Tag Archives: control

How to get skinnier right now.

From SF Chronicle/ photo by Kate Wade

Did you know you could lose inches just by standing and sitting up taller?

Practicing better posture not only lends to a leaner more confident looking you, but it also works and stretches the muscles into longer habits. Look at the way a dancer walks. They constantly train their muscles to lift and project outwards – stretching away from themselves, rather than curling inward.

I have personally seen Pilates clients who “looked” as though they lost as much as five to ten pounds after just a few sessions, because they were able to support better posture.

Apart from being visually slimming and confidence improving, good posture lends to overall better health. According to the Mayo clinic website, your Mother was right all along to nag about sitting up straight :  Your spine is strong and stable when you practice healthy posture. But when you stoop or slouch, your muscles and ligaments struggle to keep you balanced — which can lead to fatigue, back pain, headaches and other problems.

To trim your waist, neckline, and entire body right now, imagine a huge helium balloon attached by a string to the top of your head, gently but constantly lifting your spine away from the ground, or your seat.

Stretching and Flexibility. Things to consider before you begin.

Sitting all day – day after day – our bodies become stiff and sore quickly. Suddenly, we feel old beyond our years. It’s no wonder stretching and flexibility practices like yoga and Pilates are so popular, by opening up our bodies and releasing tension we move better and breathe easier.

But is too much of a good thing no good at all? Stretching and flexibility benefits are hotly debated in the physio world. Some say do it, others say don’t and with scientific backing in both camps, it’s hard to know which way to go.

According to some studies, including this one from The Stanford School of Medicine,  dynamic stretching regimens seem the most effective way to stretch – if you feel you need to. Dynamic stretching involves movements while lengthening muscles and connective tissues and could be more effective than static stretching at reducing injuries and soreness. Static stretching is what is most commonly thought of as stretching – holding a position for 30+ seconds.

But if you are looking to do the splits, backbends, or become an extreme yogi, watch out. Dr. Shirley Sahrmann, a professor of physical therapy at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis once said in an NYTimes article, ”In my business, I have more problems with people who have excessive mobility than limited mobility.”

Being overly flexible without the strength to hold up the body structure is a huge problem. If you are already a highly flexible person, perhaps it’s time to add a little strength training.  If you are overly tight, a little dynamic stretching couldn’t hurt. Ultimately, a balance of the two is better than one extreme or the other.

Here are a few recommendations for stretching and building flexibility safely:

1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY Don’t compare yourself to Joe-schmoe in the front of class and copy what he is doing. He could be doing it wrong. If something feels painful, awkward or just not right, ask the teacher, modify or stop. Know what you need.

2. KNOW YOUR INSTRUCTOR Make sure your yoga/pilates/tai chi/circus/etc instructor is familiar with the concept or idea of dynamic stretching. They should also know your weaknesses, injuries and at least, how to keep you safe. Beware the new class that has you immediately trying extreme flexibility tricks that aren’t supported with complimentary strength.

2. WARM UP Do light cardio – jumping jacks, jump rope, jog, whatever, for at least 5 – 10 minutes before doing any kind of muscle stretching.

3. FIND THE WORKING MUSCLES Pay equal attention to the supporting muscles that are contracted and fighting to keep you in the stretch.

4. BREATHE It releases tension and muscles strain. Stretching should not equal pain.


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.

The Dawning of the Age of Golfers

golf mustache for wind resistance

Pilates and Golf.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you might have heard of this popular combo.  I must fully agree with the pairing.  They both require the same skills: mental and physical conditioning from the inside, outward to the external.  In other words, practicing how you respond to your surroundings.

Unfortunately, like in most things, there is no magic spell to make this happen. It requires mindful repetition of movements which allow you to change and control your own habits without over-thinking, no matter what the external challenges might bring.   To be done properly, both golf and Pilates require precision controlled movements flowing outward from a strong and flexible center. One compliments the other indisputably. To create control and precision movements, one needs to be able to breathe properly, releasing tensing muscles, and quiets the active mind.

Living in the Midwest now, I realize golf is seasonal, as opposed to the West Coast, where it flourishes year round.  So now is the ideal time to start prepping body and mind for the upcoming season.  One movement every golfer needs to work on is twisting properly. My explanation here of twisting is pretty rudimentary, but this should convey the general concept. Keep in mind, just like with the English language, there are always exceptions to the rule.

In Pilates, the basic concept of twisting starts with the axis of the spine. Along the spine axis we have two attached bones structures we will focus on: the rib cage and the pelvis.

Twisting to stretch the back and strengthen the obliques, one must either A. Twist the rib cage, and stabilize the pelvis, or B. Twist the pelvis and stabilize the ribs. When we attempt a twist without stabilizing one part of the spine we often end up with back injuries. The twist of a follow through in your swing is only executed properly with the ability to stabilize ones pelvis  even as it moves with the spine. Hmmm. tricky. But, possible. Think of a rubber band: In order to stretch it, one point must be fixed. If both points are unstable, it’s a wet noodle. If both points are fixed, it is rigid and doesn’t move.

So how do you practice twisting?

Warning: Be careful and do not over do any exercise. I recommend only 3 sets. (1 set is a twist in each direction). If you have any back pain, do not do this exercise until you consult a professional.

Sitting on a large balance ball. Both feet and knees about shoulder width apart. Arms can stretch out to the sides, rounded in front, OR you can place one hand on top of the other on top of the head. Twist the rib cage to the right, but DO NOT MOVE THE BALL OR YOUR LEGS. This will limit your twist, so that you are twisting from your obliques and not your hip flexors. Repeat to the left. The stability of your legs, backside and the ball is more important than the amount of rotation from your chest. As you twist, think of spiraling up towards the ceiling, rather than twisting back behind you. Remember: twist up, not back. twist-on-ball

For the more advanced student, it can be done on the floor, keeping both legs glued together and the spine lifted up towards the ceiling.


Spring and Summer 2009 I will be giving several workshops on Pilates movement for golfers. Please check back under classes and workshops to find out when and where. If you are interested in hosting a Pilates and golf workshop, please email me at: pilates@stephanieellison.com