When approaching a maximal effort (or close to max effort) challenge like a one rep max dead-lift, something imposing an endurance demand like running a 10K race, or maybe a CrossFit type ‘metcon’ it’s almost certainly a good idea to have some kind of warm-up. Something to literally warm you up – raise your body temperature, begin to elevate your heart rate, dilate your blood vessels etc. I doubt that there are many professional athletes of any stripe that don’t have some kind of warm-up prior to an event that will likely require their maximum effort.
We may disagree about this, but I don’t believe that Pilates is something that should or does impose this sort of physical demand. Rather, if we consider it only as exercise, I think it is a program for general physical preparedness. I’m not saying that I find the entire Pilates repertoire easy (some exercises remain beyond my reach), and much of the repertoire makes me work hard. Sweat, even. As a teacher I’ve always instinctively felt that I (and by extension Pilates teachers in general) should be able to demonstrate any exercise at any given moment that the job requires. (I accept that there are excellent Pilates teachers who may not be able to demonstrate certain things for good reason – spinal fusion, for example. I am not writing about them.) I don’t know exactly why I felt that way, I just know that it always seemed a bit daft to me on the many, many occasions that I’ve heard a Pilates teacher saying that he/she cannot demonstrate a particular exercise for their client/s because they were “not warmed up”.
This feeling, or instinct was brought into focus for me recently, when attending Ido Portal‘s ‘Movement X’ workshop. In the context of talking about mobility vs flexibility (An interesting discussion. I’d suggest researching his thoughts via his blog posts, or videos.) Ido asked us to imagine a Taekwondo practitioner being assaulted in a bar, and asking his assailant to wait for a few minutes while he warmed his hip joints up, in order that he could kick him back. In other words, what is the point of a physical practice if the fruits of that practice aren’t available to you all the time?
If a particular Pilates exercise is valuable, worthwhile, then it should be available to you at any time. If its not available to you, without a warm-up first, is there really any point to it?
Ok, this is not really Pilates, or it didn’t start out that way. This idea started out because I was given a modified Thomas test to do as homework (to improve my shoddy hip flexor/knee extensor flexibility). I’ve done this in the past with an ankle weight on the suspended leg, but these days I cannot bring myself to believe in the efficacy of static/passive stretching. What better way to engineer the possibility of some contract/relax PNF-type stretching into the equation than my trusty jump stretch band? Putting out round the legs of the Cadillac seems to give the magic amount of resistance to both flex my hip and extend my knee against, and also gives me some proprioceptive feedback to help avoid too much abduction.
Then my lovely wife had the idea to add the bar and springs into the mix, making it look a bit more like Pilates. When did adding movement not help? If you’ve got the hamstring length this seems like a great idea to me (Ugg boots optional)…
This workshop was first called “In Pursuit of Pilates Perfection”. It’s since been renamed “Pilates Made Simple”, but the content should encapsulate both ideas.
The aim of the workshop is to share the theories that a growing interest in strength & conditioning has exposed me to, and how they have influenced my Pilates teaching – and changed my life. (If you’ve seen any of my www.paleolates.com blog posts you may have already read references to this). I believe that it should be helpful to anyone teaching Pilates, either mat or studio, at any level, or to any particular population.
Meeting Kelly Starrett, taking his ‘Movement & Mobility’ seminar (and subsequently watching hours of his video blogs), helped me understand that I’d been over-complicating Pilates, and changed my teaching dramatically. Through him, and others in the strength & conditioning world, I learned that there are a set of simple principles and ‘rules’, fundamental to any human position or movement (that I now think Joseph Pilates understood), regardless of age or ability. Applying these ‘rules’ to Pilates allows me to see problems more clearly, and therefore to teach with more clarity, not to mention improving my own practice.
I’ve also gained a whole new set of tools to work on mobility, beyond what Pilates seemed to accomplish, and thereby changed my own body, also making Pilates repertoire feel easier. I hope to be able to pass on the sense of liberation, and satisfaction that it’s given me, with a mixture of theory and practical application that addresses both Pilates mat and equipment repertoire.
