Sunday, 22 January 2017

Joseph Pilates - a short hello

Joseph Pilates – a Biography

Joseph Hubertus Pilates, born 9th December 1883 in Mönchengladbach, Germany, was described by the New York Times in his obituary as being a a white-maned lion with steel blue eyes and mahogany skin, and as limber in his 80's as a teenager”.
He is said to have been sickly as a young child, suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever and was bullied for being "Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ". It was during one of these attacks he is reputed to have lost his left eye, although other sources describe it as a result of a boxing accident.
Pilates worked as an assistant in the brewery in Mönchengladbach as a teenager and at the same time studied anatomy and Eastern exercises such as Zen and Yoga. He was a successful boxer, gymnast, skier and diver and by the age of 14 he is said to have developed his body to such a level that it was used for anatomical modelling.
In 1912 Pilates came to England with some sources saying it was to train as a boxer and others stating that he and his brother were performing in a circus as Gladiators and England was part of the tour.
When World War I broke out in 1914 he was interned in a camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster and taught wrestling and self-defence to the other interns. During this time, he also began refining and teaching his mat exercises, using minimal equipment using an approach that later became “Contrology”. When he was moved to a camp on the Isle of Man, he helped with the treatment of the sick, who were not allowed to be taken from their beds, devising methods of using the bed equipment to provide exercises for the patients’ rehabilitation. This eventually led to the development of the “Trap Table” (trapezium table).
On his return to Germany after the end of the war, Pilates began training the Hamburg Military Police and in 1923 was invited to train the New German Army. However, he was dissatisfied with the politics and chose to emigrate to the USA. During the journey, he met his future wife Clara and is said to have helped her overcome arthritic pain. In New York, they took over a boxing gym with dance studios and developed “Contrology” into the rehabilitation and training regime of many eminent dancers and socialites of the time.
Although he was a health guru, Pilates was a flamboyant character, brusque and rough with his clients yet, renowned for liking cigars, whiskey and women and insisted on wearing his exercise briefs whenever he felt inclined, including on the streets of New York. He was in excellent physical condition until his death in October 1967.
It wasn’t until the 1980's and the development of exercise science as a discipline that Pilates’ approach become more widely adopted, having until then been restricted to dancers and elite athletes, and it wasn’t until the late 1990's that it was adapted for general exercise regimes.

Bibliography: Marguerite Ogle, A brief Biography of Joseph Pilates
Bruce Thomson, Joseph Pilates Biography
Brooke Siler, The Pilates Body

Pilates - what is it?

Pilates - An Introduction

I have been teaching Pilates for well over ten years now, to individuals, groups of friends and
colleagues and large leisure centre classes. Some of these sessions have been to athletes (amateur, semi- and professional), others to physiotherapy clients. I have taught at hen weekends, to fitness addicts, newbies to activity and covered ages ranging from Girl
Guides to Great Grandparents, and, of course, to both men and women.

But a recurring theme across all of these groups, levels, abilities and inclinations is an enthusiasm for regularly “going back to basics”. So, that’s where I am going to start.

I will give you an overview of what Pilates is, to me at least, and then take a look at some of the basic exercises from which so many variations can come. But as a cautionary note before we go on this journey I need to remind you that this is my take on Pilates. The purists out there may well consider some of this a distortion of the true ethos of the practice. If you do, then I do understand. In no way do I intend to belittle or deride any of that, it has been the backbone of my teaching for all these years, but my experiences and the
people I have had the privilege to teach have naturally affected my interpretation of the original Joseph Pilates teaching and that is what I will share with you here.

Posture and Lifestyle

For those of us lucky enough to not suffer with debilitating illnesses, injuries or disabilities, many of the aches and pains we routinely struggle with come from poor posture and imbalances in the body. These have their roots in many causes but more often than not it is our lifestyle that lies behind them. 20th and 21st century living, and the ordinary, daily activities that we all carry out do not lend themselves to a balanced body and good posture.
We put pillows under our babies’ heads and shoes on their feet. We make our children sit at school and we drive, use computers, read books, do the ironing, sit on the sofa and a whole myriad of other small, habitual things that shape the way our body develops. And all this is before we add extra-curricular activities – sports, hobbies and, of course, work.
As the body becomes more physically imbalanced it starts to affect other aspects of life. It can have an effect on mood and the efficiency to carry out every day mental and physical tasks and to be able to cope with stressful or challenging situations.

