainly done my fair share of teaching PF contractions to pregnant clients.

And then, last year, I watched Jill Miller’s webinar on CreativeLive, which featured the excellent Katy Bowman, as she put it, ‘dropping the Kegel bomb’ (Kegels is the term used in the US). She asserts that the most effective, and balanced way of keeping one’s pelvic floor toned during pregnancy is to squat, and to walk. We might say ‘practice natural human movement patterns’….Her argument is that, while they may be appropriate for some women, isolated pelvic floor exercises may lead to excessive pull on the inside of the sacroiliac joint and consequent imbalance/instability. Squatting would give more balancing posterior support, and both walking and squatting would help to keep tone in pelvic floor muscles.

And what are the issues around Pilates and pregnancy? We encourage pregnant clients at our studio to work with the apparatus, rather than doing mat classes. We’ve had great results and have had plenty of women coming to class right up to the end of their pregnancy. That said, during their second, and especially in their third trimester, a lot of their class doesn’t look much like classical Pilates. We don’t encourage participation in mat classes largely because of the restrictions in lying down (though I’d be the first to agree that guidelines on this are heavy handed, and that a woman’s body will most likely have a way of telling her to stop if lying down is causing vena cava compression), and herein lies one of the fundamental drawbacks of Pilates, especially in the classical practice – there’s a lot of lying down. I know of Pilates teachers who have had terrible problems of pelvic instability during pregnancy. There was a heated debated on a Facebook forum recently about the rights and wrongs of allowing a pregnant woman to participate in a Pilates mat class. Another recent post on the same forum was from a Pilates teacher in her third trimester, unhappy that her workouts feel incomplete because she can no longer follow the sequence that she’s used to. Advice from her responding peers ranged from suggestions for standing (Pilates) work, to taking walks and enjoying nature. Great suggestions, yet I fear that they may fail to address the problem of the lady’s frustration – her workout has to change completely. Is there an issue with the scalability of Pilates? Or the scalability of a ‘classical’ approach to Pilates? Mari Winsor’s book, ‘The Pilates Pregnancy’ is a case in point, with a number of reviews on Amazon commenting that the sequence of exercises varies little from one trimester to the next, and that she doesn’t offer much in the way of modification. In the third trimester she suggests the Hundred with bent knees and feet on the floor, or kneeling up if lying down is too uncomfortable.

Lying down isn’t just a problem from the point of view of possible restriction of blood flow, but also because it doesn’t train the muscles and soft tissues around the hip joints and pelvis to handle to take the increasing load of the growing baby. Indeed, would it not be better to be loading these joints (hip & SI) before conception, and in the early stages of pregnancy, in order to have a strong/stable foundation for the certainty of increasing load?

Here’s where the CrossFit mums-to-be that I know of step in. (Firstly, let’s be clear – I’m sure that many women have had happy and healthy pregnancies and deliveries with Pilates as their exercise companion). The wife of my first CrossFit coach is due in a matter of days, and still doing pull-ups. Another lady that my current coach is training, who is expecting twins in three months, is still deadlifting and squatting with weight – and maintaining that her back has never felt better. The beauty of the exercise methodology that they are following is that it can be scaled to fit their changing needs, without having to change the exercises themselves, and there are articles, in addition to the website mentioned above, to guide mums-to-be and coaches alike. In other words, they can squat throughout their pregnancy – the load and the range needs to change but the activity remains the same. High intensity workouts can be left ’til later, so there’s no need for any stopwatches, but there’s lots of scope for strength work (indeed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s called CrossFit or strength & conditioning). A lot has been written about the community aspect of CrossFit, and one of the benefits of this scaleability is that it means that pregnant women do not have to miss out on their fitness community, and the potential disempowerment of ‘I can’t do what I used to’.