The workshop is 6 hours long, with approximately 4 hours spent on theory and relating theory to Pilates repertoire; and 2 hours for exploring the use of various mobility tools to facilitate the application of the theory to movement. There will be some notes provided – intended as a starting point/reminder for participants own thoughts and observations, and certificates of attendance will be issued.
After the workshop you will:
Be reminded of why good movement & positioning always matters
Know a set of simple rules of movement and positioning, applicable to any activity
Be able to immediately apply those rules to teaching Pilates
Be able to impart those rules to your clients, to accelerate their progress
Have an additional paradigm for recognising movement faults and limitations
Have an array of mobilising tools to address movement limitations
“A flexible and incredibly easy approach…”
“Fresh ideas – dynamic presentation. A retake on basics that is challenging in a positive way.”
“A brilliant way to improve your practice, and make it easier.”
“A very interesting workshop that has given me various ideas on teaching from cueing to exercise and equipment choice.”
A couple of weeks back PilatesTree.com asked via Facebook “how much self practice do you really put in?”. It’s a really interesting question to ask professional Pilates teachers, not least because we so often seem to prioritise teaching over working on ourselves. When I first started teaching I used to “do” the class that I was teaching, and it took me a while to realise that this was a really good way to develop some bad habits (never mind that my mat was not the optimum place to be teaching from all the time..).
I’ve struggled for some time with conflicting ideas around Pilates teachers’ responsibility to be aspirational figures (see ‘What should a Pilates teacher look like?‘) and, of course, what we do should be more important than how we look. If we finish teaching a class and then adopt a collapsed posture we’re doing a lousy job of reinforcing what we teach. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely a powerful teaching message.
One of the consistent messages of primal/paleo lifestyle authors, and indeed Kelly Starrett, my movement sensei, is that it is our responsibility as human beings to optimally express our genes – to be the best version of Homo sapiens that we possibly can be. This seems eminently reasonable to me, and also a great basis for a slightly different question from the one above: “How often should we be trying to be better?” or better yet – “How often should we be practicing being amazing?”
The answer, naturally, is ‘every day’. Hence, there are NO DAYS OFF. Practice making permanent = we become good at what we do often, which brings us back to the post-class slouching Pilates teacher. A state of fitness is not the result of a couple of hours per week of exercise. That may well form a part of fitness, but if we practice being great for 2 hours a week, and then the remaining 110 hours (assuming a generous 8 hours sleep per night) practicing being mediocre, or worse, we don’t need NASA to tell us what the outcome will be.
Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).
I was unusually reticent about answering the original question on PilatesTree….in part because I know that I can’t pretend to do anything resembling a Pilates class more than once a week. Preferring to answer my own question (“How often should we be practicing being amazing?”). As of this year, I do something in pursuit of being better as often as it crosses my mind, and this means at least every day. I don’t work out every day, but I try to practice something that I need to improve daily, whether that be a skill/movement, or mobility. I’m very lucky to be married to a woman who shares my passions/obsessions, and evenings in front of the TV usually involve one, or both of us rolling various body parts on sundry firm objects, or indulging in mutual ‘quad smashing’ (For a visual on how to do this to a massive weightlifter, or your loved one, click here, and remember: “Foam rolls are for children”).
Talk of my idiosyncratic home life may have me straying off the point. Here’s the thing: Yes, practice Pilates, yoga, boot camp, karate…whatever’s your poison (passion?), at least once per week AND practice being a better Homo sapiens every day. In the middle of a TV show I was watching the other night (I put my hand up here and acknowledge that I was making no effort to be better at the time), I heard the line “Clean water is a human right.” It sounded weird at the time – I think we’re often too quick to award ourselves rights (argh! Rabbit hole! Yes, ideally every living human should have access to clean water). Ethical quagmires aside, could we say that “an optimally functioning body is a basic human right”? I hope so, and if we’re agreed upon that, we have to remember that “with rights come responsibilities”.
