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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.

Technique or Intensity

Here are some excerpts from an Article written by Dallas Hartwig – a Physical Therapist and Crossfit instructor (@ He makes some very good points about how much technique should be allowed to degrade in an intense workout (whether it be Crossfit or Pilates or some other hardcore class).

Food for thought and I must say, I think he is right. I have often told myself to really focus on technique when I get into these intense workouts. It weird that some silly sense of competition would trick me into doing myself harm but it happens. And more than once I have caught myself degrading to 60% technique in order to get finished faster. Mea culpa.

He writes:
Performing exercises properly and paying attention to the subtleties of the movement will determine whether my client sees an increase in physical capacity, or is plagued by injury (now, or in the future) as the result of the reinforcement of incorrect and unsafe motor patterns.  . . . But given my professional experience, I’d rather err on the side of exceptional technique than prioritize maximal intensity at the expense ofquality of movement.

According to a Crossfit certification seminar on intensity, “Unsafe is unacceptable, but so is perfect form.” The instructor explained, “If you’re doing high-rep deadlifts and your back starts to round, that’s unsafe and unacceptable. But if you’re doing that same set of deadlifts with perfect form on every rep, that’s also unacceptable. You’ve either gone too light (in weight), or you’re not working hard enough.” This ideal is referred to as ‘CrossFit slop’.”  The ‘slop’ ideal is often cited within the CrossFit community as 20% form degradation (compared to 100% perfect form). According to CrossFit theory, that’s the optimal balance of effort and safety. “That’s where intensity lives. Technique has to be good enough to increase intensity, but you should never strive for perfect form.”

Hartwig writes:
And here’s where I take issue with this concept of “intensity is king.” In my experience, the 20% ‘slop’ advocated by CrossFit often devolves into a 50% slop in practical application, especially with longer length, high-rep met-cons. (Lighter movements, like those usually prescribed in a chipper workout, can almost always be completed any which way, even with form that makes your eyes bleed.) I’ve seen patellar tendonitis from high-volume air squats, strained shoulders from shoddy thruster technique, and tweaked lumbar spines from high rep deadlifts pulled with careless form, all driven by the pursuit of “intensity”.

At the Whole9, 20% slop isn’t good enough. You don’t get to move up in weight – or go faster – unless your form is really, truly solid. (I use my “A-minus” grade as a subjective criteria – not perfect, but pretty darn good). In addition, your “max effort” pulls will not count here if they’re hideous. And don’t give me the “in the real world, it doesn’t have to look pretty” argument, either. Sure, I’ve seen 500 pound deadlifts PRs that look like question marks… but those strong dudes didn’t get that way by training with that technique. That degradation in form is acceptable when it matters, like lifting a fallen tree off a family member, carrying an injured comrade out of harm’s way, or even non-emergency, one-time situations like competing in a lifting meet. But folks, your everyday CrossFit workout is not that time.  Imperfect form in the desperation of an emergency or during a real-world, functional “test” does not justify that level of form degradation during your training.When we train, our goal is to build the strength, practice good technique, and reinforce only proper movement patterns. And despite what your ego may be telling you (go heavier, tough it out, rip it up), I assure you that our approach will serve you well when it’s time to pull a max effort clean, some fast met-con deadlifts or give Grace a go. Your technique will be solid, your times will improve and you’ll walk away from the gym stronger and fitter, instead of broken and hurting. Still choose to operate with that 20% margin of “CrossFit slop”? You can certainly work harder, produce more power, and maybe even be fitter than me with that approach. But you’re sure as hell going to be injured more often too. I have yet to hear a patient tell me, “Well, my shoulder has been hurting pretty bad for the last 3 weeks, but I sure am glad I cut 7 seconds off my Fran time.” How hard can you train when you’re All Banged Up? I’ll answer that for you, from personal experience – not hard enough to maintain the well-rounded fitness we seek.

Elongating your muscles

Everywhere people talk about how Pilates builds long lean muscles and you will be taller as if Pilates worked on the body in some unique manner. There is only partial truth to that statement. Muscles can essentially ONLY contract and release. They cannot somehow grow longer or expand their length. However, if our muscles are tight and ‘held’ in a shortened position, the stretching and full range of motion that Pilates provides will help release those tight muscles allowing the muscle tissue to go to their full natural length.

In addition, as I understand it, our bodies have fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fiber. Fast twitch is sprint and explosive power muscle. Those muscle cells are shorter and fatter and therefore bulkier. They tire quickly but can produce lots of power.

Slow twitch fiber, which tends to be the kind of muscle fiber that Pilates taps into, are thinner longer muscle tissue. They are endurance muscle (think of the muscles of a marathon runner versus a sprinter). They don’t have nearly as much power capacity but they can keep going forever (well not literally). In Pilates, because we do exercises in a slow, controlled fashion and because we are not putting our bodies under the kind of loads that weight training does, Pilates does tap into that slow twitch fiber.

The upside of Pilates is the control over the full range of motion of the body. Those slow twitch fibers do make for a leaner look. The downside is that when trying to generate power – whether explosive or under heavy load, Pilates bodies are generally found to be WEAK! So if you are training for an explosive sport (most sports are explosive) from soccer to tennis to, of course, football and hockey, Pilates will help with control throughout ranges of motion, but it will unlikely make you stronger unless you put the body under heavy load or train explosive movements.

When I started Crossfit many years ago, I found I had very good form and technique even on unfamiliar exercises. But I quickly fatigued and my Crossfit teacher bluntly told me that I was weak. He was right. Now with both Crossfit training and Pilates in my exercise routine, I feel I am getting the best of both worlds. And by the way, while I may be somewhat bigger, my genetics are such that I will never be huge.

At Mind and Body, as a result of that experience, we include explosive movement in our workouts and try to put the body under heavier loads than you would find in other Pilates studios. No, not to make people bulkier but to help them train for their particular sport and to train explosive movement in a controlled fashion. And we always stay true to our Pilates roots of controlling all movement patterns without sacrificing technique for speed. We also always incorporate larger than usual ranges of motion to keep our muscle tissues from tightening up and staying short.

Long and lean – probably. But stronger and more stable – for sure!