I’m not really advocating that everyone pregnant gives up Pilates and signs up at their nearest CrossFit gym. I just wonder if there isn’t (sometimes) something missing from Pilates that needn’t be. Or maybe there’s a middle ground. I’ve never seen film or photographs of Joseph teaching a pregnant woman, and I don’t remember any reference to pregnancy in his writing. Perhaps he never intended pregnant women to use his method. If, like me, you believe that Pilates is about moving well then many activities can be approached with a Pilates sensibility, perhaps to the significant benefit of women both pre-conception and during their pregnancies.

people-spring-lift-ecard-someecardsI’ve been involved in a discussion lately on https://www.facebook.com/groups/pilatescontrologyforum/ around the subject of why we teach spinal flexion in Pilates. As is often the case, this discussion began to deviate slightly from the starting question, leading into other (for me) interesting territory. Namely, it made me wonder if there is a consensus within the Pilates teaching community as to whether Pilates is itself a functional movement/exercise discipline.

It’s helpful, if not necessary, to define what one is discussing – and so I realise that I have accepted in my own mind a rough definition of functional movement, derived from who-knows-what varied sources, that seems to make sense. If I have to pin it down, my definition would go something like this:

Preacher-Curl1A functional exercise is one that teaches, or reinforces a movement pattern that is useful, and health enhancing, beyond the execution of that discrete exercise.

For example, I would consider the Hundred to be functional because (amongst other benefits) it requires the maintenance of spinal stability under load (from our legs), and also the ability to disassociate our shoulder joint – to move our arms in our shoulder joints without uncontrolled spine or scapular movement. Both of these being very useful in a variety of scenarios (dare I say “fundamental movement patterns”?) I wouldn’t consider a bicep curl as pictured above to be functional, because the machine removes any requirement to create stability, or to transfer load into the centre (free-standing curls would be a different story, of course).

The Facebook discussion reminded me that there are other definitions. For what it’s worth, CrossFit has this definition, and if we turn to Wikipedia they do not have a page for functional exercise but will direct you to ‘functional training‘, which ties in to occupational therapy. Within the discussion, the thing that was slightly jarring for me was the idea that Pilates might not fall into some people’s idea of ‘Functional’, since it seems (generally speaking – more on that later) to fit that description very well.

I’m not a fan of ‘evidence-based’ exercise, because I think it’s naive to imagine that we can ever prove (to meet standards of proof in controlled studies) the efficacy of any given exercise. There are too many variables that cannot be controlled for when comparing even a small number of people practicing the same movement. At the same time, I think applying what, if we were clinicians, we might call ‘clinical reasoning’ to exercise selection is essential. Let’s call it ‘reasoned Pilates’ for the moment (for the record, I am not trying to create a new sub-genre – there will not be a trademark application). Teaching reasoned Pilates means, with your observation and your client’s input, assessing what they need most, choosing how to implement your assessment, and then evaluating whether your choice was successful. So if someone is kyphotic, and is new to Pilates, giving them the Swan Dive on the High Barrel may not be the best choice. The short version of all this is that I want to be able to explain why I’m teaching anyone anything, beyond “that’s what’s next in the sequence”, or “that’s how I was taught it”. In other words, “What’s the point?”

All that said, I do agree with a contributor to the forum referred to above, who said something along the lines of “sometimes people ask too many questions, instead of just doing the work”. I do think it’s often possible that doing the work will lead you to the answer to your question (“Why is it done this way?”, for example). I have heard Romana, on the excellent images“Legacy Edition” DVDs, quoting Joseph answering “What is this good for?” With the wonderful response “It’s good for the body.”I’m not suggesting that clients should be constantly questioning why they are doing things, and their teachers constantly explaining everything. Rather, I hope that they find the answers for themselves whenever they can, and that I have the understanding to explain the ‘why?’ if I have to. I believe I have a better chance of being an effective teacher if I have that understanding.

As an aside, I’d much rather be described as a ‘teacher’ than as an ‘instructor’. The first definition that my dictionary gives for instruct is: “to direct to do something; order”. The first definition that it gives for teach is: “to help to learn; tell or show (how)”. I think that the element of reasoning may be the thing that distinguishes between an instructor and a teacher.