We have the basic human responsibility to maintain our bodies in such a way that we are able to best express our genetic heritage.
In acknowledgement of the inspiration for this post, here’s Kelly Starrett. Not my favourite MobilityWOD video (and he no longer advocates icing) but maybe it can serve as a way in to the goldmine for you – he’s ALL about being better at EVERYTHING.
In a recent conversation with a personal trainer, he made the observation that the components of functional training are: “pushing, pulling, lunging, squatting and twisting”. Similarly, Mark Sisson refers to PEMs (Primal Essential Movements): Squats, Pull-ups, Push-ups & Planks.
A search of the web for components of functional exercise offers up the following “4 Pillars of Human Movement” (coined by ‘fitness maverick’, JC Santana): Standing and locomotion; Level changes in the body’s centre of mass (e.g.. squats, lunges etc.); Pushing & Pulling; Rotation.
Dr. Richard A. Schmidt (author of various books on motor control and learning) defined the six basic human movements as: squat, bend (deadlift), lunge, push, pull and twist.
CrossFit’s Training Guide describes Functional movements as those: “…that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life….Squatting is standing from a seated position; deadlifting is picking any object off the ground.”
You’re probably getting the gyst, and may be wondering what this has to do with Pilates. Well, Pilates is about teaching movement, and hopefully we can all agree that it’s a much better idea to be teaching functional movement over non-functional (isolation) movements.
One of the common themes to these lists is the presence of hip extension, which the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, I’m preparing for my Level 1 certification…) describes as”..the foundation of all good human movement” adding: “..without powerful, controlled hip extension you are not functioning anywhere near your potential.” Perhaps as a result of what I’ve learned from regular sessions of CrossFit, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with hip extension, and aware that the great majority of people that I see, both in classes and in the street, seem to be lacking ‘normal’ hip function.
Surely this is where Pilates should be coming in, and spanking everyone into good function? There’s lots of hip extension in Pilates, certainly when it comes to the equipment repertoire, (not so much in the mat work), so what am I on about? Here’s the thing – we typically approach hip extension, in Pilates, from a static trunk position. Take leg springs lying supine, or feet in straps on the reformer – both great exercises for teaching people how to move at their hip joint without compensating with their spine – but not allowing full hip extension. This doesn’t teach us that much about being upright. In addition, legs move in relation to the trunk, and there is very little Pilates repertoire that requires us to extend our hip joints by doing the opposite (trunk moving in relation to legs, or both moving simultaneously).
It’s been amazing to me to discover, both in myself and other Pilates teachers, how common the inability to dynamically extend the hips seems to be. When I was first asked, from a standing position, to flex at my hips and my knees, keeping my trunk stiff (something like the appropriate position from which to pick an object up from the ground), and then extend at my knees and hips to return to vertical, I couldn’t seem to do it without adding in some kind of spinal articulation. The short version of that rather wordy sentence is: ‘ I couldn’t thrust my hips’. Wanting to consider myself moderately virile, that’s a pretty humiliating discovery.
One of the things that I consider it my job, as a Pilates teacher, to convey to the people I’m teaching, is how to avoid substituting moving with their spines for moving in their hips – yet there I was, incapable of avoiding that substitution, when asked to do an unfamiliar hip movement. This is the crux – do we, or does Pilates, do a good job of teaching people to effectively use their hip extensors when they’re not lying down?