Developing Body Awareness

Using visualisation queues to enhance slow, gentle, controlled movements to encourage correct posture in everyday life, and in more challenging activities such as exercise, Pilates strengthens and tones individual muscle groups providing natural protection for the whole length of the spine.

Pilates is not a “mindless” repetition of movements, but neither is it a spiritual practice. It is more of an understanding of the body’s actions and reactions to movement, connecting our mind with the way we move, giving us the opportunity to think about how we breathe and how to isolate movements while adding stability from supporting muscle groups.

Pilates helps overcome posture related back pain such as sciatica, stiff neck and shoulder and hip discomfort, by increasing the strength of the deep core and pelvic floor muscles. Fundamentals of Pilates are used for sports specific training by top athletes and national sports squads to increase core strength and improve muscle balance to reduce recovery time and risk of injury.

But to me, Pilates is much more than this. It develops body awareness so we understand our imbalances, those we can address and those we have to live with, and it builds mobility through the whole body. 
Even with the sports clubs and athletes I have worked with, I have never taught a Pilates exercise with the goal of the client getting better at that exercise. I teach an exercise to enable them to feel how their body moves, and to understand which muscles they need to use, which work instinctively and which they have to cajole into action when they make that movement.

Think of a squat for instance. Now unless you were a professional squatting competitor, then just being good at squats is, arguably, of not much use. However, being able to get on and off the toilet unaided determines everyone’s quality of life. So, understanding how to do a Pilates squat, being able to support your body weight as you do it and being able to do it well, is suddenly much, much more important.

Core Principles

The practice of Pilates is based around 8 core principles:

The art of being able to focus on the movements and remove all other thoughts, to bring together the body and mind through a continuous flow.
Lateral Thoracic Breathing: breathing into the sides of the lungs and the ribcage rather than the abdomen or raising the shoulders, allowing engagement of the deep abdominal muscles for the duration of the exercise and beyond.
Bringing all the movement from a strong “core” or “Power House” by controlling and strengthening the deep core muscles – transversus abdominis, pelvic floor and lumbar mutlifidis.
Recognising and working to relieve areas of tension within the body so that it can relax and move in a natural and flowing way.
Correct alignment of the body to master the techniques and increase the effectiveness of the exercises.
Flowing Movement:
Slow and controlled movement through the concentric and eccentric phases giving a balanced flowing exercise program.
Learning the body’s individual strengths and weaknesses, where the body is within its own space, to allow the smooth flowing exercises and to take the movements beyond and into everyday life.
Repetition, frequency and practice will allow the skill levels and effectiveness to increase until the correct posture becomes natural, subconscious and automatic.

The 34 original Pilates Exercises:

Joseph Pilates was the founder of Pilates (take a look at Joseph Pilates - a brief hello for a very cursory biography) as an exercise programme and developed the eight core philosophies into a series of 34 mat based exercises designed to smoothly progress from one to the other.

The hundred
Criss cross
The scissors
The leg pull-down
The roll up
Spine stretch forward
The bicycle
The leg pull-up
The roll over
Open leg rocker
Shoulder bridge
Kneeling sidekicks
Leg circles
The corkscrew
Spine twist
Mermaid/side bend
Rolling like a ball
The saw
The jack knife
The boomerang
Singe leg stretch
Swan dive
Side kicks
The seal
Double leg stretch
Single leg kicks
Push ups
Single straight leg stretch
Double leg kicks
Hip circles

Double straight leg stretch
Neck pull

In my teaching, I have never taught all 34 exercises in this way, there is much overlap in them in terms of muscle groups being worked, and it would take longer than most people have at their disposal to go through them all, and, to be honest, they can become somewhat tedious.

However, these 34 exercises, and the variations that they have led to, provide a wealth of alternatives, whether it be to simply ring the changes or to offer to a client to address specific restrictions.