‘Reasoned Pilates’ fits with my perception of Pilates as something that makes you better at other things, rather than Pilates as a thing to be good at. I don’t believe that Joseph Pilates complied the exercises in ‘Return to Life’ for people to practice in order to become very good at doing those exercises. The point was to practice those exercises in order to enhance one’s health (No?). I know that there are people that consider Pilates to be an art form, but I can’t call myself one of them. Seeing someone display a high level of competence in anything is usually enjoyable, but I find the many videos, that do the rounds of social media, of people working on the Reformer (perhaps with dramatic lighting) to be somewhat tiresome. (Equally, photos of lithe bodies on exotic equipment adapted from Pilates apparatus, rather than “Looks beautiful”, make me think “But why? What’s the point?”. It’s as if Pilates is being practiced for someone else other than the practitioner.

Another element to the consideration of ‘functional’, that I was reminded of whilst trying to follow some of the Reformer work demonstrated on the aforementioned DVDs, and may have been missing from the definition I offered above, is fun, or feeling great. It’s sort of covered by the ‘health enhancing’ idea, I think, but deserves its own mention. Something that makes you appreciate, or helps you bask in the joy of whole body movement surely performs a valuable function? To return to the bicep curl analogy, I’m no body builder, but it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone ever had much fun doing sets of bicep curls. Yes, viewing the hypertrophic results in the mirror afterwards may result in a flush of pleasure, but actually doing the sets of curls? Surely not. I don’t know whether the response to doing the various rowing exercises on the reformer was musculo-skeletal, hormonal, emotional, or what. It felt marvellous.

If you think that Pilates doesn’t fit under the heading of functional movement, or functional exercise, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.

imagesFollowing on from a mention in part 1 of this post, I think that a lot of interesting things happen on the boundaries between disciplines. Kelly Starrett, who has influenced my thinking about Pilates a lot in the last few years, talks about the benefits of sports people from different disciplines talking to, and learning from each other (power lifters talking to gymnasts talking to rowers talking to olympic lifters talking to swimmers/runners etc).

The subject of the first post, and the comments that followed (thank you all for your interest and contribution) made me start to think that there is a problem inherent in classification – in trying to define or draw lines between things. Once again, I find myself a little conflicted – I love simplicity, but…

I’ve found the Classical Pilates Inc DVDs to be an invaluable resource, from the point of view of learning to put the correct name to an exercise, or checking choreography. I’ve learned to assume (who knows how/why) that what is usually referred to as ‘classical’ Pilates, is that which was taught by Romana Kryzanowska and her followers. The “Romana’s Pilates” DVD I have in front of me has the tagline “….the true pilates method as taught by Joseph Pilates”. As an enthusiast of simplicity I am drawn to the ‘this is the way it is supposed to be’ kind of presentation. From watching the DVDs, and taking class with Romana trained teachers, I know that Footwork on the Reformer should be done with all the springs attached, as should the Hundred.

And then again, I was watching part of another DVD the other evening (that is still available from Michelle Larson) of Eve Gentry giving a workshop in 1991. My understanding is that Eve worked alongside Joseph Pilates in New York for close to 30 years – longer than anyone of the other first generation teachers. At the beginning of the workshop she talks about what she learned from Pilates: “I learned about not using too many springs….” This is just one example and I’m sure there are plenty of other instances when the Eve Gentry approach to Pilates differs from the Romana Kryzanowska approach. Ironically, courtesy of this blog I now realise that it’s even more complicated than I thought – the classification ‘Classical Pilates’ requires sub-classification!

I’m not at all interested in entering a discussion about which one is better, or closer to Pilates’ original intentions.  I’m curious as to whether being more definitive about classification does more good than not. This gets back to the original question of what it means to call myself a Pilates teacher. I understand the value of being systematic, and holding true to the principles of rhythm and flow, and, ultimately, I believe (as Eve Gentry says) that I’m trying to teach a concept, not a set of exercises. The exercises are a vehicle for delivering/understanding those principles, and can represent a fantastic challenge for someone who is interested in exploring the limits of their physicality (I can see no need for inventing advanced repertoire). I also believe that Pilates himself would adapt/create exercises for individuals, based on his understanding of their specific needs. Whilst I wouldn’t try to compare myself to Pilates (though I not-so-secretly like to think it may be significant that I was born in the year that he died….), I often use other exercises to teach the principles to certain clients – because I think they will be more effective, or represent a more accessible route to understanding the concepts than a ‘classical’ exercise might. I’m back at the ‘Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell? question from my previous post – can you teach Pilates with exercises that are not Pilates? According to the blog post that I linked to above, I should be acknowledging to whoever I’m teaching a non-Pilates exercise that I’m not actually teaching them Pilates at that moment. But I think Pilates is a concept, not a set of exercises! Isn’t it perplexing?

