Many personal trainers are interested in learning about Pilates exercise, but many may not have the time or desire to teach a class. Why can’t you take the principles of Pilates and apply them to all of your training sessions? You can! The guiding principles of Pilates fit any exercise program. In Pilates, the alignment is never sacrificed to perform the movement. The goal is always to maintain good posture or “neutral spine” during the exercise movement. The definition of neutral spine is when the natural curves of the spine exist. You should not observe an exaggerated lordotic curve in the lumbar spine, an over-developed kyphosis in the thoracic spine or too much curvature of the cervical spine (forward head). This alignment combined with lateral ribcage breathing in Pilates-based exercises will help to rebalance the body’s musculature. In this article, we will examine the original principles of Joseph H. Pilates and apply them to other fitness regimes.
As stated above, the alignment of the spine is crucial to correctly perform Pilates exercises, and neutral spine is just good posture. When working with a client in a weight- or resistance-based training environment, one goal for a trainer should be to correct a client’s postural imbalances. For example, if you have a client who exhibits a kyphotic posture in the upper back, then a general assumption would be that his chest muscles are most likely shortened and tight. His back muscles are also weakened and long. If your exercise program includes an equal number of exercises that work to strengthen the chest and exercises for the back, then you may be feeding this muscle imbalance. To correct the postural imbalance, you may want to include a few more upper and mid back strengthening exercises to chest/shoulder. It is also wise to talk with your client about the daily activities he performs. Sometimes, his activities of daily life (ADLs) are a part of the problem too. If he sits at a desk all day rounded over, you may need to make him aware of how to correct his posture and align his spine in many body positions. Again, Pilates can fit the bill for this type of training!
Control and Precision
Joseph Pilates called his work “Contrology,” the study of controlled movement. This concept is applied by personal trainers in every session with a client. A trainer works to instruct their clients how to move in a controlled manner in order to prevent injury and learn proper form. Consider how you would introduce someone to a resistance-training program who has never exercised before. You would start him in a circuit of machines and teach him how to align his body properly so that he receives the most benefit from the exercise. Once he develops control, you progress him to free weights where he is working in three planes of movement around the body. When this is mastered, you can begin to add precision. Precision of movement is essential to sports performance and is what separates professionals from amateurs. A pro can consistently and repeatedly perform the same movement pattern to achieve a desired result, whereas an amateur may occasionally perform as well as a pro but cannot maintain this performance.
A good illustration of movement precision in a personal training setting is in plyometrics. Joseph Pilates did plyometric jumps on an apparatus called the Reformer. Today, we have so many different types of equipment in which to perform plyometrics that the Pilates principles previously reserved for ballet dancers are easily translated into the gym setting. When performing plyometric movement “Pilates style,” start in neutral spine (centering). Maintain this alignment during all phases of the movement (control). When observing your client as he lands in his jumps, look for him to land evenly on his feet so he does not overpronate or supinate his feet. He should be jumping and landing with both feet and not favoring one leg over the other (precision). Plyometric movement is only one training technique that can benefit from adding Pilates principles.
Joseph Pilates stated that “it is the mind that moves the body.” Talk to anyone who regularly attends yoga or Pilates, and they will tell you that there is a connection developed between mind and body by participating in these disciplines. Traditional Pilates studios have few, if any, mirrors in which to view body alignment. This requires clients to learn how to align their bodies without the aid of their visual senses.
Many personal training clients lack adequate body awareness, which may lead to improper body mechanics during their training session and during their ADLs. As personal trainers, teaching our clients how to properly align their body in space is extremely important. Instructing verbally by incorporating visualization techniques and cueing can improve body awareness because the client has to listen to what you have said and then translate this into their own body in the form of movement. This can be extremely difficult for many, but as they progress in this learning process they will begin to move more consciously. This component of mind-body exercise is what frustrates newcomers the most. In the first few sessions, they may find that their mind understands the exercise, but they are unable to translate the movement into their body. Simple body awareness skills, like keeping the shoulders down, can be challenging to maintain throughout an entire exercise session. As a teacher of Pilates, understanding this part of the learning curve for a student of Pilates is very important. Not only will it help you to develop better teaching techniques, it will give you more empathy toward your client in their journey.
In traditional personal training we may use the exhalation on the exertion of the exercise or cue our clients to not breath hold when exercising. In Pilates, the breath is a crucial component of the exercise and can also be difficult to master. The breath can add assistance or resistance to the exercise movement. In Pilates lateral ribcage breathing is encouraged and utilized. The inhale in the Pilates breath draws air in through the nose expanding the ribcage out to the sides (east to west) while pressing the air into the back. On the exhalation, the ribs are drawn together and the navel draws toward the spine without losing spinal neutral. This type of breathing strengthens the muscles around the ribcage resulting in improved posture and core stability. Once a client understands the exercise movement adding this method of breath can make the exercise more challenging to perform. Teaching breath as an essential component to any exercise program can help clients learn how to incorporate the breath into their daily activities. Since the exhalation in this style of breath is a bracing breath it serves to support the spine and can be used to do so when lifting heavy objects.
It’s common knowledge that improved stamina can lead to better sports performance. Endurance athletes know that it is crucial for them to be able to maintain their “staying power” during their sport. Better stamina during sports or any activity can lead to fewer injuries, because you are better able to hold good alignment for a longer period of time. Pilates is widely recognized to improve strength and endurance of the intrinsic (core) muscles, as well as be a form of therapeutic exercise to mend injuries. A good example is a client who experiences back pain after attending an indoor cycling class. The problem may be that they lack core strength and cannot maintain a stable pelvis during the ride. Thus, as the class progresses they begin to fatigue and their core stability is even more compromised. When fatigued, the client may fall into an anterior pelvic tilt in order to recruit more dominant muscles groups, such as the hip flexors. In this posture their abdominal muscles are less engaged and they may begin to compress the lumbar spine. Increased core strength should be a protocol for all client exercise programs because of the application to so many activities.
Flow and Relaxation
In Pilates, the exercises are performed without the use of momentum and you learn to move one part of your body without creating tension in other areas of your body. These principles are important teaching techniques for any client because they translate into daily activities. Watch someone exercising, and when they begin to strain or fatigue, you will see how they begin to create tension in other areas. Many clients elevate their shoulders as a response to a challenging exercise, thus they are most likely to initiate this same response when they are under stress in their daily life. Ask your clients to pay attention to their body when they are in rush hour traffic. Do they hunch their shoulders? Paying more attention to body mechanics to find where and when they may create tension in the body can help to improve their response to stress. Joseph Pilates talked about moving gracefully and smoothly in the exercises. As a trainer today, it is important to teach clients how to take this focused approach to movement and body alignment to all activities and begin to move consciously with control throughout their daily lives.
Being able to affect a client’s life by teaching him better body awareness can make you a very valuable resource in his life. As a personal trainer myself, when I learned Pilates, it gave me a much better “eye” for the body, and I learned how to pay attention to the small details. Even taking one course to learn the principles, alignment and breathe can add volumes to your daily training routine.