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What’s wrong with a Bicep Curl?

For years I have not done Bicep Curls. You know – the dumbbells in the hands as you bring them up to your shoulders, either alternating arms or both arms at the same time. They are not part of the Pilates repertoire and Crossfitters definitely make fun of them saying they are not functional movements and silly. And for years I said the same thing.

Not so any more. It started when I realized that in spite of my Pilates and Crossfit workouts, I was not building the kind of body I wanted. I admit it, I am shallow enough to say I wanted pecs and biceps. And it wasn’t happening. So I thought, “Screw it, I am going to go back to old school bicep curls to pump up my arms”. And so I started with 15#ers and worked my way up.

Naturally, I brought my Pilates brain to the exercise. So I made sure that I wasn’t swinging my body around to do the exercise. I kept my body in good alignment and didn’t let my elbows either brace against my rib cage nor move from their starting position. And what did I discover (to my chagrin)? The shoulder stabilization that takes place during a correct (in my opinion) bicep curl is amazing and incredibly valuable.

Most of us in our modern world are pulled forward too much in our shoulders so our rotator cuff muscles and the shoulder blade stabilizers are weak because they are in a too-lengthened position for them to work effectively. But if you stand up straight, pull your abs in and, without moving your at your elbows, do a bicep curl, your shoulder stabilizers will be the muscles that fail first. The rhomboids, traps, rear deltoids as well as rotator cuff muscles will get a terrific workout. Triceps will also work.

If I allow my body to swing around and use momentum to do the curls, I could probably use 45# dumbbells. But doing them correctly? I am back at 25# in order to do a set of 8 or so (per arm). They are hard! I can feel all of this terrific shoulder blade stabilization that is so important for good posture. Yes, my biceps fatigue and they are getting a workout but how amazing to feel my back working so well and so right. Yes! it feels right – like this is the way my upper body is supposed to function.

And so bicep curls are back. For me and for my clients. We work hard at shoulder stabilization in all planes of movement. And if you think this stabilization is not functional, think again. When my clients are lifting up their babies (or holding anything out in front of you for that matter), those exact shoulder stabilizers must ‘kick in’. When carrying a laundry basket full of laundry, those muscles need to work. If you’re carrying anything heavy out in front of you – whether a sofa or a load of lumber, the stabilizers must work.

Lesson learned. Try it. Feel it. Analyze those feelings. Question your previous assumptions and understandings. And then evaluate. I found that bicep curls are not nearly as silly as I thought. On the other hand, “there is no bad movement, there is only movement done badly.” (Ron Fletcher – original Pilates master teacher)

Putting your Brain in your Body

At Mind and Body, naturally, we continually strive to ‘put your brain in your body’. Joseph Pilates’ famous quote is of course – “It is the mind that builds the body.” This is more than an abstract concept. It really is at the very heart of a. getting the most out of every exercise, b. feeling and understanding what your body is doing and c. becoming your own teacher as you dialogue between body and mind to improve your body.

When I am taking a class or doing my own workout, I strive to see what I am doing by watching my alignment either for myself (why mirrors in a workout space are so valuable) or by what my teachers may observe. But I also ask myself. “What am I feeling? Am I feeling what the teacher is saying and if not why not?” and “How could I improve this exercise for me (and in turn, for my clients)?” I have had many experiences where what the teacher was saying was not what I was feeling. In many cases, it is because the teacher themselves had not asked that question of themselves when they were being taught.

And I have learned from it. Exercises that I had previously dismissed as being counter productive or even contra-indicated for many clients have come back into my repertoire because I found a new understanding of the exercise because of what I started feeling on my own body and not what any teacher had said about it (unfortunately). It is hard when you have been taught that an exercise is bad or dangerous to try the exercise with an open mind. And fitness trainers of all ilks are guilty of dismissing exercises out of hand.

One of my clients yesterday used the phrase ‘using a Zen/Yoga mind to do an exercise’:

  • What do I feel
  • Where do I feel it
  • Is my alignment correct
  • Does it make sense
  • Does it fit with my understanding of the body

Maybe this is too much to think about when all you want to do is get a good workout.

BUT THIS IS HOW YOU WILL GET A GOOD WORKOUT. If you can put your brain in your body, your workouts will be more efficient because you will get more out of every exercise. When you put your brain in your body, the movement pattern in the exercise can then translate more easily to your other activities athletic or just in daily living. When you put your brain in your body, you body will work harder, more efficiently and get injured less because you are bringing awareness to real, actual functional training. And putting your brain in your body is the only way to truly transform your body.

Ballet Barre – faster is definitely not better

“There is no bad movement, there is only movement done badly” – Ron Fletcher – Pilates Master.