Here’s another way that I like to think about this – Can you be good at Pilates? If your answer is ‘Yes’, what does that mean? What does it look like to be good at Pilates? I routinely tell people coming to our studio that there’s no value or point to being ‘good at Pilates’. Who cares if you can perform Pilates repertoire beautifully (or however else we might define ‘good at’)? The point, for me, is to use Pilates to help people be good at, or find easy, everything else that they want or need to do. I think that my job is to teach people to move and position themselves as well as possible, and Pilates is the vehicle that helped me on this journey, and what I feel competent to teach to others.

I do understand the need to honour our heritage, and the original work of Joseph Pilates, and I’m grateful to those teachers and organisations who commit themselves to that. I also agree that a familiarity with the apparatus adds to one’s understanding of Pilates. Somewhat unconsciously, I provoked a bit of a comprehensive vs. mat teachers discussion, with the previous post that I wrote. I have no interest at all in supporting or defending diploma courses in Pilates that require very little actual practice of the method, or that offer certification in a short time. I remain uneasy about attempts to make a strong distinction between mat teachers and comprehensive teachers, because I think our job is to teach people to move well. We will, all of us, bring our unique life experiences to the teaching party and whilst many comprehensive teachers may enjoy an ‘edge’ from their experience of the Reformer’s resistance (and I think you’re a fool if you’re a teacher and you haven’t made an effort to experience the apparatus), I do not believe that we are all inherently better teachers of movement than teachers who are not certified in teaching on the equipment.

As an example, I learned more about working my upper back extensors when trying to squat while holding a weight overhead than I did in years of Pilates repertoire both in the studio and on a mat. That doesn’t mean that I give up on using Pilates to teach people back extension, it means that I’ve got something else up my sleeve AND that someone who has done overhead squats (my CrossFit coach, for example) may be at least as good as me at teaching someone to use their upper back extensors. That may be true of a Pilates teacher ‘only’ trained in the mat work.

So is my claim that my job, as a Pilates teacher, is to teach good movement legitimate?

 

What does fit weigh?

September 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

3_seca-760_ecru_white_detailMy urge to write often seems related to the me coming across two colliding ideas, or if not colliding, at least divergent ideas. In this case, I’ve recently started reading the excellent “The Paleo Coach” by Jason Seib, and also seen snippets/chunks of the series “The Men Who Made Us Thin” on the BBC, written and presented by Jacques Peretti.

Peretti’s TV series offers up some extraordinary insight, my favourite moment being when the former CFO of Weight Watchers in the United States almost gleefully pronounces that the company he spent 20 years working for was a good business model because their product didn’t work, but kept people coming back and paying for more. It was if, instead of being interviewed by a journalist, he was making a secret presentation to potential investors.

Overall, the series seems to be a sincere attempt to uncover why so many people are becoming obese, and what solutions, if any, are effective. Peretti points out a number of misleading generalisations, but makes plenty of his own in the process. The most striking thing for me in all that I saw was this comment: “Personally I think people should stop worrying about their weight and focus on being healthy and happy, at any size.” This seems to me to highlight the degree to which our thinking about health has been torn away from any grounding in evolutionary biology, and outright bizarre. If your brain and body are under the impression that your situation is so stressful, or that a time of famine is imminent, and that you need ample stores of fat, is there any possibility that you are healthy?

