Muscle Madness: designing the Pilates body
Our job as Pilates instructors can have a profound affect on the way people look and, more importantly, feel in their bodies. If we don’t pay attention to the individual needs of clients we may inadvertently exacerbate postural imbalances, pain symptoms and pre-existing conditions. That’s why strong assessment skills are beneficial. We obviously need to be well versed in Pilates repertoire, but it’s also useful to understand which muscles are being used in each exercise and how. It allows us to evaluate our client’s posture and movement patterns to know what they need in order to progress. It helps us to make informed and effective choices that will guide them toward strength, stability, flexibility and stamina. Plus, paying attention to the details of alignment and proper muscle recruitment (good ol’ precision and control) can make, even beginner system, a challenging workout.
Muscles have many functions. As Pilates instructors, we’re well aware of their role in movement and posture. When our muscles contract, they pull on bones to create movement. Plus, they’re constantly working to make adjustments to hold our body in stationary positions such as when we’re sitting or standing.
If we’re lucky enough to have “ideal” muscular balance, not only would we have the most envious posture; but we’d never have muscular pain and our bodies would move with seamless and efficient perfection. Of course I don’t know of anyone with the postural ideal, but there’s nothing wrong with striving for it. That’s where we come in as Pilates Instructors. To add to our effectiveness as teachers, it’s helpful if we understand how muscles work.
Muscles can pull on bones to create movement but they can’t push them back to their original position. So we’ve got this incredible design of agonist and antagonist muscles, which are responsible for opposite actions. A perfect example of antagonist muscles is the rectus abdominus vs. the erector spinae group. Our rectus abdominus is the agonist (primary mover) in exercises that require forward flexion of the trunk such as the Push Down on the Wunda Chair. Notice that while performing the Push Down, the antagonist muscles (the erector spinae group), must conversely lengthen and stretch in order to achieve full forward flexion of the trunk. When you're ready to roll-up and return to standing, whom do you count on? The erector spinae group! It contracts and becomes the agonist. The rectus abdominus switches roles, too, by lengthening and becoming the antagonist.
Our erector spinae muscles can do even more than just return us to an upright position. They’re primary movers (agonists) in exercises that require extension of the trunk such as Pulling Straps on the Reformer. In this exercise your erector spinae muscles (agonist) contract while your rectus abdominus muscle (antagonist) stretches and lengthens.
(Cheryl Cole, Carrie Macy, Heather Burns)
A LITTLE HELP FROM SOME FRIENDS
But muscles work in more than just pairs of opposites. There are also synergists and stabilizer muscles.
Synergists are like “little helpers”. They assist the primary mover (agonist) in doing its job. For example, the rectus abdominus has a bunch of “little helpers” such as the external obliques, internal obliques, and transverse abdominus. Synergists to the erector spinae group are the multifidi, rotators and semispinalis muscles.
Not to be confusing but… our abdominal and back muscles can also work synergistically. How? Through equal, isometric contraction (strong contracting force with no movement due to an equal counter force) they help stabilize our spine. Yep! Great posture involves equal strength and flexibility between our abdominal and back muscles. This also provides a great foundation for more advanced Pilates exercises that require our abdominal and back muscles to work as stabilizers during less supported exercises such as Knee Bends on the Ped-O-Pull.
CONTROL FREAKS & SLACKERS
But what you’ll probably notice is that most of our clients (oh, and us too, sometimes!) don’t possess “ideal” muscular symmetry. Some of our muscles are control freaks. They insist on doing, not only their job, but the job of other muscle groups. Other muscles are slackers; perfectly content letting other muscles carry their load. These imbalances are often caused by lifestyle, poor postural habits and improper training techniques. Unfortunately, if not addressed, muscular imbalances predispose us to inefficient movement patterns and eventually overuse injuries. To prevent this, the “control freaks” need to be trained to take a break and delegate some of the work. And the “slackers” need to be roused to action.
By being perpetual students of the body and developing a keen eye, we can become quite skilled at determining exactly what our clients need. Not only will we be able to give them a challenging workout, but they'll benefit from the far reaching therapeutic benefits inherent to Pilates. Sounds like client-retention to me!
Rock Your Powerhouse!