I just finished taking a Ballet Barre class locally and came away very frustrated as well as tired. It was a hard class and the exercises were generally good, valuable, hard, fatiguing and doable. Mostly. I took ballet as an adult years ago so I had some experience to fall back on to say nothing of my Pilates experience which teaches AWARENESS and PRECISION. However, in this class there was so much to work on in order to get all the pieces moving together in a coordinated fashion with sacrificing technique.

And when the teacher said ‘And now double time’ – I knew there was no way I could keep it all together so I just kept going at the same pace – mostly. But all of the girls (6 in the class) gamely tried to do the double time. And FAILED – 100% of them. It irritated me that the teacher didn’t look around the room and say, “Wow, they’re not getting it – they look like shit doing this. Maybe I should just go at the old tempo and work on technique”. But no. Choreography is everything so she just kept forging ahead.

“There is no bad movement. There is only movement done badly.” This has been the theme for this week. It is also one of the foundational principles of my teaching.

Pilates is all about getting it right and getting it right at the beginning – as much as possible. True ballet starts with Barre work so the student can get the movement correctly and slowly before starting to move faster so that when the student gets to floor work, they know what they should be doing and where they should feel it and what it should look like. Not so in Ballet Barre.

I know how hard I was working to get it right. It was doable but hard. There was nothing wrong with the exercises, except for the speed and the inability of the students to do them. My rule for teaching is that if more than 85% (or so) can’t do the exercise, there is something wrong with my teaching (communication or demonstration) or there is something wrong with the exercise. Too damn fast!!

At what point will these girls get it right? If they keep coming, will they get strong enough or flexible enough to make the correction? Not if they have been practicing the movement pattern incorrectly, with the wrong muscle. Either make the movement less complex or slow it down so the brain has a chance to learn and catch up.

It’s fine that they all felt tired and worked out (as did I) at the end of class. But wouldn’t it be better if they learned about their bodies as well as worked them? If they learned where turn out came from? If they learned that knee and toe alignment are important for knee health? If they learned where their spine was in these various positions? If they learned how to STABILIZE their spine and core while moving their limbs rather than shaking around like an aspen tree?

This Ballet Barre class was both better than I expected – not too many repetitions, decent variations, good movements and as bad as I expected – lack of technique, lack of correction, too much speed with too little stabilization. I’ll go back – because I know what I need to work on and I am still hoping to get to the splits sometime in my lifetime. But I will only ‘double time’ it when I know that my technique won’t completely fall apart. Because that is how I’ll get better. If I keep repeating a movement badly I will become very proficient at moving badly. Not pretty. And not helpful.

Hot Ears! Hydration.

For years, I would never sweat when I worked out. I always assumed it was because I was thin and cooled down quickly. Even so, my ears would get really, really hot – they almost felt like they would burn up and fall off. Several of my friends said I needed to drink more water and I dismissed it because I did drink some water and ate fruit and vegetables and usually had a bunch of milk every day.

But I decided to read up on dehydration and did a google search; the sheer number of hits was astounding especially on the topic of ‘chronic dehydration’. Several sites suggested that a large percentage of the population were chronically dehydrated. They also suggested that to reset the body’s hydration meter would take a few weeks. I decided to give it a try.

At first it was hard to force myself to drink water often. I often added some lemon to make it more interesting. But as I kept at it, I did notice several changes.

  • I started sweating. During my harder workouts (especially Crossfit) I would start to more than glisten – I would actually sweat!
  • I started feeling thirsty. I think I reset my thirst reaction and wanted to drink more water
  • I think my moods evened out. This of course is subjective but it really does seem to correlate; I find myself much more even tempered (unless I get too hungry of course).
  • I think my skin is a little smoother although I am not as sure about that one

So, drink your water. Force yourself to drink several glasses a day. What could be an easier cure for so many ills?

Plantar Fasciitis

2 days ago, my right foot started hurting in a way that I am sure is exactly the dreaded Plantar Fasciitis – an inflammation in the fascia of the bottom of the foot that can make walking painful with lots of pain on the heel. Inflammation would usually indicate some icing and rest and maybe some stretching. But I’m stubborn. And curious.

So I didn’t ice (which I do think would help) but no rest although I wore shoes more carefully and tried to not irritate my heel more. And I started stretching. Exploratory stretching – always trying to feel what made it felt better. Logically, I would think some tight calf muscles or arches would help. They did – a bit.