It’s not as if there’s an absence of standing work in the studio (again, mat work is a different story), and maybe I just don’t teach enough of that repertoire – though there’s a lot more squatting and lunging involved in my classes than there used to be. Working from the basic premise that spinal articulation exercises are only to promote flexibility (thus facilitating stability), I wonder if we don’t tend to overemphasise articulating the spine, at the expense of efficient, powerful hip extension. You may argue that powerful hip extension (‘PHE’, from now on) isn’t a part of optimal posture, but I’m willing to bet that someone that has the facility for PHE has a reasonable alignment of their pelvis on the top of their legs. I was tempted to insert pictures at this stage, but it feels too objectifying. Suffice it to say that I was watching a promotional video (from a very well-known manufacturer of Pilates equipment) for a new piece of equipment. The model, who in fairness may not be a Pilates practitioner (though I know of a number of Pilates teachers whose shape is similar), had a pronounced angle at the front of her hips in standing, that speaks to me of lack of hip extensor activity – again, this feels like a common sight to me – generally more noticeable amongst women, but that may simply be down to clothing. In contrast, the elite female CrossFitters seem not to exhibit the same posture, but are ‘flatter’ through the front of their hips. Typical CrossFit movements: dead-lifting, squatting, kettle-bell swings, even gymnastic movements at speed like pull-ups and rope climbs, are dominated by PHE.
Could it be that we could help more people improve their hip function overall, and their posture specifically, by incorporating more standing (& lying) PHE?
For suggestions on how to achieve this (without doing CrossFit) please look out for a forthcoming project, that aims to help make Pilates easier, simpler, and possibly, dare I say it, more effective. Readers of this blog will be the first to know about it.
I have had the good fortune, in the last 4 weeks, to take workshop/seminars with two fantastic presenters. They were both representing Crossfit (which might be the best and/or the worst thing to happen to fitness in the last ten years, depending on your world view) and, between them, they taught me more about Pilates than I’ve learned in years. Okay, some of it I already knew, but I needed reminding – or I needed to hear the ideas put together in a way that I hadn’t heard/been able to hear previously. The net result was a renewed enthusiasm for teaching, and a really strong urge to translate my fresh understanding into helping the people I teach become STRONGER. I remember hearing a yoga teacher – the lovely David Sye, in fact – a few years ago saying that flexibility is great, but it is strength that holds us up as we age.
I am tempted to write this post talking about ‘we’, referring to Pilates teachers in the UK. Whilst I am confident that the following view represents more than my own thoughts and, in fact, involves some paraphrasing of others I will try to keep to ‘I’. I have thought for some time that Pilates teachers understand movement better than a lot of other exercise practitioners. I have wondered what the point of lifting weights was, other than vanity. I have thought that my understanding of the human body and biomechanics was probably superior to Joseph Pilates’ because I have the benefit of scientific advances and so much more technology to explain anatomy and movement to me. I have believed that Pilates would have done some things differently, had he lived longer, and known what science has shown us since his death. I have revelled in theory and terminology that complicates anatomy, and movement. I have over-analysed movement, and tried to understand musculoskeletal anatomy in excessive detail. I have imagined that I can tell which specific muscles might be working or not working when looking at movement, both efficient and less so. I have taught “evolved” Pilates….
More fool me, more often than not. Let’s be clear: I don’t believe that the various things I’ve owned up to have made me a bad teacher, and it’s certainly fascinating to delve into the marvellous complexity of human anatomy, yet I may be guilty of seeing the trees in detail, and thereby missing out on the beauty of the whole wood. The journey toward what feels like my current enlightenment (next step on the path to better understanding, perhaps) began with a lecture by Jaap Van der Wal: ‘Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system.’ He opened my eyes to an alternative way of considering anatomy, based around the idea that movement shapes our form, rather than our form shaping our movement. One of the most compelling things that Professor Van der Wal said was; “the brain doesn’t know muscles, it knows movement”. It represented a great argument against isolated exercises, and felt like a strong validation of Pilates.
