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strongfortbellI’ve used this blog previously to write about what I think Pilates is, or is not, so perhaps I shouldn’t need to ask this question. Then again, what I think Pilates is may not sit so well with some of my colleagues. Some of those teachers may have less experience than me, some that disagree (or would if they read this blog) might be ‘master’ teachers – who knows. There are so many of us in the world that it will always be difficult to find a simple, singular explanation of the job/work – if that’s even an appropriate goal.

I love a bit of simplicity, and often feel that we are inclined to complicate things – to hunt for the trees, or even the moss on the trees, and miss the wood that is trying to slap us in the face. I am increasingly embracing the idea of repetition – of exercises, and fundamentals. A few years back I had a conversation with a martial artist, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, who struck a chord with me when he opined that yoga is a martial art, and that Pilates is much the same – a bit like a martial art for Westerners. I firmly believe that teachers of Pilates, yoga, and martial arts (spiritual/meditative elements aside) are doing the same thing – teaching ‘good’ (efficient) movement. His argument was that, traditionally, in the East, children would start to learn these movement practices before they were old enough to question the why’s and how’s, and that by the time they were old enough to question, they knew the answers in their bodies – understanding through repetition. Pilates is a little different because it is designed for adults who may want/need to know why they are doing a particular movement. (How many times have you heard: “What’s this (good) for?”)

Whilst I love to talk to the people that I’m teaching about the why’s and how’s, I think that I need to become more at ease with shutting up and allowing people to just ‘do the reps’. I have succumbed, and am certain I’m not alone, to listening to clients niggling complaints, and trying to engineer a variation of an exercise especially for them. I’m sure that Pilates intended his method to be systematic, and sticking to a system is more likely to produce favourable results than regularly deviating from it. Thus, I’m increasingly inclined to side (are there sides?) with the classicists who devote themselves to ‘the work’, and refuse to deviate from the original Pilates repertoire.

The trouble with this is that, however much I’d like to keep thing simple, the ‘original repertoire’ can be hard to pin down. I remember one workshop presenter who would only teach exercises that he had seen archival footage of Pilates teaching, or that he had himself been taught by a first generation teacher (one who had been taught by Joseph). If you’re going to be strict that seems a pretty good start, but what about the repertoire that Pilates taught to a first generation teacher, who did not pass that particular exercise on to the presenter in question? Is it less ‘original’ because one person didn’t think of it, or didn’t feel it was appropriate for this person? So the mat work exercises are the only really reliable record of ‘proper’ Pilates repertoire, because he wrote them down.

And what IS Pilates? There is a growing movement in the UK to create a hierarchy amongst teachers – to set studio trained teachers above mat work teachers. Only last night I read an article suggesting this, because the studio is true Pilates, is ‘the work’ (matwork, as taken from ‘Return to Life’ was, after all, just homework). I suspect, when I hear or read someone talking about ‘the work’ that they’re talking about repertoire – following a system, perhaps. To know Pilates you have to do the work, to become a good teacher you have to do the work. To stay fresh as a teacher you have to do the work.

The repertoire is what separates Pilates from other movement disciplines, yet I don’t know how many times I’ve told potential clients that Pilates is not just a set of exercises – that the exercises are a vehicle for learning principles and fundamentals. In other words Pilates is not Teasers, Hundreds, Footwork, Long Spinals etc. – Pilates is how to move, how to hold/carry yourself. The repertoire is a well thought system for learning those fundamental skills (with a bit of exotica thrown in for those that like/need a challenge). I think the classical repertoire (what I understand it to be, anyway) represents a wonderful mountain to climb. If you reach the peak of executing all the exercises with grace then it’s highly unlikely that you will not be expressing the fundamentals of good movement. I would love to think that everyone who comes through the door of our studio will develop the goal of accomplishing all of those exercises (but I know it won’t happen).

Instead, I will try to teach everyone I work with to move to the best of their capability, and to overcome any challenges they may have in achieving easy, efficient, graceful, powerful motion. Very often the traditional studio equipment will be the ideal vehicle for delivering this, but sometimes I’ll stray. Just yesterday I was teaching a lady for the first time, who has had a history of back problems and is fearful of common daily tasks, not to mention essentials like picking her child up. This wasn’t the first time that I’ve taught a mother who feels scared or unable to pick up their child, and in this circumstance I feel like all other goals take second place. I will try to explain the fundamentals of midline stabilisation, and transmission of load from extremities to centre (I hope we can agree that these are Pilates fundamentals), and I will more than likely use a kettle bell, or weight of some sort to try to teach her how to (in fact, that she can) safely pick her child up. I cannot think of a ‘proper’ Pilates exercise that teaches this fundamental movement as quickly and simply as I can with a weight but that does’t change my belief that I’m teaching Pilates. Am I wrong?

Should I be in existential crisis? I like simplicity, and I want to teach with integrity, AND I think that often the most interesting things occur when edges are blurred, on the boundaries between things/practices/methods. Can I have my cake and eat it? Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell?

