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Body Control: The Pilates Way

by Lynne Robinson and Gordon Thomson(more info)

listed in pilates, originally published in issue 21 - August 1997

Joseph Pilates established his first studio in New York in the 1920s and, before long, the 'elite' of New York was soon counted amongst his clientéle – top ballet dancers came to him because his exercises perfected and complemented their traditional exercise programme whilst actors, actresses and athletes were all attracted to a workout that built strength without adding bulk, and which achieved the perfect harmony between mind and muscle.

Pilates demonstration

The Method first came to the United Kingdom in the 1970s when Alan Herdman set up a studio at the London School of Contemporary Dance (The Place). Today, Pilates studios are still few in number and mainly based in London, thereby excluding a major part of the population from experiencing the many benefits of the Method.

Pilates demonstration

It is for precisely this reason that Gordon Thomson (who trained with Alan Herdman before setting up his own Body Control and Rehabilitation Studio) and Lynne Robinson (who originally took up Pilates in Australia on the advice of her osteopath, Philip Latey) have written the first Pilates-based exercise book to be aimed at the general public. Body Control: The Pilates Way (Boxtree, £9.99) details forty exercises with anatomical references, exercises to correct common postural faults and daily and weekly workout sessions. The exercises can be performed by anybody and make use of simple household items such as a broom handle, a tennis ball, a scarf and a pillow.

Body Control Pilates

Body Control Pilates is very closely based on the Pilates Method, of which many different versions are being taught today. This is a direct legacy of Joseph Pilates' approach in developing and passing on the Method.

He had been a frail child who used methods as diverse as yoga, gymnastics, self defence, dance and weight training to develop his own body. By absorbing these other methods, Joe was able to work out a system which had the perfect balance of strength and flexibility. Proven on his own body, he applied these techniques to his clients taking into account the condition of their bodies. Everyone who came into his studio was given a different programme, structured according to their particular needs.

And yet, despite the Method's success, Joseph Pilates never set up an official training programme so that, on his death, his closest 'disciples' went on to teach their own individual versions of his programme. This explains why no two teachers are exactly the same and no two classes likewise – because no two clients are!

There is, however, a common philosophy at the root of all Pilates-based methods, this stemming from the manner in which one approaches the exercises – it is less about what you do, more about how you do it! This has been a great advantage to Pilates teachers as they have been able to absorb new ideas, for example in physiotherapy techniques or movement therapies, and incorporate them into the Method without sacrificing its uniqueness. As a result, Pilates continues to evolve as a system and, in fact, is now going through a period of unprecedented popularity with an estimated 500 studios active in the US and a growing following throughout the rest of the world.

The Method has a completeness which other systems lack, being anatomically-based and addressing the body's entire mechanics with each exercise. It also meets the recent trend towards more holistic exercise, offering psychological as well as physical benefit and developing mental as well as physical fitness – "It is the mind itself which builds the body" was Joseph Pilates' favourite Schiller quote.

Body Control Pilates works on the deep architectural structure of the body by targeting the key postural muscles, so that we literally work from the inside out. Liken the body to a house. . . for many of us the building is in urgent need of repair! Perhaps the roof tiles are falling off, cracks appearing in the plaster, paint peeling, electrical and plumbing faults! These are often just visible signs indicating more serious structural problems. You can call in the plasterers or the decorators but, in a few months' time, the same problems will appear unless you tackle the underlying faults. Many fitness regimes are concerned only with the superficial, cosmetic aspects of exercise whilst the Pilates teacher is effectively the 'structural engineer' for the body. The exercises are designed to correct misalignments and to provide structural support for the body. . . we tackle the foundations of the building and put in the necessary supporting beams!

Pilates demonstration with pulley

The Eight Principles

The Method is based on Eight Principles which underpin each of the exercises:

• Relaxation • Concentration • Alignment • Centring • Breathing • Co-ordination • Flowing Movements • Stamina

Relaxation

Releasing unnecessary tension from the body is the starting point for all the exercises. Apart from the obvious stress reducing benefits, this relaxation enables you to focus on and achieve the correct muscle usage. If you work with needless tension, muscles which are already strong and overworked will simply get stronger, thereby over-riding the weaker ones. The body is very adept at 'cheating' to achieve a movement and will usually take the easy 'familiar' option. Clients must learn to release the 'workaholic' muscles in order to allow the appropriate muscles to work - most people, for example, find it impossible not to use their Upper Thoracic and Cervical muscles while moving their arms and legs!

By learning to recognise areas of undue tension, relaxing the body before you start each exercise and then focusing attention on the relevant area, you will find that you are able to adjust yourself into the correct position, and then hold those positions and perform the movements efficiently. This greatly reduces the risk of injury and adds to the calming effect of a session.