For that reason, I am not going to go through each of these in turn, some of these are very advanced. Instead I will focus on the basics which allow us to consider at least some of the 8 core principles and to start to develop or enhance our body awareness. But, I will show the connectivity between them and the relevant exercises from Joseph’s list of 34.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Power Walking

Power Walking

Walking in any of its guises is a natural, instinctive method of moving. For most of us we have been walking since we were about 12 months old. As with so many things, it is easy to take for granted and, particularly for those of us fortunate enough to be able to walk without assistance, it is easy to become complacent about it. Indeed, with the distances we typically travel increasing and the time we have available becoming shorter, walking has become something that many see as an exercise regime or method of enjoying the locale rather than a mode of transport. Far be it from me to criticise this, indeed if it weren’t for two energetic dogs, I too wouldn’t walk very far, preferring to run or cycle if it’s a trip for pleasure and use the car or if not.

Walking, if done properly, with the thought and preparation that we would give to any other form of atypical exercise, is a hugely beneficial, wonderful way to spend time with friends or in solitary reflection, to find pleasure in even the grottiest of weather while increasing our levels of health and fitness. If, however, we don’t give it careful thought it causes all sorts of problems which typically show themselves as back ache and sore knees.

Power Walking takes casual walking up a notch in intensity providing a superb, low-impact means of improving cardiovascular fitness and endurance, total body strength, mobility and back health. It requires little in the way of specialist kit and can be incorporated into ordinary everyday activities or given its own allotted time and gives possibly one of the quickest returns on investment in terms of positive impact for time spent for the debutante than just about any other physical activity. While it is always advisable to seek the advice of a medical practitioner before starting out on a complete lifestyle change to ensure that your body would be able to cope with sudden increases in activity levels, Power Walking does not carry the same risks when starting out from inactivity that other, more extreme sports would have. And yet, the benefits could be as good, if not better.
There are a few sensible things to consider before setting out:

What to wear

Footwear is obviously the major consideration – it needs to fit comfortably enough to support your feet without slipping yet still allow room for your feet to spread as they get hot. Remember this is Power Walking not hiking, you won’t be out for hours so shoes or trainers which allow foot movement are more appropriate than walking boots, but they should be suitable for the terrain you will be walking on. Things to consider are grip and water resistance.

Supportive underwear is extremely important. While we won’t be bursting into a 1980s aerobics routine there will still be various parts of our bodies that need to be able to move in a controlled manner. Ladies should consider their bra carefully. No matter how large or small, too much movement is not only painful at the time and risks chaffing, but a poorly supported bust can be a contributory factor in mid to upper back problems. Gentlemen should consider supportive underwear too. Briefs or shorts are personal preference, but again excessive movement should be minimised to restrict chaffing, discomfort at the time and the risk of many more serious complications later.

Outer layers also need to be thought about carefully. You will get warm, indeed maybe even hot. Again, to labour the point, Power Walking is not “la la la la la-ing” and you will be walking more briskly than a typical stroll, or even a hike. Layering is a good idea so that you can take clothes off as you warm up and you can easily put them back on again as you cool down, but remember you do need to be able to carry them. Some people prefer to be a little cold at the start knowing they will warm up to the correct temperature, others prefer to feel comfortable at the outset and remove layers as they get warmer. Hats and gloves should be thought about carefully here too – it is highly probably that they will come off and very quickly even in the winter.

Sun and hydration

Never underestimate the power of the sun. Wear a good quality sunscreen on all parts of your skin that will be, or maybe, exposed even in the winter. The sun doesn’t need to be shining and it doesn’t need to be hot for your skin to be at significant risk from harmful UV. In the Summer a sun hat that protects the head, neck and face are to be recommended as are sunglasses, indeed in some organised events these are mandatory.
As for hydration, a water bottle should never be carried in your hand. This is a dreadful habit which causes terrible upper back problems and sometimes can manifest itself very quickly. I can’t express myself strongly enough on this point. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the donut shaped bottles are OK, or that you won’t be out long enough to worry about it. They aren’t OK and you will be, even 10 minutes is too long to be carrying anything as heavy as water. Remember water weights 1kg per litre without the weight of the bottle too. Water should be carried on you back in a rucksack or Camelbak (again compulsory in many events). If you haven’t got either of these but you have a coach or a trainer, then they will carry it for you (if they don’t then sack them!).
So now we are ready to Power Walk. We just leap out of the car and go, right? Well no, not quite. There are a few things to think about

Step 1: Always mobilise first, but don’t stretch – not yet!