And so to my more recent revelations. The first was Kelly Starrett presenting the ‘Crossfit Movement and Mobility Trainer Course’. The first significant point is that Kelly is a phenomenal presenter, (and I would love to get him talking in front of a room full of my Pilates teaching peers) who talks with knowledge, confidence, experience and great panache. Bearing in mind that he was addressing a room full, predominantly, of Crossfitters, remarkably, as he spoke I kept thinking “that’s Pilates!”, and “That’s what Pilates was saying in the 1930s”. It seemed that, the truth is, the language of movement is actually much less complicated than I had previously been willing it to be. Some of the basic principles he spoke about: importance of midline stabilisation; the hip joint as the major engine in the body; the first joint that is loaded in a movement is the joint that will bear the most load; with the right movement and the right lifestyle we are perfect healing machines. He also made the point that humans are highly adaptable, and the consequence of this is that we need to practice good positions all the time. I had previously heard it asserted that it’s okay to slouch if you know how to organise yourself – to sit or stand properly. The trouble is, our adaptability means that we’re very good at the things we practice most, and this is exactly why the posture of someone who spends hours stooped in front of a computer terminal is so easy to identify. I spent yesterday afternoon in a lecture hall full of Pilates teachers and some of the postures on view were shocking…
The second was a gymnastics seminar at Crossfit Thames, with Carl Paoli, another great presenter, and teacher who, addressed decidedly un-Pilates movements (handstand push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups) but brilliantly illustrated how so many apparently different movements are closely related to each other – just as in Pilates. He also showed us how to identify movement faults in very simple ways and, equally, how to fix them in simple ways. How’s this for a simple principle?: “The hips are the main engine, the spine is the transmission, and needs to be stable to translate power to the second engine – the shoulders.”
Interestingly, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen fellow teachers posting links to some quite brilliant anatomy animations, and the voice in my head has been saying: “It’s not about the muscles!” I know how easy it is to give in to the temptation to look at something that is going wrong with a client’s posture, or movement and to try to work out what particular muscle isn’t working/is weak/is tight/is inhibited etc. But the brain does’t know about muscles, and I’m not cleverer than Joseph Pilates was. One of the most striking things about Kelly and Carl was that they clearly understand movement very well, and there’s the link with Pilates – he clearly understood movement well. He probably hadn’t heard about local and global muscles, he didn’t talk about stabilisers and mobilises, low threshold exercise and so on, but I suspect he knew, for example, that external rotation of the hip gives more torsion and, therefore strength, to flexion movements (and that principle is applicable to so many movements).
I don’t think that I can empower people by trying to identify what muscles they do, or don’t have working well. I can empower them by helping them to understand movement in simple terms, and to become stronger (by working hard), before I try to introduce subtlety.
This post feels a bit like “What I did on my Summer holidays”, and PrimalCon may be of limited interest to anyone who isn’t a primal or paleo lifestyler. Nevertheless, my trip to California has had the effect of shifting my view of Pilates, and teaching, along with a variety of other plusses (and minor minuses) that may be worth a mention, and a couple of readers have encouraged me to write about it.
I decided to book a place for the event late last year, based on the expected presence of two particular presenters, Frank Forencich and Erwan Le Corre, both of whom I really wanted to work with, even if only for the brief period PrimalCon would allow. Talk about nutrition, exercise and rubbing shoulders with like-minded people would be an added bonus. At the same time, California is a long way to go for 3 days of convention, so I started looking for courses or workshops around that time that would help to justify the journey. I was aware of MobilityWOD from mentions on various blogs, and had filed the site in my head as ‘must look at later’. A one day ‘Crossfit Mobility Cert’ presented by the creator of MobilityWOD, Kelly Starrett, was the only opportunity for professional development in the LA area that my searches threw up, so I signed up. I had my misgivings about the Crossfit methodology so, while the course sounded interesting, I didn’t have very high expectations.
A few weeks before going to California I came to realise that I was hoping that PrimalCon would help me to figure out what it was that I had been seeking to augment my Pilates teaching. When I discovered that Frank Forencich would not be presenting after all I was heartily disappointed, but hopeful that Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat might prove to be the way forward for me (exercising in nature, in a functional way – terrific).
