Stripping the core from Pilates

One of the things you get used to as a parent is adapting activities to fit around your kids – especially fitness. Gone are the days of a restful hour and a half in the morning happily spent doing yoga or Pilates. These days it’s more like a down-and-dirty half hour of mayhem while I frantically try to get done what I can while my son clambers over me. And you know what? It still works to keep me stretched and lengthened, even though I’m not focusing on core or spinal alignment. This is surprising, because if you go by the dogma pushed by much of the Pilates industry, I just shouldn’t be bothering.  So, I began to think - just what is behind Pilates that makes it effective, and can we as teachers go back to these principles to better serve our clients and athletes?

What’s at the core?

The beating heart of mainstream Pilates is the Transversus Abdominus (TVA) - a deep, corset-like muscle in the abdomen. We are taught that weakness in the abdominals, and the TVA in particular, is a main cause of low-back pain (LBP), and that it is essential to hold contracted during movements to properly utilize the body’s ‘powerhouse’. The problem is, however, that hardly any natural movement is accomplished by holding the abdomen rigid. Recent research by Ledermann (2007) and Myers (2002) among others also highlight the difficulty in isolating this muscle in terms of neuromuscular control and question whether this ‘isolation training’ translates into real-life movement patterns. It is increasingly clear that the emphasis on this type of core contraction and training is misguided and ineffective for performance enhancement. We can, however, utilise the core contraction exercises as mindfulness exercise and ribcage mobility when combined with breathing, where it probably more comfortably sits.

Unwrapping the body

It is easy to forget that we are made of more than just muscles and bone, particularly when we talk about movements and training. What I’m alluding to here is, of course, the fascia of the body – that all-pervading cling-film wrapping of the body (and muscles of course). Research by Bertolucci, Myers and Scheip in particular has shown that the body’s fascia possesses as smooth muscle-like ability to contract over a slow period, and that there is demonstrable thickening of this fascia along lines of repetitive strain. Furthermore, Schleip (2013) goes on to demonstrate new principles to guide the training and stretching of the body’s fascial net.

Schleip’s fascial training principles

  • Preparatory counter-movement (stretching the fascial line before loading).
  • The ninja principle (steady, controlled movements).
  • Slow and dynamic stretching (using contractions and sustained tension for fascial lengthening).
  • Proprioceptive refinement (educating the body in movement).
  • Squeezing and rehydrating the sponge (using movements and equipment to replenish the fascial gel-matrix).

Some of these principles fit in well with existing Pilates principles as taught (especially the ninja, stretching and proprioceptive refinement principles), others are actively discouraged for sake of ‘core specific training’ (such as preparatory counter-movement and squeezing the sponge). But if we analyse the Pilates movements and postures in this framework, I believe we can see why it shows success and injury prevention - not from ‘core training’, but from fascial training. And, moreover, if we free ourselves from obsessing over core postures and contractions, we can elucidate any movements we wish from first principles (incorporating original series if we wish) - creating interesting, relevant classes and individual encounters. 

So from this perspective, is the core relevant at all? And is mat work relevant at all? I think the answer is yes on both accounts, but in context and with adaptation. With fascial exercise in mind, the purpose of the ‘core’ contraction shifts from the purpose of the exercise to merely a way of facilitating a stretch or movement according to our anatomical knowledge, our client’s dysfunction and Schleip’s principles.  In much the same way, this paradigm totally frees us from the mat - shifting mat work from the core exercise in and of itself to merely a way of targeting a specific movement or sensation (I myself find this still a particularly useful way to introduce exercises to people with little body awareness or extreme stiffness, as it allows them to focus on one body part individually - although with an eye to getting them moving dynamically as soon as they show the ability or coordination).

For those die-hard ‘series of 34’ believers – I urge you to read Joseph Pilates’ original works, where he talks purely about health promotion and using gymnastic exercise to strengthen and tone the body. I also don’t see evidence for his rigid adherence to a set series of exercises in his own work.  So - listen to the research and abandoning the claims made mainly in the name of marketing and mass media exposure, free yourself from the mat and join me. You can even bring your tot.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Therapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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