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My Primal moment

August 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

The story that follows is nothing compared to the stories of hundreds of thousands of people who have experienced danger, disaster, war etc. That said, it felt like I learned something useful about myself, and it also felt as though it justified the changes I’ve made to my lifestyle in the last couple of years.

Here goes:

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The view, on a good day…

I was recently on holiday in Southern France with my wife’s family. We were staying in a house that is about 350m above sea level, on the side of a hill (mountain?) that is 1050m above sea level. There’s a rough but easy to follow path from the house to the peak, and 3 of us set off to the top one afternoon.

Clouds had been building up, and after only 5 minutes or so we could hear a sound like a strong wind through the trees, that turned out to be a wall of monsoon-like rain coming toward us. Prudently we turned back, but set off once again after the rain had passed, only 10 minutes or so later.

Around the point that we had previously turned back, all 3 of us wearing shoes, shorts and nothing else, passed a family coming down the path, wrapped up in waterproof jackets and looking miserable. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel amused by the contrast between our party and theirs, though that was tempered by discovering some of the hailstones that had fallen earlier, probably on that poor family.

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My brother-in-law has spent many summers exploring the area so, when he suggested deviating from the main path to make a more circular than out-and-back journey, we had no doubts about the idea. This is a beautiful part of the world, there are stunning views to admire, and on this morning there was the chance to see the impact of heavy rain on the landscape, some paths still being mini rivers.

Around the time that the sky was turning particularly blue-grey, it was acknowledged that we had missed our uphill path, though on the hillside what appears to be a path can quickly disappear into the undergrowth. The solution was to simply head upwards, negotiating the vegetation in the way. So far, so undramatic. When the rain started we experimented with sheltering under trees and scrutinising the pallor and movement of the clouds, confident of a break in the rain. It didn’t come, so we decided that being on the move was better, and carried on uphill. It had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t feeling the need to hold F (my brother-in-law) responsible for our predicament -weird.

It seems counterintuitive but the vegetation became denser the higher we got, and the way (not path – definitely no path) got steeper. Did I mention the rain was unrelenting? So the purchase on mud/stones/roots was increasingly tricky. I’d had my favourite eggs, bacon and avocado breakfast, and was feeling energetic and strong. P, the youngest of our party, is what I might (in a judgemental moment) call a ‘sugar-burner’ – bread and jam for breakfast. He’s young, and was raised that way, so the choices he makes are more habit than real choice. Anyway, P was beginning to shiver, and the novelty of our situation had evidently worn off. (I later discovered that, in the conditions, his shoes were disintegrating from the inside out, so his crappy breakfast may not have been entirely to blame for his mood).

F was regularly assuring us that we were nearing the top so, of course, it felt as though we weren’t. Amazingly, the rain became more intense and we decided to try to shelter again. This was when I had my ‘epiphany’. Squatting under a tree, with hail cutting through the leaves of our ‘shelter’, and with rain water running into parts of my body that even a shower won’t always get to, I was amazed at how I felt. Again, I wasn’t blaming anyone else, and in years gone by I know I would have been angry with F for leading us to this point. I was reminded of scenes from ‘Platoon’ when the grunts are sitting in the jungle drenched under the incessant rain (yes, I do know that we were in no danger of being shot at). I wasn’t cold (daily cold showers paying off?), instead feeling incredibly resilient. I was a bit concerned about P, whose shivering was intensifying, but at the same time I knew that I was strong enough to carry him to safety if I had to. Our situation was ludicrous and, again to my surprise, I wasn’t at all dispirited.

Deciding once more that we were better off on the move we set off for the ridge, where the vegetation disappears. There is a track running the length of the ridge which was a river a few inches deep at this point. Our way back meant following the track a little more up hill before meeting the path back down to the house. We jogged our way to the top of that path, and then sped up on the descent. Now the rain eased. The path is rough, alternating from stones to gravel, clay to chalk, and with roots here and there to add spice. Once running it was hard to stop, and I have rarely felt as invigorated as I did then – concentrating hard on each footing and feeling agile and powerful. Some 4 hours after we set off we arrived back at the house with, for me at least, a feeling of triumph.

Again, I’m well aware that this isn’t a tale that involves much peril, or endurance, and we all came out of the experience unscathed. Nonetheless, it felt to me that 2 years of ‘primal lifestyle’ had made me better able to cope with adversity. I’m better nourished; stronger; more resilient; my immune system is stronger; and, perhaps most importantly, I’m aware of how empowering it is to, instead of blaming someone else, own responsibility for my actions and any resulting predicament.

Thanks for reading.

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

There’s not enough THRUSTING

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.

Many different people have tried to find their own niche in the world of Pilates, fusing with, or adding elements of other disciplines; or perhaps trying to make their classes specific preparation for another sport, or activity. (Yes, I have seen ‘bikinilates’ advertised). I think this may be missing the point, but more of that later.
There are also signs that some teachers feel that Pilates is not enough in itself – that it needs to lead to something more – and I’d number myself amongst them. One of my teachers and trainers early in my Pilates career, James d’Silva, has created the Garuda Method, which was advertised at one stage along the lines of “where Pilates ends Garuda begins”. (One might debate the idea of Pilates ‘ending’ somewhere, I can imagine some sticklers for tradition and the original work rejecting the idea wholesale.) For me, CrossFit begins, not where Pilates ends, but overlapping, and happily coexisting. Perhaps this is the time to answer the ‘What is Crossfit?’ question.