Concentration

Releasing these 'workaholic' muscles requires exceptional sensory awareness. The focus always remains on the present and not the end result. Body Control Pilates teaches you to be aware of your mind and body in totality – Andrew Ferguson, a London osteopath has called it "the thinking person's exercise".

This does not mean that you need a Masters degree to do the exercises, but, rather, that you must be mindful of your body and its movements. In how many fitness studios do you see clients reading a magazine whilst cycling, listening to a Walkman whilst on a running machine? The Pilates client cannot leave their brain in the changing room! You have to be constantly and consciously aware of what you are doing, otherwise you cease to learn, you just 'do'. A failure to concentrate will result in loss of alignment or use of the wrong muscles.

Pilates requires you to train the mind as well as the body as the two are undoubtedly connected. This element of body awareness is fundamental to the Method.

Alignment

Body Control Pilates will promote 'good posture' and help realign the body. One of its greatest strengths is that each and every movement is performed with attention to correct alignment. No part of the body is ignored – the angle of the head, neck and shoulders; the balancing of the three main body weights (see below); the curve of the spine; the 'neutral pelvis'; the relationship of the hips, knees and feet are all considered before an exercise has started and throughout the movements themselves. The quality of movement is always more important than quantity.

Furthermore, in a studio or class situation, clients are assessed individually with a programme devised to help correct any faults. Excessive lordosis, kyphosis, flat back, sway back, scoliosis, tilted pelvis, knock knees, bow legs and more can be helped with remedial exercises.

Centring

Enter any Pilates studio anywhere in the world and you will hear one phrase constantly repeated – 'navel to spine'. The creation of a 'girdle of strength' is one of the main aims of Pilates, and abdominal training is guaranteed with every exercise. We are aiming for a 'mattress button' effect, the drawing of the lower abdominals back to the spine to support the spine and to achieve a strong centre from which movements can take place.

Joe Pilates was well ahead of his time in emphasising the use of the deep abdominals. Recent medical research[1] has confirmed the importance of strengthening the deep internal muscles to achieve 'core stability', in particular the Tranversus Abdominis and the Obliques. Rectus Abdominis activity is kept to a minimum because it has a relatively small role in stabilising the trunk and, similarly, psoas activity is minimised as often people become dependent on the psoas at the expense of using the core stabilising muscles.

The degree of recruitment is also crucial. We look to build the isometric endurance of the underlying stabilisers, working them at levels approximately 30-40% MVC (Maximal Voluntary Contraction). Maximum exertion is not needed because the function rarely involves overload situations. The proper initiation and the use of the abdominals as the stabilisers are reinforced with every exercise, so that the effects become automatic and are, hopefully, then applied to everyday life.

Similarly, stabilisation of the scapulae is achieved by teaching proper use of the Lower Trapezius in synergy with the Serratus Anterior, Latissimus Dorsi and the Teres.

Breathing

Few people breathe properly. The general benefits of good breathing are well documented but are especially relevant when exercising. Correct breathing techniques are central to the Pilates Method.

When asked to take a deep breath, clients usually either breathe too shallowly in the upper chest or throw out their lower abdominals. The deep abdominal breathing practised in yoga is wonderful but not applicable to Pilates as it is inhibited by the use of the core abdominal muscles. It is impossible to keep a strong centre and to practise deep abdominal breathing at the same time.

We teach lateral or thoracic breathing in Pilates, making maximum use of the expansion of the ribcage. The diaphragm is allowed to descend, but the client is encouraged to breathe into their sides and back. In this way, core stability can be maintained.

Each exercise has its own breathing pattern, but a general rule is that you inhale to prepare for movement, exhale on the movement, and inhale to recover. This timing complements the use of the abdominals and ensures that the breath is not held or excessive tension created.

Coordination

A typical training programme will begin with awareness training to help the client release tension and maintain correct alignment. They must then co-ordinate breathing and centring with their movements. Small range motion skills to isolate the key muscles are taught initially, moving on to more challenging choreographed sequences but always with the core stabilised. Co-ordination skills are finely tuned as the mind and body work together to perform these advanced exercises.

Pat Cash, former Wimbledon tennis champion, says: "My reaction was one of amazement at how gentle the exercises were. . . The advanced exercises were some of the toughest exercises I have ever done."

Flowing Movements

All Pilates movements are controlled, graceful and flowing, lengthening outwards from their strong centre. This greatly reduces the risk of injury. Body Control Pilates uses a combination of concentric, eccentric and isometric muscle work to restore the balance of the body. Muscles are worked with control through their full range of movement and in different combinations, resulting in long, lean muscles with greater strength through their entire range. Control is paramount.

Stamina

Body Control Pilates is not an aerobic workout, although some of the advanced sequences are cardiovascular. Generally, we recommend that our clients combine Pilates with some aerobic-style exercise, such as brisk walking or swimming. They should, however, notice an increase in stamina and endurance as they have learned to use their bodies more efficiently.