Start by moving each joint in all the directions it is intended to move in. You may well find that you do this instinctively anyway. You are about to walk so focus on the lower body and be methodical.
Waggle, scrunch and splay your toes. Point and flex your feet and rotate at the ankle in both directions and bend and straighten at the knee. Lift one leg up and move it forwards and backwards and rotate the whole leg at the hip. Don’t forget the second leg!

Gently bend forwards and backwards a little and rotate at the waist and then gently rotate the arms at the shoulder, then roll the shoulders bringing them all the way up to your ears and sliding your shoulder blades down your back and changing direction. Finally rotate the head, take ear to shoulders and look to one side just in front of your shoulder and repeat on the other side. These last few bits can be done as you start to walk if you prefer, and the whole thing takes only a few minutes. Time well spent!

Step 2: Warm up

Now you are ready to go, but slowly first, here we are allowed a brief period of daisy picking as you start to warm up and think about how your body feels and how it moves. Breathing calmly and comfortably, in through your nose and out through your mouth, focus on your posture as you start to move. Imagine a balloon on top of your head helping you stand tall and upright, or a ribbon running down through your spine which holds you upright. The moment your posture becomes “tall and lovely” you become lighter on your feet, your tummy and your bottom naturally tighten slightly and you are better able to use your feet to drive you forward as you move in the way that they are designed.
Spend 5 minutes or so walking like this bringing your awareness to how your feet are moving and to your tummy and bottom staying tighter and standing a little taller.

Step 3: Dynamic stretching

Every few steps start to introduce a lunge where you take a wide step forward and drop the back knee down towards the ground, then drive back up by squeezing the buttock of the back leg a little more. Repeat on the other leg. After a few pairs of lunges do three or four sumo-style squats every third step and then switch to ski-style squats. 
About now you can introduce some arm movements by bringing them up as you squat down. No fancy choreography here, just simple, effective stretching.

 Step 4: Now we are ready to Power Walk.

Power Walking uses the arms to drive you forwards. Bend at the elbows and keep your body upright. If you are coordinated enough then it is ideal to use opposite arm to leg but, to be frank, as long as the arms do not cross your body then it really doesn’t matter that much. There are more important things to think about. A helpful tip is to just touch your middle finger tip to your thumb tip, barely touching, and this keeps the hands relaxed and removes tension from the arms all the way up to the neck.

Take a stride forward and place the heel of the foot gently down first then bend the whole foot to drive off the floor with your toes while pulling back with your arms. Again, they don’t cross your body, instead they are led backwards by the triceps. As you power up onto your toes your second leg is starting to come forwards and as the front arm is going backwards so too the second one is coming forwards.
Keep your head in a neutral position with your gaze two or three steps in front of you. Don’t look at your feet – it’s too late they are already going there! Your brain will have already clocked any hazards and programmed you to avoid them. Trust it. It knows what it’s doing.

Relax, breathe, maintain good posture, talk to yourself, your walking buddies or the dog and enjoy the next 40 to 45 minutes!

Step 5: Warm Down and Stretch

Maintaining the same good posture and walking form, gradually bring the pace down for the last 5 to 10 minutes of the walk so that you are back to daisy picking for the final stage.

Post exercise stretching is extremely important and hugely under-rated but I firmly believe that as long as you are disciplined and do your stretches relatively close to the end of your exercise (within an hour or so) they don’t need to be immediately after if you feel uncomfortable doing them in public, are getting cold or someone has put the coffee on.

I often close my classes with the advice to go somewhere “less smelly and more comfortable to stretch” – the shower, the coffee shop, the train, the office. Anywhere you like as long as you do them. I really have laid on my office floor stretching while on a Skype call (and I wasn’t on my own!), I have seen people on the London Underground stretching next to their folding bikes and I have drunk my coffee outside a bar while my cycling buddie lay on the payment to stretch her hips.

Wherever you stretch, these are the static ones. The ones that you hold, the ones that should never ever be done before exercise but so sadly often are (just put an elastic band in the freezer then stretch it and you’ll soon understand).
You need to focus on stretching the hamstrings and calves (all the way down the back of the leg), the glutes (three sets of muscles in your bottom), the hip flexors, the triceps (back of the arms) and the shoulders.

Step 6: make a diary date for your next walk

The Power of Strangers

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