The answer is: “Constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement.” (…”Functional movements are universal motor recruitment patterns; they are performed in a wave of contraction from core to extremity; and they are compound movements -i.e. they are multi-joint.”), from ‘Understanding CrossFit’ by Greg Glassman.

Greg Glassman is the creator of CrossFit and, like Joseph Pilates, a maverick figure with a solid conviction that what he is doing is valuable and should be disseminated as widely as possible. The strongest link that appears to me between the two disciplines is in the intended outcome. My understanding has always been (though I can’t find it in either of Pilates’ books, I’ve heard it from first generation teachers) that Pilates’ intention, after years of practicing a variety of different disciplines, was to create an exercise program that was non-specific. In other words, his exercises were for overall fitness, in readiness for whatever challenges life may bring. More recently the concept of GPP – general physical preparedness – has emerged, and this is central to CrossFit methodology. One trains a wide variety of activities in order to be prepared for as wide a variety of potential challenges as possible. Glassman seems to be fond of the idea of preparation, in as much as one can, for the “unknown and unknowable”.

I cannot think of a single Pilates exercise that works a joint or muscle in isolation, and the idea of a “wave of contraction from core to extremity” sounds exactly like Pilates. Joseph’s own principles for his method were: breathing; whole body movement; and whole body commitment. I haven’t come across anything in writings about CrossFit specifically related to breathing, but it is very much to do with whole body movement, and total commitment. In a divergence of the two methods, Pilates prescribed his exercises lying or sitting to “relieve your heart from undue strain” (from ‘Return to Life‘). This is one of the areas that leaves some of us feeling that Pilates alone is not enough, and CrossFit workouts certainly put significant strain on the cardiovascular system. (Whilst I think the tired “no pain, no gain” slogan is a crass one, I believe it’s true to say that you can’t have adaptation without stress.) In this context CrossFit also profoundly effects breathing, and full use of lung capacity. Anyone who has tried high intensity exercise will most likely be aware that breathing to full capacity doesn’t require cueing…

The video is self-explanatory, if you jump straight to 3:20 you’ll see how well her lungs are functioning. (In case anyone is concerned, the video above is of an elite athlete performing at an advanced level. This does not represent the kind of work that beginners would be asked to do.)

Many Pilates exercises involve maintaining a stable trunk (spine) whilst moving arms and/or legs. Typically the weight of the limbs and their movement act as a challenge to that stable trunk position. Similarly, one of the fundamentals of many CrossFit movements is ‘midline stabilisation’ – the idea that, particularly under load, you keep your trunk stiff, and move from your hip and shoulder joints. The only difference between the two is that Pilates doesn’t add load to the same degree. Had he been faced with current levels of osteoporosis, for instance, who’s to say that Joseph wouldn’t have favoured picking some weight up?

Another element that CrossFit and Pilates share is an emphasis on precision. Sadly, if you make only a cursory search of the internet, you will find plenty of alarm expressed over the dangerous nature of some CrossFit workouts – and, indeed, plenty of YouTube video clips of people doing very demanding movements with eye-wateringly poor form. Just like so many articles about Pilates being bad for you, I don’t believe that this is a reflection of CrossFit, but one of either poor coaching, or simply poor performance. Just as Pilates insisted on his exercises being done with precision, both videos of training seminars, and conversations with Crossfit luminaries make it clear that ‘Form is everything’. In fact, one of the particularly interesting challenges for me is that CrossFit workouts ask questions along the lines of: ‘We know that you can lift that heavy barbell off the floor with good form, now can you do that multiple times, quickly, with good form? And how about keeping your form and doing that when you’re gasping for breath because you’ve just been doing another challenging movement at speed?’

Rich Froning – ‘Fittest Man on Earth’

Joseph Pilates – tattooed health visionary

What else is there to lead me to the conclusion that Joseph Pilates would have embraced CrossFit? Followers of both methods will attest to the remarkable transformations in body composition, energy levels and overall well-being that are there for the taking. He didn’t seem to be interested in  great analysis of his method: one of my favourite Pilates quotes (as recounted by Ron Fletcher) is, in response to a question about the purpose of an exercise, “It’s for the body!”. CrossFit celebrates becoming faster, stronger, more agile – and does not dwell on the exact mix of muscles required. Perhaps most significantly Joseph, tattooed as he was, would have fit right in with a great number of CrossFitters, for whom ‘ink’ seems de rigeur.

I’m convinced that Joseph would have been involved in a movement like CrossFit, had he the chance. The truth is, while I couldn’t bring myself to give the post this heading, I believe (with apologies) that ‘CrossFit is the new Pilates’.

PrimalCon 2012

April 28, 2012 — 2 Comments

With some REALLY nice people I met at PrimalCon

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….

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.