It’s widely accepted that being fat is unhealthy, yet it seems that the opposite extreme has become the definition of healthy. There is no middle ground – Fat is bad, ergo skinny is good. When skinny is patently unattainable (not to mention ‘unhealthy’) the response is to celebrate being too fat, as in “I’m happy the way I am.” There may be a case to say that, in some sections of the UK media, the pressure to be happy the way you are is nearly as great as the pressure to look like someone else a good deal smaller than you. The idea of being fat and fit is bound up somewhere in all of this. For Peretti, the fact that two obese women, who had some previous experience, could keep going in an aerobics class longer than he could was a sign that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive. Overall, the message seemed to be that nothing is truly effective in combating obesity long term – dieting doesn’t work, exercising doesn’t work, surgical intervention doesn’t work etc. Not great news for the concerned viewer who really wants to change themselves.

Then I picked up Jason Seib’s book, and was delighted. Having ‘Paleo’ in the title means I know he’s going to be talking about an ‘ancestral’ model for living now. In other words, taking the physical activity and nutrition of our ancestors as a template for how to live now. This is another way of saying that he uses evolutionary biology as the basis for his assertions about health and fitness (more of ‘health and fitness’ anon).

It fits that our concerns about our size and weight are related to how other people perceive us, or how attractive we are. Using that evolutionary model, we are wired to propagate our own genes, and mix them with other genes that are going to be resilient, robust etc. From that perspective, what attracts us to others is their appearance of health – “Does this person have what it takes to survive and flourish, and produce children that will do the same, in this adversarial world?” Just as excessive body fat won’t signal a promising mate, nor will being very skinny. In other words, as life has become easier and easier, we have developed some twisted ideas about what the roots of attraction are.

Seib argues that people who begin a diet, or programme of exercise, with aesthetic goals are largely bound to fail. That said, it’s not unreasonable to have a goal of fitting into clothes that you wore a couple of years back, or to want a smaller waist circumference, BUT weight per se is a red herring. You might change your body composition significantly, effectively exchanging stored fat for muscle mass, and not lose much weight. The whole notion of ‘losing weight’ is misguided in fact. Bathroom scales tell us next to nothing about how healthy we are. I know someone who has recently succeeded in losing weight, and I’m certain that, as well as shedding some body fat, she has also lost muscle mass. Did anyone’s health ever improve as they got weaker?

As an aside, Seib refers to research that indicates that yo-yo dieters become more efficient at storing body fat. In other words, if you get into a cycle of dieting to lose weight, and then regaining that weight, then you are likely to become progressively fatter. I can’t articulate how or why, but this is surely a natural response of the human body to the stress of deprivation and signalling the need for storing greater energy reserves.

The solution of “The Paleo Coach” is to have a goal of health, rather than a number that you read on the scale. If you take the necessary steps to be as healthy as possible then aesthetic goals will be achieved as a by-product – again, we’ve evolved to find the appearance of robust health desirable. This brings me back to the ‘health and fitness’ point. Under the heading of “What is fitness?” the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, CrossFit, again) contains this line: “We have observed that nearly every measurable value of health can be placed on a continuum that ranges from sickness to wellness to fitness.” This is to say, health and fitness are not separate – fitness is the optimum state of health. If we accept this idea then the notion of “happy and healthy at any size” is exposed as a nonsense.

Bathroom scales can tell you how heavy you are, they cannot tell you how healthy you are (I know there are some that purport to measure body fat but since one such scale told me that I was borderline morbidly obese I doubt their accuracy). Unless you’re wanting to go on, say, a theme park ride with a weight limitation, or wondering if the lift can cope with one more body in it, what you weigh is of minimal significance – your fitness will take care of your weight.

Oh, and don’t settle for wellness (“How are you?” “Oh, fair to middling.”) – is that really going to be good enough for you?

It’s a GPP system

My understanding (and I can’t remember whether this was gleaned from reading Pilates’ books, or hearing it said by one or other of the first generation teachers) is that Pilates’ intention was to create a form of physical training that, unlike the kinds of training he had done himself (boxing, for example), would ready one for any conceivable physical challenge. In a nutshell, General Physical Preparedness.

Along with the CrossFit Training Manual, I’ve been reading a fair amount of Gray Cook‘s writing lately, and both have some interesting things to say about specialisation.

