Fitness trade journals report a 50% growth in Pilates from 1999. Both consumers and trainers have been educated by fitness journals, magazines and the standard media hype. Pilates has been touted as the secret to flat abs for Madonna, Sting and otherHollywood actors, and even professional athletes join in the Pilates movement.
As the demand continues to increase, we as fitness professionals have an enormous career potential. As trainers, there are some easy and effective ways in which to incorporate basic Pilates moves or principles into your one-on-one sessions or group exercise classes. Below, you will find the exercise along with the cuing used for the most foundational Pilates exercises, but first, let's briefly review the differences between Pilates and traditional resistance training.
Pilates vs. Traditional Training
One of the major differences is the manner in which we use the muscles of the body. With an entry-level traditional resistance program, the goal is to strengthen all of the major muscles of the body using the overload principle:
- Do between one to three sets of each exercise for the major muscle groups.
- Perform 10-15 repetitions, bringing the muscles to momentary muscle failure.
Those guidelines are perfect for most deconditioned clients, and they can expect to achieve favorable results for a combination of muscular strength and endurance.
With an entry level Pilates program, our primary focus is on joint mobility and dynamic stability and less on strengthening the prime movers of the body. We do not perform sets and reps. The following concepts are incorporated:
- Work the deepest, most intrinsic layers of muscle that act to refine movements and provide necessary joint stability and support the spine.
- Work through a series of warm-ups designed to increase blood flow and mobilize the joints.
- Perform a sequence of exercises with low load resistance from either the client's own body weight, a small apparatus or spring-loaded machines.
It is the low load that enhances joint mobility and dynamic stability. You may have heard the phrase that, with Pilates, "you work from the inside out." That is essentially what we are doing — going from deep to superficial.
Pilates could truly be looked at as the foundation for any and all strength or movement training programs. For optimum function, the body benefits from a combination of mobility, dynamic stability and strength. Starting with Pilates may just set the stage for a good all-over resistance training program.
In Pilates, very basic biomechanical movement principles are taught: breathing, pelvic placement, rib cage placement, scapula mobility and stabilization as well as head and cervical placement. These principles are not specific to Pilates alone and may be carried over easily in all other movement methods.
The most important principle is the breath; we encourage a full breathing pattern, a "3-D" breath, allowing for all three lobes of the lungs to expand and release with each inhale and exhale. In doing so, we not only stretch many intrinsic muscles that might otherwise not get stretched but also help to create proper intra-abdominal pressure to support the spine. The transverses abdominus, or TA, is activated on the exhale and co-contracts with other inner core muscles to stabilize the spine. We teach clients to feel how their ribs expand three-dimensionally on the inhale and, on the exhale, how that deepest abdominal layer the TA activates — it will feel like a gentle corset around their midsection. This TA activation is what truly flattens the abdominal wall, and it is the secret to flat abs! This is a simple but extremely beneficial prerequisite for all abdominal work.
Pelvic placement is our second basic biomechanical principle in Pilates. We adopt either a neutral pelvis (both the asis and pubis are in the same level plane) or a slight posterior tilt (the asis is lower than the pubis). The neutral pelvis is used for closed chain (both feet on the ground) activities and the posterior tilt is used for open chain (both feet in the air) activities. The reason for neutral being used in closed chain is to avoid unnecessary flexion of the lumbar, which could compress the discs, as neutral is the most shock-absorbing position, with respect to the spine. And the reason we do a slight posterior tilt in open chain is to take the pressure off of the erector spinae, if the abdominals cannot support the spine against the weight of the legs in the air. By adopting these pelvic principles, we ideally avoid compromising the spine and disc space.
Rib Cage Placement
The ribs should lie flush with the torso when relaxed and expand slightly upward and out upon inhalation. The muscles attached to the ribs, the TA and obliques, will help keep them flush when properly activated during all phases of the breath. This principle is often taught when supine (face-up) by inhaling and lifting the arms up from the floor toward the ceiling just to shoulder height and then exhaling to lower the arms toward the floor to an overhead position, just by the ears. Watch carefully that the ribs do not "pop" up when the arms go overhead. Use the exhale to engage the abdominals, which will keep them from popping. The latissimus dorsi may be tight and will be pulling as the arms go overhead and could dominate over the abdominals. When the ribs pop, this creates compression in the thorocolumbar junction (where the thoracic and lumbar spine meets).
Scapula Movement and Stabilization
Because the scapula lacks bony attachment to the ribs and spine, it has a great deal of mobility, but it may lack in stability. It's important that we create a balance between the mobility and stability of the scapula while moving and especially when adding resistance. If the bones do not glide properly and allow for smooth rhythmic patterns, the shoulder girdle as a whole is compromised and may result in impingement and rotator cuff injuries. During our warm-ups, we always include protraction, retraction, elevation and depression of the scapula, both to educate the client on how the scapula moves and where they can find their neutral stable alignment.
Head and Cervical Placement
The head should be balanced directly above the shoulders, and the cervical spine should follow the line of the thoracic spine in all planes of motion. We teach this alignment first in supine (face-up) and then in prone (face-down). We have the client do a crunch, keeping the pelvis neutral and only flexing the cervical and thoracic spine. The best cue I've found is to ask the client to nod their head just a little bit, gaze at their knees and flex their upper body off the mat. The nod sets the cervical spine in the slight craniovertebral flexion needed, then the gaze at the knees keeps them from looking up, which would extend the spine rather than flex it.
The last thing we take into consideration when teaching Pilates is how to modify for our clients. The goal is to start an exercise from the most neutral position possible and then move to more challenging progressions. If a client cannot find neutral alignment due to muscular imbalances, it's important that we modify the start position with props. The key to proper muscle firing patterns and creating overall symmetry is to start from a neutral place, where the muscle can do the job asked of them. A muscle will respond more favorably when starting from its resting length than from an over-contracted or over-stretched position. The following are some examples:
- Ab prep/crunch — The starting position is to lie supine with the legs hip distance apart and the entire spine neutral. If, when lying supine, the client cannot maintain a neutral cervical alignment due to rounded shoulders and/or a forward head posture, it's important to place pads under their head to bring them to that neutral cervical alignment. Otherwise, they will have to go from extension through neutral to flexion, where there is a greater chance for error and neck tension.
- Spine twist/spinal rotation — The starting position is to sit fully upright with a neutral spine and the legs extended long in front or cross-legged. If the client cannot sit upright with their legs in front or criss-crossed and maintain a neutral spine due to tight hamstrings or hip flexors, it's important to place something under their hips to elevate the hips, allowing them to find the spinal alignment. It is not going to feel good to rotate the spine if it is slumped forward, nor will it strengthen the muscles.
The pace in Pilates is slow and controlled, allowing for proper execution of each movement. We help to create a sense of body awareness for each client, ideally to enable them to carry over these principles into everything they do, whether it is running a marathon, walking in a fundraising event or picking up their groceries. As a trainer, you can use these Pilates principles to build a solid foundation from the inside out and enhance any training program. Just helping to create the awareness of where one is in space is the first step for many!
STOTT PILATES instructor PJ O'Clair has been a leader and consultant in the fitness industry for over 25 years. Her clientele ranges from professional athletes, celebrities and fashion designers to everyday people of all ages wanting to get fit. For more info, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978.468.1090, ext. 14, or visit www.northeastpilates.com.