A Pilates Class

A Body Control Pilates session can be either mat- or machine-based, the mat work using a variety of positions – prone, supine, semi-supine, standing, side lying, kneeling and sitting.

Light weights can be used to strengthen weak muscles as appropriate to an individual's needs and capabilities. This is very useful in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. One distinct advantage for the use of Pilates in rehabilitation is that many of the exercises are performed in gravity-reduced settings which, importantly, aids a client's confidence when undertaking the exercises.

Stretching is an important aspect of the programme but attention is duly paid to correct alignment and the use of the stabilising muscles.

The machines used in studios have evolved from those originally designed by Joe Pilates to help with his clients' remedial exercises, the main piece being the Universal Reformer. It is a sliding mechanism, with spring resistance, which has been designed in an 'open' form allowing for three-dimensional actions and enabling the teacher to easily detect alignment problems. The client must apply 'core control' throughout the large, resisted movements of the limbs.

Who is Body Control Pilates suitable for?

An important aspect of the Body Control Pilates programme is that it is non-competitive, being geared to an individual's needs and degree of commitment. It balances muscular strength and flexibility asymmetries while working at the client's own pace. This means that it is as appropriate for the elite athlete as it is for a first-time exerciser.

• Athletes, especially those who have suffered injuries as a result of an imbalance in their muscles – racket sports and golf are notorious for this.
• Performers for whom good posture is vital, such as dancers, actors, musicians.
• Those involved in 'performance' sports – for example, dressage and skating, where postural alignment is paramount.
• Chronic back pain sufferers whose problems are postural-based. The benefits of this postural training coupled with improvements in 'core stability' and active spinal segmental stabilisation make the Method invaluable to back pain sufferers. The success of Pilates-based exercise in this area is now well recognised: 'Some patients referred to Pilates teachers never need further regular treatment and many only begin to maintain improvement once they take up Pilates.' (Piers Chandler, Sevenoaks osteopath).
• Sufferers of 'Repetitive Strain Injuries'.
• Anyone wishing to return to exercise after a long break, or, indeed, take it up for the first time.
• Women (and men) interested in helping to prevent the onset of osteoporosis.

Three Case Studies

Case Study One

Female 'E', age 39, housewife.

Referred by her GP to Piers Chandler for osteopathy, she had been complaining of low back pain – a constant ache for the previous ten years since childbirth with two acute attacks per year. She had three children under four years old at the time. Previous osteopathy and physiotherapy had helped only temporarily. The pain was aggravated by gardening and around the time of her period. Chandler's treatment enabled her to garden again and she became increasingly confident with movement. He told her that she should not stop here and "reluctantly" she agreed to take up Pilates.

'E' began private mat classes with Lynne Robinson. Her Pilates programme began with teaching body awareness, good postural alignment and relaxation skills. Correct breathing techniques were taught. Her back was unusually flat and the muscles were very weak. As a result, she found back extension too stressful and, so, concentrated instead on lengthening the back while strengthening the muscles. 'E' had very poor abdominal strength and was, therefore, instructed in how to use her core lower abdominals to support her back and create a strong centre from which to work.

The first month was a case of three steps forward, one step back as her body readjusted to being used in a new way. However, after two months, her progress was rapid and quite spectacular. She is now able to perform advanced movements requiring considerable abdominal strength with both grace and ease.

'E' writes:

"Roughly two years ago I had such lower back pain that I was beginning to be totally restricted in what I could do. I was reluctant to do any exercise as everything I had tried had proved so painful. However, I started Pilates on the advice of my osteopath. Initially, my progress was erratic, but after a few months the pain began to ease and, two years on, I have virtually no pain at all. The exercises have strengthened my abdominals to such an extent that I now feel that my back has the support it deserves. In general, the programme has contributed greatly to my sense of well-being."

Case Study Two

Female 'J', age 38, administrator.

Referred by her GP for osteopathy with Piers Chandler, having complained of upper back and shoulder pain for approximately two years. She had been involved in a road traffic accident three years earlier. Physiotherapy had made no difference. 'J' has a scoliosis 'S' shape with a high left shoulder and high right hip. Chandler's treatment helped, but he felt she needed to try 'whole body exercise' for scoliosis and, therefore, advised Pilates.

'J' joined a group matwork Pilates class. The sessions included exercises to improve body awareness, alignment, relaxation, breathing, core stability, strength and flexibility. The overall postural programme has helped with her scoliosis. In addition, 'J' was given remedial exercises for stretching and mobilising her upper body and shoulders. She then concentrated working to stabilise her scapulae, strengthening the Lower Trapezius, not just with specialised exercises but as part of all her movements. She uses light weights to help build her strength. Two years on, her level of fitness has improved dramatically and she is now able to do the advanced work without strain.