“CrossFit considers the sumo wrestler, triathlete, marathoner and power lifter to be ‘fringe’ athletes, in that their fitness demands are so specialised as to be inconsistent with the adaptations that give maximum competency at all physical challenges.” To extrapolate that a little, none of those athletes can be considered truly fit. Heresy alert: Mo Farah is not fit!

In his lecture ‘Developing a Movement Philosophy‘ Gray Cook observes “Every time we specialise we give up our adaptability”, and later “any time we specialize, the human body at some point will start to break down.”

When writing here I invariably seem to get to the point of feeling the need to insert the “What has this got to do with Pilates?” sentence. Well, Pilates is meant to be promoting health – and I do like CrossFit founder Greg Glassman’s concept of ‘health’ being measured on a scale that runs from sickness, through wellness, to fitness – so hopefully Pilates is not simply promoting health, but specifically promoting fitness. (Why settle for being ‘well’, instead of ‘fit’, when ‘well’ puts us already half way to ‘sick’). Fitness requires adaptability, and as Gray Cook implied, specialisation is the enemy of adaptability – and here’s where Pilates steps up, because, again, it’s a GPP system.

At Pilates in Motion Studio we try to instil the idea in our clients that Pilates is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In a very broad sense, we could call that ‘end’ “living better“, and that’s precisely because Pilates is not a method to help us to get better a specific skill, or improve endurance in a particular activity (though of course those benefits may come), but because it should be preparing us for a wide array of challenges, from the mundane to the extraordinary.

By incorporating a mixture of movement patterns, in multiple planes, and by practising the principle of trunk stabilistaion while moving extremities (How many Pilates exercises revolve around this central concept?), we make ourselves more ‘robust to perturbation’ (as the biomechanists might say). Given a definition of fitness that incorporates a notion of adaptability, Pilates (perhaps with the addition of more load) practised with some periods of high intensity, provides a great foundation for general, not specialised, fitness.

The “Fast Diet”, also referred to as the “5:2” diet seems to be all over the UK media at the moment, accompanied by both very positive reviews, and expressions of concern about the dangers of encouraging anyone to fast.

I had this diet described to me as “fast for 2 days (actually, limit calories to 500/600 per day), and eat what you like for 5 days”. The man behind this is Dr Michael Mosley – and he made a television programme all about it, so it must be infallible. Apparently he found evidence that, aside from weight-loss, the Fast Diet is also associated with a range of other health benefits.

I have grave misgivings about any suggestion of ‘eat what you like’, because it seems to suggest that nutrition is unimportant. In other words, there’s an awful lot of ‘food’ around these days of very limited nutritional value. The idea (not Dr Mosley’s, I’m sure, but possibly widely-held nonetheless) that it’s okay to eat crap for 5 days, and then severely restrict your calories for the other 2, sounds like a recipe for very poor nutrition. And food, after all, is meant to nourish us, not simply supply us with calories.

I can’t help but listen to news items about diets without my Paleo-biased brain shouting “It’s what you eat, not how much or how often, that matters”. I’m also trying not to be a 197693_3967280097068_451202589_nfundamentalist about food. I do get a little stressed over vegan parents raising their babies as vegans. Equally, it would take very strong evidence (that I’ve seen no trace of) to persuade me that being vegetarian is as healthy (never mind sustainable) as being omnivorous . At the same time, occasional rants about soy products aside, if someone feels that the way they eat is the best for them, what business is it of mine? None, of course.

Back to ‘diets’. The biggest problem that I can see is that they always appear to be temporary. I may well be wrong, but I doubt that Dr Mosley is proposing that anyone follows the 5:2 ratio for life. This is why I really like the way that I’m eating these days (and why I’m always a little baffled by people asking me if I’m “still doing that diet”) – it’s great because it feels totally sustainable. I choose, generally, not to eat certain things, that were amazingly easy to give up. That’s it. Again, I’m trying not to evangelise.