The day after I landed at LAX I was heading for Crossfit Balboa feeling slightly uneasy. For those of you unfamiliar with Crossfit there are plenty of videos on YouTube that will give you an idea of what it’s about. Suffice it to say that many practitioners are big, strong and gymnastically fit (some emphatically not, but there’s a separate story), and I was definitely feeling like the puny Pilates teacher. First revelation of the trip (no, I was relatively puny) was that Kelly Starrett is a brilliant presenter – engaging, funny, endlessly enthusiastic, dynamic, and apparently able to deliver a whole day of material without notes. The really exciting part for me was that, although he was speaking the language of strength and conditioning (squatting, deadlifting, pressing, pulling, handstand push-ups etc), he was often sounding a lot like Pilates. I’ve referred in the blog previously to revelations about the synergy between Pilates and S & C, but this was really underlining it for me, and making me understand some of Pilates writings/exercises better than I had done previously. Why didn’t Joseph Pilates teach reformer footwork with internal hip rotation? Was it because he hadn’t thought of it? No, I bet it’s because he understood that it’s a crap position in which to do footwork. Naturally I was delighted to discover that Kelly was also going to be presenting at PrimalCon on the following weekend.
So, the main event. I got to Oxnard, home of PrimalCon, on the Thursday evening, and duly made my way to the beach park for the informal gathering of participants, meeting, amongst others, a woman who competes in “fig-yur”. Turns out it’s a kind of non-bodybuilding physical exhibition sort of thing that doesn’t seem to have made it’s way across the Atlantic (small mercies etc.). As mentioned, the event was being held in a beach park, so it was a bit of a blow when, shortly after the 7.30am registration, a rainstorm of biblical proportion settled over the town for the bulk of the day. No problem, we’re Primal, we love evolutionary theory because it explains everything we do, so we adapt to circumstances, and move into a ballroom in the neighbouring resort hotel.
First on the schedule for my group was Kelly Starrett, presenting, essentially, a small segment of the one day course I’d done previously. The jokes were still funny, and it was a welcome reminder of some of his key ideas – I hadn’t been able to write fast enough to get everything down on the previous weekend. I was also left with questions practically spilling out of my head – always a sign for me that I’m in a stimulating environment. Next up was the MovNat presentation – yes, that which I was pinning my future hopes on. Clearly, learning about a movement program that is based on the outdoors is somewhat diminished by being inside a hotel ballroom, and Erwan Le Corre appeared to be duly flustered and frustrated by the circumstances. We got underway with him explaining some theory that was certainly interesting – ‘Becoming fit through the practice of efficient movement skills enables a physical and mental conditioning that is the most effective and applicable to all areas of life.’ – and then practicing a few drills: how to jump and land, for example. Around this point in the presentation someone asked if there were resources, such as videos on the MovNat website, that would help us to priorly practice these skills later. The answer: No. The follow-up question was naturally ‘How then can we practice this more?’ The answer: Do a one day or two day MovNat course. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Kelly Starrett’s motto is:
“All human beings should be able to perform
basic maintenance on themselves”
and his MobilityWOD website has in excess of 400 video clips, freely available, to show you a huge array of techniques/exercises to increase mobility/range of movement/movement efficiency etc. To be honest, having spent a lot of time trawling around the websites and blogs of the primal/paleo community, I’ve come to expect that people are sharing valuable information for free, because it appears to be the norm. Never mind what’s the norm, the brusque manner with which Le Corre dealt with people who were expressing an interest in learning more was disappointing. There was enough interesting material in the short time that we had for me to still be interested in the certification courses that he mentioned before the finish, so I took the opportunity to ask him for more information. His response was along the lines of: ‘It’ll be on the website”, before turning his back to me. Now, call me old fashioned if you wish, but if someone approaches me to tell me that they’re interested in Pilates, and would like to know about my studio/where I teach etc. my first reaction is going to be appreciation for the fact that they’re interested , and some enthusiasm for telling them more. Consequently I was starting to wonder if Erwan was someone I wanted to be giving thousands of dollars to….