But over the years, I have learned that the body is a fascinating puzzle that has its own understanding. My job is to try to decipher my own or other people’s bodies’ organization. Years ago, I had just a touch of Plantar Fasciitis and surprisingly it went away when I did exactly the wrong things: I started jump roping at Crossfit more. And I started running the stairs more. My theory is that constant controlled stretch on the foot helped the fascia loosen up. Maybe. But you can’t argue with results and my foot pain disappeared.

So I’ve been stretching. Calf tightness? Yes. Arch tightness? Yes. (BTW, I am doing the stretch on the unaffected leg to compare. If my right is tighter than my left, I conclude that on some level it has to be contributing to the foot pain.) But surprisingly, glute stretches – figure 4 and pigeon and especially intense hamstring stretches have made the most difference. It almost completely disappears after some hamstring stretches. Maybe the fascia down my entire leg is a little stuck and the stretches are helping loosen that up. I’m not sure but it is working.

Lesson learned? The most obvious is NOT always the right answer and to keep looking around my body – asking and learning what I need to do to heal myself. I need to become my own diagnostician. It’s fascinating to learn the language of the body. And that knowledge might then possibly (but not always) be applicable to another of my clients.

It’s great to have a career that fascinates even after 16 years.

A New Look at Pilates

I’ve been doing some major overhauling of my studio, my business and thinking a lot about Pilates in general. It still surprises me that this work called Pilates continues to intrigue, challenge and inspire me still some 18 years after I started. I think it is also interesting that defining what Pilates is continues to be difficult.

For sure, it is the exercises; that classically, very clearly defined repertoire on the ‘Universal Reformer’, ‘Cadillac’, ‘Wunda Chair’ and of course Matwork. I know the classical repertoire. My main teacher, Cary Regan, taught in the New York studio for many years. She hammered home all of the repertoire. I, for myself, have logged hundreds of hours for myself on these exercises, trying to understand and glean more from this work. And I think I have.

I’ve been looking at a bunch of youtube videos lately as part of my ‘re-evaluation’. We may have some small differences in ‘choreography’, but when I see the mess that is passed off as classical repertoire, I can’t believe it. Now I feel completely free to reinvent, reinterpret and create completely new exercises. But if you’re going to do the classical repertoire, do it well – with Control (it was called Contrology after all), with intention, with precision.

Maybe these teachers didn’t have the benefit of the kind of precise teaching that I had. Maybe they haven’t continued to work on the repertoire to ‘get more’ out it. And to be sure there are youtube videos that certainly inspire me. Oh how I wish I had that kind of flexibility and grace. That is what I work on when I do my own Pilates workout.

But I also firmly believe that Pilates is more than the exercises. It is a way of thinking about the body and how it moves. It is learning how movements feel through every range of motion. It is letting the Mind teach the Body but also letting the Body inform the Mind. It is paying attention to what works when. It is discovering the core in every, every movement. And very importantly, it is learning to move the limbs without compromising the spine.

I’ve been doing the level 5 workout again more recently (the most advanced repertoire on the reformer). Even though it is a hard workout, I have rediscovered how much of a restorative it is – bringing balance and flexibility to my body after my hard Crossfit workouts.

And the last time I did the level 5, I also did some of the advanced Cadillac work like the walk overs and the other upside down work. But I was very, very happy to find that I was able to do the ‘Flying Squirrel’ – the holy Grail of the Pilates repertoire. There is only 1 video of the flying squirrel on youtube at Romana’s NY studio. Most teachers don’t even know what it is. Once again, my teacher, Cary taught it to us although none of us were able to really do it. Until now. I’ll be posting my own youtube video soon – of the ‘Flying Squirrel’.

Don’t forget to breathe

Breathing. We all do it if we’re alive. But because it is so fundamental, it is only natural that breath patterns. philosophies and rules have developed over the millennia. Pilates has breath philosophies as well – the most famous quote being “you have to ‘out’ the air before you can ‘in’ the air.” (Makes more sense in German where the word for breathing out is ‘ausatmen’ but you put the ‘aus’ (out) part right at the end of the sentence).

On the other hand, when I am lifting weights at Crossfit and I am doing a deadlift, for example, of 275 lbs. I definitely NEED and MUST HOLD MY BREATH. Why is this? And isn’t that antithetical to the Pilates ‘breath’? In Pilates, we don’t put the kind of loads on our bodies that Crossfit or other weight training does and so we can continue to breathe through the exercise and train the breathing mechanism to work steadily and efficiently.

However, the Pilates breathing in many circles has now run amok. Breathing for every little movement isn’t logical or necessary. I also believe if you are focusing on the choreography and trying to find the correct muscles working in a coordinated fashion, giving a breath pattern is one variable too many to try to track. Some general breathing patterns can be helpful – ‘exhale on the effort’. Just breathe! And don’t worry too much about it.