I was exposed to another idea today (courtesy of Paleo Solution podcast episode 167), attributed to Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit. It seems like a brilliant approach to body composition, health, and (probably) any other outcome one might desire from a diet. Essentially, set yourself some athletic goals that will really stretch you. The podcast mentions double-bodyweight back squats and a couple of other outlandish strength/gymnastic goals, but we can all figure out athletic achievements that will stretch our individual capabilities. Perhaps it’s mastering the entire Super-Advanced Reformer repertoire, or doing “Romana’s Mat Challenge” 4 times in a row, if Pilates is your thing (though I think a more profound strength challenge would be best). Maybe it’s preparing to climb Kilimanjaro for charity. The point is that, if your goal is sufficiently challenging for you, doing what it takes to reach it will inevitably involve eating appropriately, and making positive changes to your body composition. No 5:2, no GI, no Caveman, no South Beach, no Atkins, no Blood Type (and on and on and on and on)

Perfect! Nourish yourself to achieve amazingness, and enjoy the combined side-effects of better health, and the body composition you’ve dreamed of.

Adaptive Athletes

January 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

If I’m uninhibitedly honest, before last years Games, I used to view the Paralympics as a distinctly fringe event. Rather in the vein of “Ahh, that’s nice”, but of minimal personal interest.

Like many people, I suspect, last year was different, in that my family was making a point of watching many of the events on television (and trying to get tickets), learning the names of more athletes (no longer ‘Oscar Pistorious, and all the rest’), and becoming emotionally involved in many of the events.

A big part of what changed my perception of the Paralympics, was seeing GB track cyclist Jody Cundy’s reaction to his disqualification. You can see the full unedited version of what happened here, or the short version (all swearing, no back story) here. Suddenly I understood that, for the athletes involved, this was absolutely as serious as the Olympic Games is for anyone competing there, and that the level of training and commitment is at least equal. (I can only apologise for failing to grasp that previously).

Iliesa Delana clearing 1.74 metres (Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Fiji’s Iliesa Delana clearing 1.74 metres
(Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Over the ensuing days I was consistently awed, humbled, and moved by what I saw of the Paralympics. Some of the highlights for me were the men’s F42 high jump (for single, above-the-knee amputees), and the blind long jump (I can’t imagine many things more terrifying than sprinting and jumping into space blind). The fact that the relay runners with cerebral palsy are required to exchange the baton within the same distance as the ‘able-bodied’ athletes should have made some of the latter, who failed to get the baton round the track, feel distinctly inadequate.

In the following months, aside from the BBC’s ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ awards, paralympic sport seems to have drifted back out of the public consciousness, perhaps to be largely forgotten until 2016. Happily for me, the lustre of last year’s Paralympics, and my associated perception of ‘disability’ sport, has recently been restored by the video below.

The story of CrossFit Rubicon, in Virginia, both rekindled my esteem for ‘disabled’ athletes, and helped to reset my perspective, such that ‘disabled’ (finally) feels like un entirely inappropriate word. The owner of the gym makes it clear that the words ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled’ are not acceptable within the gym, and he describes those athletes working out there, who may be without one, or more, limbs as ‘adaptive’. This seems like a wonderful way of acknowledging the obstacles that people may have had to overcome to be turning up at the gym to exercise, without bringing any negative connotations. I’ve always had an uneasy feeling about the name paralympics – the ‘para’ sounds to me like it refers to paraplegic, defined in Wikipedia as: “an impairment in motor or sensory function of the lower extremities”. The idea of impairment seems completely misplaced in relation to both the athletes from last year’s Games, and the men and women at CF Rubicon.

So how’s this for an idea? The Adaptive Olympic Games, instead of Paralympic Games. I think that labels are often useful for clear communication, and find that many of the attempts in the last few decades to ‘reclassify’ things with less pejorative, or stigmatising language  serve mostly to make communication less clear. ‘Adaptive’ seems to admirably walk the line between clarity, and a description that doesn’t suggest ‘less than normal’.

The video’s not short (27 minutes) but deserves the “heart-warming”, “life-affirming”, “uplifting” cliches of many a Hollywood film poster. If you watch, I defy you to be unmoved by the spirit of these adaptive athletes.