The afternoon’s agenda started with Mark Sisson’s (author of ‘The Primal Blueprint’, and PrimalCon creator) keynote address. One to one, or in small groups, Sisson didn’t seem terribly comfortable, but standing in front of a large audience he was very impressive. He spoke mostly about nutrition (apparently without notes) in considerable detail, emphasising the benefits of being a ‘fat burner’ rather than a ‘sugar burner’ – decreased oxidative damage, greater cell longevity, decreased inflammation, improved insulin sensitivity etc. Perhaps most impressively, he fielded a number of questions, some of them quite complex (even multifaceted – bravo Ozgur) and managed to give detailed answers, sometimes slightly tangential, without losing track of what he was talking about. He has 15 years on me and his memory appears to be decidedly better than mine – maybe if I follow his lifestyle tenets for another 10 years or so it’ll improve…
There were plenty of other presentations – running technique, kitchen skills, weight-lifting and gymnastic skills, nutritional advice, etc. with a lot of time given over to ‘free choice’ – meaning that the various presenters were around and available for questions and discussion. This meant that mini-workshops spontaneously occurred around the beach park which probably constituted the most valuable part of the weekend. Inevitably, still full of questions, I gravitated toward Kelly Starrett most of that time, and he didn’t disappoint – seemingly always available and eager to talk about movement (and happily, a keen advocate of Pilates). In contrast, Mr MovNat was much less available, and I became certain that his work does not present my way forward. In that respect PrimalCon was a failure for me, because I’d been hopeful of leaving knowing that I would enrol on a training course that would help to develop my own work. On the other hand, I learned so much from the time I spent listening to Kelly (and having my calf/thigh/shoulder mashed) that it was huge success. Not to mention that, though my Pilates teaching has already changed a little, what I learned feels like a doorway to much much more that I can be excited about discovering. I’ve realised that learning what you don’t want can be as valuable as learning what you do want.
Making new friends, and developing what I’m doing professionally, along with reminders of some things that perhaps I knew but had let slip, and lots of sunshine made the whole trip worthwhile. If you have the will to keep reading there’ll be more to follow shortly on specifics in relation to Pilates.
Here’s a bonus for making it to the end of this post….
In many ways, as a society, we seem to be fixated on age. There is the menace of the ‘ageing population‘, and the pressures on the economy, pension funds, and social services that this implies. Then there is the spectre, for many people, of how their age manifests itself in their bodies. It appears that the greatest anxiety for many, or perhaps the one which can be best exploited for profit, is facial ‘signs of ageing’ (The Anti-Ageing Skin Care Conference offers some intriguing sounding lectures…).
A Google search for ‘anti ageing products’ nets around 18 million results. Women (the advertising tells us) aren’t supposed to wrinkle with age – or at least they should spare the rest of us the horror by taking steps to reduce the wrinkles. Similarly, men and women alike should quite possibly mask any grey hairs that may grow. So far, so superficial. What seems to be less of a taboo are the signs of ageing visible in the way people move (or don’t move, perhaps), and the way that people hold themselves. It strikes me as ironic that the effects of ageing that are likely to put a significant burden on society are not the ones that we focus on the most. Perhaps that’s in part because there isn’t a lot of money to be made from encouraging older people to maintain their strength and mobility, and perhaps it’s because we have come to accept that getting older necessarily means that our bodies increasingly fail us. I’ve never thought to count the number of times that I’ve heard clients blaming aches and pains on age – I’m sure that if I tried to keep a tally it would number in the hundreds, at least.
Why is it that we’re so ready to accept that becoming older means physical disintegration? (WOW, in typing that I’ve just realised that ‘disintegration’ is dis-integration. That’s a compelling argument for centering as a fundamental of Pilates, and many other movement/exercisedisciplines).I’m not seeking to deny biological truths, whatever they may be, but rather to ask whether or not we are inclined to give in too easily? Another way of asking this might be: Are we living longer than our bodies are meant to last, or are we failing to maintain our bodies adequately for our natural lifespan?