There was a study I read about a few years ago that asked is it better to move on the exhale or inhale. Their conclusion? Neither was better than the other. Except to actually breathe.

One last thought. When I do any house painting, I rarely tape off for the trim. I have a very steady hand. But I have found that when I am painting the trim, if I consciously breathe steadily and regularly my trim line is even straighter. Conclusion? Keep breathing.

Crossfit Seattle

A few Pilates Pullups. Strength exercise worthy of Crossfit.

Jude and I went back to Crossfit Seattle today for the 1st time in a year and a half. We’ve been going to Crossfit 206 with Fran because it’s closer and 206 feels like our crossfit home. But I was reflecting on how long I have been doing Crossfit. I know I started at least in 2007 if not slightly before. Crossfit Seattle was then Crossfit North and was out in one of the hangars at Magnuson Park. It was definitely a funky space with a porta-potty outside.

I was only going 1x a week (maybe) and wasn’t sure about the intensity of the workout. Definitely an ass-kicker but I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. But while I was not particularly regular Crossfit has definitely been in my thinking if not in my body for a good long time.

As a small person, I have always wanted to be and feel stronger. Crossfit definitely fills that for me. I didn’t really like weight training because it felt too segmented with too much muscle isolation. Crossfit is definitely a full form functional movement system although they have very little rotational work and a large percentage of the workout is in neutral spine (a good thing considering the heavy loads one is working with).

But I think one of the best things about Crossfit is their metrics or assessment tools. Everyone keeps a book or log of how much weight they are lifting on the various lifts: Back squat, Front Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Squat, etc. as well as their recording of the various set workouts. These workouts, as I have referred to before, are often named with womens names: Fran, Chelsea, Grace, Elizabeth, Helen, etc. Each workout has a proscribed weight to be used. Most of us will modify but we all know that we are working towards the Rx workout.

The ability to compare my ‘Cindy’ time (As Many Rounds As Possible (AMRAP) in 20 minutes of 5 pullups, 10 pushups and 15 squats) from a year ago or a couple of months ago and see how I have improved feels really great. (I think I have gone from 16 rounds to 21 rounds BTW). And then I can compare myself to others at my gym or any other Crossfit gym and see how ‘stack up’.

Pilates needs these assessment tools. We measure our progress by a. less pain in an injured area, b. better feeling in our body (very subjective) c. how we look in our clothes. But all of these are more or less subjective. I have tried to inject some assessments at our studio but we haven’t really continued to check in with them. I need to create more Pilates metrics. While we could use the classic ‘levels’, that doesn’t always work for everyone based on some injury. But in the next couple months, I am going to figure out some metrics that work very specifically for Pilates. I think so many of my clients have no idea how strong they have gotten. I need to take more pictures of my clients arms (mostly women) so they can see how sculpted and beautiful they have gotten. More importantly, how much more functional their fitness level is for their everyday lives when their gardening or lifting kids, traveling and having to lift carry ons in the stow bins. And strength in the gym will translate to less likely for injury elsewhere.

Frog in the air.

Frog in the Air

This is one of the exercises from the L5 Workout. The shoulders are working like crazy to keep your body up as high as possible while your abs are working equally hard to keep the spine in as straight a line as possible. Ultimately. you are able to take the body out at a 45 or so degree angle without collapsing in the lumbar spine. However, if you aren’t careful about the low back neutral spine, you can really do a number on your back. Oh yes, your inner thighs, glutes and quads are also working plenty hard for the ‘plie’ in the air in order to maintain the turnout throughout the bend and straighten of the knee. Contrology (the original name for Pilates) at its best!

Advanced Pilates

I did the level 5 Reformer workout this afternoon. Of course there are some variations from studio to studio but generally this would be the accepted highest, most advanced Reformer exercises. I used to do the L5 every week but have been mixing it up a lot for the last year or so.

I was very pleased to see that:
a. I remembered all of the springs and set up for each exercises,
b. I was able to do all of the exercises and all of the transitions (more or less on the transitions),
c. my strength gains from Crossfit and other workouts have really helped with this workout and,
d. my flexibility had not really diminished that much.

The level 5 eventually becomes a body ‘rebalancing’ for range of motion and flexibility. It keeps moving through the 60 some exercises with few reps and lots of different movement patterns. It doesn’t really isolate any muscle groups but everything is working fairly hard.

Made me think that I would like more of my clients to work towards a L5 workout ability. Maybe we’ll just start with the classic L1, 2, 3, and 4 and see where some of my clients are at. We’ll call it the “Level 5 Project”

I wonder how sore I’ll be from the stretching tomorrow.