This is a guest post by Zeena Dhalla. Zeena Dhalla is a Certified Posture Specialist and self-proclaimed posture geek. She specializes in helping people feel less pain and look leaner though home-based exercise and stretching routines.
In this article, Zeena takes you through the history of Pilates and gives you practical tips on how to find an approach that will work well for your body.
Check out Zeena's website for ways to improve your posture and intimidate those around you with your rock-star stance.
SHOPPING FOR A PILATES CLASS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Joseph Pilates died in the 1960s, but had he lived until the 1990s he would have seen his revolutionary exercise methodology become the hottest fitness trend of the decade. In the early 2000s, many thought that Pilates was a fad, much like step aerobics and Tae Bo, however 16 years later you can find a Pilates studio on every corner. Pilates rivals Yoga as an acceptable form of exercise for core strength, balance, flexibility, mind body awareness, and most of all, posture.
Posture, as we have learned, has a critical significance in our ability to live a pain-free life. With poor posture comes an increase in neck pain, back pain, hip pain and knee pain, all related to joint misalignment and improper muscle recruitment. Can Pilates help to fix all of this? The honest answer is, it DEPENDS!
When “Uncle Joe” (as Pilates enthusiasts sometimes like to call him) created his exercise system that he called “Contrology”, it was a different world to the one we lived in now - no cell phones, no laptops, and we didn’t drive as long or as far. We didn’t SIT all day long. And we sure didn’t stare down at our 4-inch screens all day long playing Pokémon Go.
Bottom line, we didn’t have the same postural epidemic that we face today.
Uncle Joe created a system that involves a LOT of spinal flexion (bending forward from the lower or middle back). The hundreds, teasers, rollovers and rollups are all exercises that distinguish Pilates from other forms of exercise. Sure, he also included bridging, back extension and lateral movements in some of his original classical mat-based Pilates repertoire, but not as much as spinal flexion. If you examine the original 34 exercises in his classical workout, 22 out 34 of them involve deep spinal flexion. That means only 12 exercises focus on lateral movement and back extension.
The problem is, these days, we are always flexed! Our technological lifestyle has caused us to be so flexed forward, that as a society we need far more extension than we need flexion. Our backsides, including our back extensors, glutes, hamstrings, all need to be exercised MORE than our pectorals, rectus abdominis and quadriceps.
Modern-day Pilates has made some major changes to the original repertoire. The culture of the Pilates industry is such that they are looking to grow and learn more about the body, which means that many Pilates certification programs have incorporated lots of new exercises that promote postural balance. We all believe that Uncle Joe would have adapted his work to the changing times. However, there are still many group Pilates classes that stick close to the original repertoire, and that includes a LOT of abs (flexion) and not a lot of anything else.
Instructors always have a choice on how they teach. They pick the exercises, the pacing and the intensity. Here are some tips on how to find an instructor that will teach a Pilates class that promotes positive posture benefits.
PAIN DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN GAIN
We are a culture of extremes, and this rings true for our exercise habits. Despite the fact that a large majority of society is sedentary and out of shape, our fitness industry offers a variety of exercise options that aim to “kick our butts and get us into shape”. This has become the norm for Pilates as well. Classes aim to push you and make you sore. They repeat exercises way more than Joe’s original recommendation of 10 repetitions per exercise. They make you hold planks for a minute or longer; they make you pulse an exercise until you reach muscle fatigue.
Pilates was not meant to be taught like this. Uncle Joe wanted you to work from the deep core and engage all the muscles in the body in harmony, not isolate a muscle until you can’t move it anymore. Isolation accompanied by muscle ‘burn-out’ might be an effective form of strength training, but it isn’t Pilates, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you are working the muscle in a functional way.
Look for a class that does not pride itself on using constant repetitions and the push for muscle fatigue. You are much better in a class where strength moves are alternated with flexibility moves, and the exercises require you to concentrate and work multiple muscles at once.
BALANCE THE BODY
As mentioned, spinal flexion has historically been the tradition of Pilates. However, a smart, educated instructor knows that you can balance a workout effectively. If your class time is spent mostly on your back in “crunch” type positions, walk out and don’t look back.
Instead, look for a class where you are in varying positions, and you are working muscles from all angles. Seek out side-lying work, prone (face-down) exercises, sitting moves and standing sequences, as they are all extremely important. You should experience exercises that target your back, such as pulling straps (insert pic),your hamstrings, which can be worked doing pelvic curls, and your glutes, which can feel the burn in a standing series.
Well-structured classes also include stretching and sequences that promote good breathing.
SKIP THE CHIT CHAT
Working out in a group setting is far more fun when you’re with people you like. Teachers love to get to know their clients and will often chat in class to get to know them better. The personal connection is good, but not when it’s to the detriment of proper cueing.
If the instructor simply tells you to do an exercise and then launches into a story about their Saturday night, they are doing you a disservice. Some chit chat is ok, as long as it comes after proper explanation and understanding of the exercise being done. After all, Pilates is a mind-body exercise. Your mind should be focused on what your body is doing.
Tactile (touch) cueing is an important part of teaching Pilates. When teaching someone how to properly activate a muscle, sometimes we need to touch them to help their brain find what they are supposed to do. If someone’s body is in the wrong position, physically moving their legs or torso into the right position is the most effective way to teach them how to feel the exercise properly.
Good Pilates instructors are trained to do this safely and effectively. Great Pilates instructors have mastered this in a group setting. In a group equipment class of 10 people, it is possible for an instructor to make their way through the group and correct each person at least once in a class. Most of us need some sort of tweak or correction, and these small changes can mean better results.
For example, when doing back extension work like pulling straps, it’s very easy for a client to lift from their lower back muscles. However, most people actually need to get stronger from their mid back. This exercise can be adjusted to target the right spot by simply placing a hand on the mid back area and forcing the client to hinge upwards from the hand.
Being a Pilates instructor is a great gift. When a client experiences less back pain, or stands taller, or says their pants are loose, it’s a wonderful feeling to know that you helped to inspire this change. However, the job of guiding people on a fitness journey also comes with great responsibility.
Instead of just simply “teaching the moves”, an inspiring instructor will give you movements that will benefit your body on a variety of levels. Instead of kicking your bootie and making you sore, an amazing Pilates class will leave you vibrating from every muscle in your body and feeling energized the next day.
It’s possible in this day and age to find a class where the true principles of Pilates still ring true. Just like anything else, sometimes you have to shop around and find what fits.