Archives For Gray Cook

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Image courtesy of hdwpapers.com

I would generally be the first to agree that the world looks in bad shape at the moment. In spite of this, and Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ it seems evident (certainly from the perspective of non-human populations) that there are too many humans on the planet. Social injustice, the tsunami of obesity, environmental catastrophes…the list could go on for a while, and lead us to conclude that the outlook is very bleak.

And yet we are living in an era of unprecedented access to information – to the extent that I can hardly believe what’s available to me at little to no cost. Of course, we have to exercise some discretion, as some of the free information that’s available may be less than entirely reliable. Perhaps it’s safer/more accurate to say that we have unprecedented access to expert opinion, and the beauty is that it appears that applies to almost any subject one can imagine. For instance, my particular bent is for information in and around the spheres of primal lifestyle, ancestral health, functional medicine, paleo nutrition, optimising human performance, exercise physiology, weight-lifting etc. If, however, your interest is in antiquarian books, veganism, numismatism, natural history, chemical engineering…. I’m sure that your interests are being equally well served. 

The torrent of interesting material is sometimes overwhelming, and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that downtime in front of the television will have to go in order for me to keep up with all the reading – not to mention all the ‘watch later’ YouTube videos. TED talks are one of the best examples of our easy access to expert opinion. Some of my favourites are: The real reason for brains; Why things hurt; Why bodybuilding aged 93 is a great idea; Minding your mitochondria (or, how I cured my MS). Most of these talks were not found through my own searching, but through social media which, despite all it’s flaws, I have to concede is a phenomenal tool. In the main, I use it to ‘follow’ various people whose work and opinions I’m interested in, many of whom will regularly post (aside from their own writing) links to videos, details of scientific papers, links to other interesting websites, and so on. (This is also how the volume of stuff to try to keep up with spirals beyond my reach).

The other aspect of social media that’s especially exciting is that we can get instant feedback on ideas. For example, for convoluted reasons, I was reading an issue of ‘Power‘ magazine recently (yes, there’s an article by Kelly Starrett in there) and one of the powerlifters being interviewed was talking about the value of Facebook in developing a new training system. He can post training ideas and get feedback quickly and directly from the people who are trying out his ideas – it’s like simultaneous market and scientific research, in a way that would have been impossible 10 years ago.

Podcasts are another source of joy for me, particularly on long car journeys. There are probably some that you have to pay for, but the ones I’ve wanted to hear have been free. I have learned about nutrition, biochemistry, business management, teaching/coaching, evolutionary biology, neurology, and on and on – all by listening to episodes of not more than 6 different podcasts. On top of this, listening to various people talking on these podcasts has led me to authors whose books would otherwise not popped up on my radar: John Yudkin, Atul Gawande, Nassim Taleb, Tim Ferris, Weston Price, Dan John. I’ve not included links to all of these because you can easily look these people up if you’re curious. The point is that there is quite possibly information about subjects that you’re excited by freely available if you go looking for it.

It’s also easier than ever to ‘self-quantify’, to measure significant markers of lifestyle – tracking exercise, food, sleep etc. It’s quite possible that some people use the gadgets, and do very little with the data that they’re collecting (which might be considered a waste of money) but you could certainly use the data to conduct your own experiments into what changes in your lifestyle have positive or negative effects on you sense of wellbeing. In the UK we are behind the US a little, but hopefully it won’t be too long before we will have access to something like WellnessFX, that allows you, at relatively low cost, to get very detailed information about your own health markers, well beyond the readings from a conventional health check.

The short message: access to information to help you become amazing, to fulfil your genetic potential has never been so accessible. Do the right thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Too much ‘creativity’.

As ever, the following is a reflection on the practice of Pilates that I am familiar with in the UK, and may not have any relevance/resonance for some, especially sticklers for classical Pilates.

I’ve attended workshops with Romana trained teachers (one in particular) and found that their vigorous adherence to ‘what Mr Pilates taught’ was rigid to the point of dogma, and not appropriate for the broad range of clients that I encounter. At the same time, it seems that we can sometimes forget/overlook the amazing range of repertoire that Pilates himself devised, and how effective so much of that repertoire is.

