Archives For Mike Boyle

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.


I just tried an internet search for “pilates low back pain” and Google returned 1, 380, 000 results. Google scholar also offers hundreds of ‘scholarly articles’ that touch on the subject. Amazon offers several DVDs of Pilates for low back pain, but their offerings are dwarfed by the hundreds of YouTube videos on the same subject. Another Google search for the same terms but in the News section suggests that in the last month English language newspapers and magazines have also had hundreds of articles on this subject. Coupled with my own experience of Pilates ‘fixing’ my low back pain, is it any wonder that I’ve spent years believing that Pilates offered the best solution for anyone suffering from this nearly ubiquitous affliction?

The website has a page, attributed to Ellie Herman on: ‘Easing Your Back Pain with Pilates‘ in which she explains that the causes of back pain are “faulty posture” and “sedentary lifestyle”. While we might like to suggest some other possible causes, I don’t suppose that many Pilates teachers would disagree with her – it seems like pretty basic stuff: you sit and/or stand badly, your postural muscles get lazy, you ability to stabilise your spine is compromised, and from there you’ll be very lucky if you don’t wind up in pain.

So, why is Pilates so good at helping relieve low back pain? Well, of course, it targets your ‘core’, deep postural muscles that give your lower back its stability. The less uncontrolled movement that you have in your lower back, the less likely it is that you will have pain. As your stability improves Pilates can help to develop efficient movement of the whole of your spine, encouraging good posture during a variety of activities. In addition, helping areas of relative stiffness to become more supple, and areas of relative ‘looseness’ to become more  stiff (stable) can help to bring more balance to our structure, and integrate our limbs into our trunk.

I was lucky enough to receive a pretty high level of training as a Pilates teacher (certainly by UK standards), and to work with some truly brilliant teachers from the UK and the US. I hope that I can reasonably consider myself to be well steeped in the principles of Pilates, and how to apply them when faced with clients with chronic pain and/or injury. I know about ‘working away from the pain’, and I’ve particularly enjoyed Ron Fletcher’s anecdote on that subject in his conversation with Kathy Grant (I referred to this DVD in a previous post) – Fletcher (a dancer at the time) explains that he went to see Pilates for help with a knee injury. Every time he went to Pilates’ studio he would be given exercises to do that had nothing to do, and Pilates would ignore Fletcher’s protestations that it was his knee that was the problem. After a few sessions Fletcher discovered that his knee was better.

So, I think my training has equipped me to help clients deal with back pain fairly well. I also believe that I understand a lot of the potential causes of back pain, as well as the importance of posture in maintaining a healthily functioning spine. I’ve been fixated (in my teaching) with hip mobility for years, and ‘get’ its importance relative to spinal stability and functional movement. I know, too, that most of us could do with working on upper back extension (and probably rotation and side-flexion too), and that the consequence of that will be less pressure on our necks. The list could go on, and that’s not really the point. In short, I felt that I had the basic understanding that I needed to do my job well, and that Pilates taught well was the ideal solution for all manner of problems. I certainly didn’t imagine that the world of strength and conditioning would have much more to offer in that regard.

More recently my perspective has been challenged. First of all by learning some of Mike Boyle‘s ideas (if you follow the link you’ll see just the kind of website that fit my prejudice completely – all it’s missing is advertising for protein powder) from his book ‘Advances in Functional Training’. (Actually this info is second-hand since it was my wife who bought the book and then explained it to me – I am nothing without her.) Boyle explains the body from the ground up as a series of joints that require, alternately, mobility then stability: ankle joint needs mobility, knee needs stability, hip needs mobility, lumbar/pelvic joints need stability, thoracic spine needs mobility, cervical spine (neck) needs mobility. Genius!

Being peripherally involved in a Pilates teacher training programme I understand how tricky anatomy and physiology can be to get to grips with, not least because it rarely seems to be straightforward, and how often students crave some dependable, simple answers. I’ve suffered the frustration, and seen it in many students too, of different books giving different answers for muscle functions. I know now that anatomy is an evolving subject, not a science in which all the answers have been found and set in stone. Thus, an explanation of what we need from our joints, expressed as simply as Boyle does, feels like a wonderful breath of fresh air. Mobility: stability: mobility: stability….It also seems to fit perfectly with ‘working away from the pain’ – you leave the problem area alone, and look for the adjacent compensations/weaknesses/stiffnesses. I think I had learned the same thing previously, but perhaps in a way that meant I didn’t see the wood for the trees – I knew it in pieces, and had never heard it said so succinctly. Lots of bits of information fell into place as I mused on this idea, and it’s become a constant reference point when I’m teaching.

Following that I was listening to a podcast recently in which the two hosts (one a strength and conditioning coach and the other an olympic weightlifting coach) were answering a question about exercising with a herniated lumbar disc. In discussing the question they came up with an equation something like: “If your hip joints are mobile, and your thoracic spine is mobile, you probably won’t have low back problems. If your hip joints aren’t mobile, and your thoracic spine isn’t mobile, you probably will have problems with your lower back at some point”. More genius! 

It’s just like Mike Boyle said! (Mobility, stability, mobility, stability….) Again, I knew already what they were saying, in fact I’ve probably been saying the same thing to clients for years, just not in such a clear and straightforward way. Perhaps I’ve just been lagging behind all these years, thinking I knew more than I did – certainly I need to view other disciplines with a little more humility than I have in the past. In any case, when trying to learn more about what I do for a living, casting my net wider has definitely been rewarded.

To return to the Ellie Herman piece on, posture may well be a part of the picture, but there’s more to it, and you may be able to make a significant difference to your risk, or management of back pain, by going beyond her advice to:  “sit and stand up tall, keep your belly pulled in, and keep your shoulder blades pulling down your back”. Maybe even by listening to the advice of weightlifters.