'J' writes:

"I feel stronger and more flexible, with much improved abdominal strength and a greater range of movement. My osteopath told me that my improved posture had made me taller, and that my back was broader. It has been easy to fit Pilates into my way of life, the classes are enjoyable and relaxing and I have been able to follow the routine easily at home. My ability to do the more advanced exercises has crept up on me steadily. The combination of osteopathic treatment and Pilates has been very beneficial and I have only needed to visit the osteopath once in the last eighteen months."

Case Study Three

Female 'C', age 26, Interior Designer.

'C' had injured her knee in a skiing accident. She was diagnosed as having a subluxation in the extension of both patellae due to rotary abnormality of the knee. After six weeks of physiotherapy she was still limping and in pain.

'C' attended the Body Control Studio in South Kensington where she used the special Pilates machines. She was given remedial exercises to strengthen her leg muscles and was also encouraged to work the rest of her body, with due attention to safeguarding her knee. After just six weeks she had made a complete recovery.

'C' writes:

"I had a very bad knee from skiing and could not walk. I knew that if I did not do something, I would not be able to ski again. I have been to gyms and 'pumped iron', but with Pilates I feel relaxed and understand what I am doing."

What of the future?

Until now, Pilates-based exercise has been seen as very exclusive and almost totally centred around London. Our prime aim is to work on several levels to increase knowledge of Pilates – via the book, an introductory workshop programme and through teacher training programmes.
It is now time, after seventy years, that Pilates becomes accessible to all.

Further Information

Body Control: The Pilates Way (Lynne Robinson and Gordon Thomson, Boxtree) is available from all good bookshops at £9.99 or by mail order at £10.99, including p&p, from Body Control Pilates Ltd, PO Box 238, Tonbridge, Kent, TN11 8ZL (cheques payable to Body Control Pilates Ltd.). Overseas orders £12.00 – not for sale to USA.

For details of 'intensive' and 'part-time' Teacher Training programmes, please send an sae to Body Control Pilates Teacher Training, 17 Queensberry Mews West, London, SW7 2DY.

For a listing of UK teachers, please send an sae to The Body Control Pilates Association, 17 Queensberry Mews West, London, SW7 2DY.

The Body Control Pilates website can be visited at www.bodycontrol.co.uk

Body Control Pilates is a Trade Mark registered in the United Kingdom by Lynne Robinson and Gordon Thomson. The authors are not connected or in any way associated with any other organisation or individual operating under the name 'Pilates' based outside the United Kingdom.

Footnotes

1 'Could it be that medical research has finally caught up with Pilates' work? Muscle Control – Pain Control. What exercises would you prescribe?'. Article by C.A. Richardson and G.A. Jull. Department of Physiotherapy, University of Queensland, Australia. 'Manual Therapy', Pearson Professional Ltd., 1995

2 'Dysfunction of Tranversus Abdominus associated with Chronic Low Back Pain'. Article by P.W. Hodges, Department of Physiotherapy, The University of Queensland. 'Manipulative Physiotherapists Association of Australia Conference Proceedings', 1995
Further reference works can be supplied if desired.

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About Lynne Robinson and Gordon Thomson

Lynne Robinson was at the forefront of creating the boom in Pilates in the UK and her name and image have become synonymous with Pilates. Her books and videos being sold in over thirty countries and has contributed to, and featured in, many articles in national and specialist press, radio and television. Her first introduction to Pilates came in 1992 whilst living in Sydney, Australia, after being recommended to take up classes as a solution to the severe back problems that Lynne had experienced for many years. Lynne was a student with Penny Latey in Sydney, and then completed her formal Pilates training after returning to London. She co-founded in 1996 Body Control Pilates in Sevenoaks, Kent where she works closely with osteopaths, physiotherapists and sports injury clinics. She is a Director of the BCP Teacher Training Programme. Lynne has specialized in developing programmes for people with chronic back problems and stress-related conditions, and in compiling mat-based programmes to enable Pilates to be taught outside of the studio environment. Lynne holds an Honours degree and a Postgraduate Certificate of Education. She may be contacted on Tel: 0207 636 8900; info@bodycontrol.co.uk  www.bodycontrolpilates.com

Gordon Thomson trained in Pilates twenty-one years ago at 'The Place' in London, after having studied dance with the Ballet Rambert and the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and being an actor dancer with several companies. He was trained by Alan Herdman, who brought the technique to England from America. Gordon set up his first Body Control Pilates studio in 1981 and is now firmly established as a leading figure in this discipline. He has trained teachers who are now based as far afield as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Gordon is currently Director of the Body Control & Rehabilitation Studio in London and, also, of the Body Control Pilates Association (previously the Association of Pilates Teachers).

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