Teaching Pilates exercises is easy. They are exercises. Teaching clients to control their muscles in Pilates is difficult. Really difficult.
Little known fact: Joseph Pilates named his exercise program Contrology – The Art of Control.
Just because someone looks good doing an exercise, does not mean they are performing it correctly. In Pilates we are taught to work from the core of the body outwards. Muscle control in Pilates, and for pretty much any movement, should begin with a fundamental understanding of the trunk….or as popular vernacular goes, the core.
This understanding, or awareness, of muscles is created by mind-body connections. It’s nothing new-agey or other worldly. It is a combination of cognitive function, motor skills, and neuromuscular training. Being aware means you have knowledge of a muscle and are able to contract it on command. Muscles do have memory.
Example: Close your eyes and imagine shooting a basketball into a basket. You can mentally create the action. Hands holding the ball. Feet in proper stance. Knees bend. Energy builds. Push off. Arms extend. And you shoot the perfect three-pointer…whether or not you made that mental basket is best left for a psychologist’s blog. Point is, you can feel the movement without moving. That is muscle memory.
A large part of a Pilates instructor’s job is finding the right key to help you unlock mind-body connections. The key could be a word, or an image, or a feeling, but once able to contract or lengthen the specific muscle upon command, you have now created new muscle memory.
Eric Franklin is a movement educator creating mind-body connections by playing with imagery. Franklin supplements movement training with brain and body exploration. Again, it sounds new-agey. Trust me. It’s legit. Connecting creative thought patterns and feelings with the physical body can bring about new muscular connections. Franklin’s methodology is a nice complement to any Pilates, physical therapy, or exercise practice. Subtle imagery cues can make a large impact on muscle control down the road. Starting small in your movement is a sound way to begin proper muscle control.
Classic Pilates imagery cue: Imagine you are trying on a pair of tight pants. The zipper is almost zipped. There is about one inch left. Take a deep breath and draw everything up and in so you can draw that last little bit of zipper up!
This image helps people feel the deep abdominal muscles. Once felt, it’s easier to understand how to contract them at will.
Attaining muscle control and knowledge of your own body keeps you strong and flexible.
So how do you begin?
#1. Your best bet is to start working with a knowledgeable trainer. Let them help you assess your body and find the best way to progress. Every body is different and to find your particular muscular control pattern is a personal battle.
#2. Practice small fundamental movements regularly to create more mind-body neuromuscular connections. IDEA Health and Fitness Association offers a nice list of some tried and true core connecting moves. Pick one or two that work for you.
For more information on the Eric Franklin and his movement method, check out his website.