One of the consequences of living with (and being married to) another Pilates teacher is that many dinner time conversations revolve around shared experiences from our work. A frequent cause of frustration and, thus, topic for conversation, is a group teaching scenario whose dialogue goes something like: (client) “Can I do that exercise standing at the end of the Cadillac?” (teacher) “Sure, which one?” “It’s the one where you stand on the rotating disc and you hold the bar….and I think you bend forward, or something…” “Sorry, I don’t know that one.” “Yes you do. (Teacher X) showed it to me. It was really good.” “I’m pretty sure I don’t know which exercise you mean. What was it for?” “(Puzzled expression) For…? I don’t know – It felt really good.” “If you know why X gave it to you I might be able to figure out what it is – do you remember?”

This could go on for a while, but hopefully you get the gist. Let’s be clear – of course it’s great for clients to enjoy themselves and, in general, I’ve got nothing against people doing exercises that make them ‘feel good’. Then again, too many times I’ve seen people assuming horrible positions that apparently feel really good, teachers included (“Oh no, I would never let a client do this, it just feels really good.”).

There’s a couple of reasons, at least, for the above dialogue to be the cause of frustration. In the first place, while I wouldn’t advocate chapter & verse on whys and wherefores with every exercise, if we know the purpose or objective of an exercise, we have a much better chance of understanding and executing it well. On a couple of occasions when the client may have been able to recreate the feelgood exercise/movement, (typically involving a number of auxiliary props*) I’ve found myself wondering why a particular classical Pilates exercise wouldn’t have done just as well, if not better.

There may be many instances when it’s appropriate to adapt exercises, and also some occasions when it seems necessary to ‘invent’ something to meet the needs of a specific individual (just as Pilates himself did). Is that always the reasoning behind teachers ‘creating’ new exercises? I would guess that the answer is, quite often, no. Gray Cook addresses this in his article ‘Function?’:

We cannot prove this exercise will improve the way you move. It has not been shown to make you more functional. It has not been proven to create better performance or metabolism. It is simply the result of your trainer’s creativity and a surplus of time and equipment. It is an unscientific attempt to reduce your boredom with your current training program. This combination of equipment and movement is a way to entertain you and will distract from the objective tangible results you may not be getting.” (Gray Cook | Function? © 2011 Gray Cook, http://www.graycook.com)

Cook is writing about strength and conditioning coaches but his words seem to apply very well to Pilates (as do a lot of his writings, I can’t recommend him enough). To compound what he says, quite often it seems that there is no identification of, or desire for, specific and measurable results. In other words, aren’t we (no, our clients!) better off with a situation in which someone can say “I can see and feel that I’m able to move further and more easily in this range”, rather than “That stretch feels really nice for my back”?

The other side to this is that mystery exercises help to fuel people’s dependence on a teacher. Any time someone has no clear idea of the purpose, or desired outcome of an exercise the further along the road they are away from empowerment. Perhaps empowerment is not a goal that everyone has for their clients…. certainly it is at the heart of the philosophy at our studio. I’ve referred previously on this blog to conversations I’ve had with clients who’ve said something like “Teacher X has been working a lot on my neck”, when the client seems to think that Pilates is something that is done to them, and it feels like the same territory, to me, as teaching exercises that don’t have a clear intent. Never mind an identifiable name to make it readily repeatable.

One of the fringe benefits for me of having a teacher training program based in our studio is the presence of students working through manuals, practicing repertoire and reminding me of things that I’ve forgotten, because I don’t teach them regularly. The classical repertoire covers so much territory, and is so adaptable (especially in the studio) that I believe there are very few situations that truly require ‘new’ exercises. The classical repertoire, being recognisable and repeatable, also allows us to have some measures of our capability.

In other words, there’s nothing really wrong with Pilates, so we don’t need to be ‘fixing’ it with our creativity.

*There’s a side issue here of adding auxiliary equipment to exercises, to increase the ‘challenge’. Is there ever a good reason to put a foam roll on a reformer?

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Image from pilates.wonderhowto.com