Joseph Pilates is an interesting example – legendary for his enthusiasm for posing, shirt off, showing an admirable physique aged 82. At this point I find myself wrestling with the notion of “…looks great for their age…”, which in a subtle way seems almost as tyrannical as the advertising I referred to earlier. I think Pilates looks amazing in this picture because he looks so robust – he looks younger than I expect a man to look at that age but it’s not to do with his face, or his hair, but rather the impression of vitality (whether or not that would be so apparent if he was fully dressed is another question). So, I like the idea that the notion of how age ‘should’ look in someone is not to do with skin texture, but with signs of life. I’ve certainly seen people with obvious signs of plastic surgery, or botox injections, that robs them of the appearance of life…
Pilates himself had an interesting take on age, and physical ageing. I have seen “We retire too early and we die too young, our prime of life should be in the 70’s and old age should not come until we are almost 100” attributed to him, though I cannot find the source. What we know he said, taken directly from ‘Return to Life’ is: “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” Romana Kryzanowska is one of his proteges who certainly embodied this philosophy, performing gymnastic repertoire on the Pilates apparatus into her 80s. At the same time, there is a wealth of information on the internet related to what a “gentle”, and “safe” form of exercise Pilates is, and that it won’t leave you “puffed-out”. The DVD ‘Pilates for Over 50s’ is available from amazon.co.uk, and whilst many of the reviews are positive, the one titled ‘Over 50s?! Over 70s more like!!’ speaks for itself. What should older people be expecting when undertaking Pilates? Many websites declare, for example, the benefits for bone density, yet I wonder if (in the UK at least) we are typically encouraging older clients to load their bones and joints sufficiently to make any meaningful difference.
I am forced to reflect on how I’ve approached teaching older people over the years, and my assumptions about what they will be capable of. I’ve taught many people over 70 in my 9 years of being a Pilates teacher, with a variety of orthopaedic problems. As a general rule I think it’s honest to say that my goals with most of those people were to maintain what strength and mobility they had, rather than to expect that there might be more. I’m sure that some of them enjoyed an improvement in flexibility, and balance in particular, but I cannot honestly claim that any of them got significantly stronger. Then I started teaching Li, a 73 year old women with a wonderful outlook on life (despite various daunting challenges to her health), who approaches her Pilates classes with vigour and gusto. I’ve rarely had so much fun teaching someone, and she has become both an enthusiastic advocate for Pilates, and promoter of our studio. I’ve found myself teaching repertoire to Li that I never imagined I would be teaching to a septuagenarian (Hanging Down on the Cadillac? – absolutely), and revelling in her appreciation of her own achievement.
Overall I hope that, when I’ve taken a softer approach to teaching some older clients (with perhaps less flexibility, or more orthopaedic challenges), it’s been a responsible choice, and appropriate too the individual. At the same time, have I let myself carry on in the same vein for too long, without offering the client the possibility of greater challenges? To return to the question: Are we living longer than our bodies are meant to last, or are we failing to maintain our bodies adequately for our natural lifespan? I think the answer might be a bit of both, and relates to Pilates’ own statement about age in relation to spinal flexibility – if we’re going to live for many decades shouldn’t we hope for optimal health throughout, and feel a responsibility to maintain our physical function to the best of our ability? (And as Pilates teachers, do we not have the responsibility to encourage our clients in this endeavour?)
Regular readers (might there be any?) won’t be surprised that I believe there is a nutrition component to this – avoiding pro-inflammatory grains and legumes will make us less prone to degenerative conditions. Dense (animal) protein will help us to maintain muscle mass – essential in recovering from illness, when the body demands protein for repair. Not to mention sun exposure, or Vitamin D supplementation to facilitate mineral absorption….
I am going to take Li, and the 86 year old woman in the clip below as my inspiration, and err on the side of adventure with my older clients. If I can be more relaxed about what is ‘safe’, and make Pilates more fun, perhaps it can help to have more wide reaching benefits – much like Pilates himself mat have imagined. One of the wonderful things about Pilates is that, I would argue, you have to really try quite hard to hurt someone with the great majority of the repertoire (I’m thinking of studio repertoire here), and this gives us huge scope to challenge and empower clients of all ages. Watch Johanna (especially around 0:44), and ‘believe in better’.
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 Dummies.com 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 http://www.dummies.com, 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.