Videos from Channel 4, and http://www.journal.crossfit.com

One doesn’t have to search very long on the web to find critiques of CrossFit, there are many, and many of them valid. This seems to be largely down to the fact that it allows (fosters, perhaps) an obsession with the number of ‘reps’, or the time taken to do the workout, over practicing good technique. In essence, the idea of learning skills and then challenging one’s ability to remain skilful under duress is a really interesting idea. If you read any of the CrossFit training literature the same message is frequently repeated – form is everything. There is not an official edict that says “Finish the workout at all costs, never mind your technique”. Unfortunately, this point seems to have been missed by a number of certified coaches who fail to scale workouts appropriately for different people, and fail to teach the imperative of proper technique. CrossFit then earns a reputation for being dangerous, and causing injuries.

I will agree with anyone who suggests that becoming a certified CrossFit coach should be a little harder, but the arguments against Crossfit based on poor coaching are the same as the Daily Mail “How pilates can make your bad back worse..” type articles. Once you get passed the eyebrow-raising headline, the article essentially says ‘if you have a poor teacher, things may not work out too well’. As another blogger (whom I’m afraid I cannot credit, sorry) put it: “Crossfit is not dangerous. Bad coaching is dangerous. Poor movement is dangerous. Ego is dangerous.”

Enough about the problems with/for CrossFit (‘CF’ hereafter). This is about why I love it.

Maybe teaching Pilates for as long as I have (coming up to 10 years) had made me slightly jaded. The pressures of running a business during one of the longest recessions of my lifetime might have played a part too. Before I discovered CF I was still a firm believer in the possibilities of Pilates to work, something like magic, in transforming the lives of people with chronic pain, and other physical challenges, but I had fallen out of love with Pilates, a little. (That may also have something to do with my perception of the dominant trend away from building strength and fostering empowerment in UK Pilates teaching). In stumbling upon CF, and recognising their common threads, I’ve rediscovered my original zest for Pilates.

Aside from the philosophical similarities with Pilates that I referred to here, CF consistently teaches me about myself, in a way that no other discipline or type of exercise has. I’ve run marathons in the past, and done long training runs as part of the preparation, and I certainly found myself looking inward then. It’s probably true that I’ve suppressed some of the memories of what I may have seen. What I remember was the struggle to find a way to overcome physical fatigue, and some pain (and, to be fair, the stakes were high – nobody wants to train for 6 months to run a marathon, and then fail to finish). It also took a long time – both the activity, and the recovery. The soul-searching that I might do during a CF workout is different, and it’s a more humbling experience. On a number of occasions I’ve wanted to give up on finishing a workout, not because I was too physically tired to continue, but because my mind was telling me that I’d had enough. It was quite a surprise for me to discover that (with the motivation of, for instance, seeing my wife carry on when I wanted to stop) I’m capable of pushing myself beyond my previously perceived limits, which opens up a variety of new horizons.

There’s a camaraderie in doing CF workouts with others that I’ve never found in Pilates – perhaps because you’re more likely to be exploring the limits of your capacity. I’ve seen plenty of official marathon t-shirts with slogans that imply that being a marathon-finisher puts you in an elite group. Whilst the sentiment resonates with me, I also find it somewhat obnoxious. At the same time, there’s something about sharing the experience of a workout like Diane (Deadlift 225 lbs, Handstand push- ups, 21-15-9 reps, 3 rounds for time), especially doing it together, that forges connections. (CF is widely recognised for its community-building aspects).

Kristan Clever’s Diane at the 2012 CrossFit Games regionals

If you watched the video, there’s a clue to the humbling element of CF – not only is my ‘Diane-time’ about 10 times slower than the woman featured, it’s also slower than my wife’s (who of course has minimal interest in how long it took). It’s a curious feeling to set about something, believing myself to be bigger and, therefore, stronger, but to find that my wife is actually stronger than me. She’s a very accomplished Pilates teacher, and I admire her teaching a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling of witnessing her steel herself, and push back the limits of her physical capability. For her too, more often than not, it seems that it is pushing past mental boundaries, that extends the physical ones. I’m finding it hard to adequately describe – there are moments at the end of a workout when, gasping for breath, I see deeper into myself than I have done during other physical pursuits. I wonder if it’s too much of a leap to suggest that it helps me make a connection to my primal self – the one that was born to run and hunt and struggle for survival…