Friday, 18 December 2015

Strictly Come Shoulders!

Glitter ball Final!
It's the Strictly Final tomorrow!  Are you a fan?  I am, and I find it very interesting how the judges' comments are often about shoulders and the top line.

So for starters, what is the top line?   In ballroom dancing, it's the line created by the shoulders and arms. 

For Strictly celebrities without a dance background, a lot of work goes into improving their top line and maintaining it throughout each dance.
Top line in the Tango

And why are shoulders such a problem?  Well, we've worked this term in classes on a wide range of exercises to improve balance.  I've asked to sense what your shoulders do when you're physically challenged.  And for many of us the answer is that our shoulders creep up towards our ears!   Indeed, we often express physical (and emotional) stress in our shoulders.  If not an actual lifting upwards, then a tightening in the muscles on the top and back of our shoulders.

Back to Strictly, the sheer amount of coordination, balance and rotation in say, a Viennese Waltz, is immensely challenging.  Feet are following complex steps, overall frame is held throughout and the upper line too needs to be maintained.  And on top of that, the top line needs to look relaxed for an overall effect of smooth, effortlessness.   That's a big ask!

The Amazing Blackpool Tower Ballroom
Interestingly,  in classes we do actually work on many of the same skills - although so far no ballroom moves have been introduced!
In the jive, for example, while arms and legs are following very divergent movements, in our classes we're doing the same - in our standing balances with semaphore arms, in our Knee Drops while legs slide away, arms are each following individual patterns.  Skilled coordination!

And on balance, we've challenged ourselves with eyes open, closed, turning the head, one leg, tandem stance, hip rotation on one leg - and that's just in standing!  We've also challenged our balance in kneeling and on all-fours in our fantastic all-fours stretch.

And for those shoulders, this term they have been treated to some fantastic Franklin Method releases.  Having done those, it's then easier to be aware of shoulders tensing and / or lifting.  Then we can smoothly slide the shoulder blades down towards the back of the waist - enhancing shoulder stability and our top line!

I think that means we're all ready for Strictly now!

Enjoy the final!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

How much can a pilates instructor see?

Okay, so this blog isn't about whether I should be wearing my glasses or not (although that could work for a January blog...)

Rather, it's about how much a Pilates teacher can and can't see of what's happening in a class.

In my classes, I'm looking to see if people look happy, they understand what I'm teaching (rather than looking blank and confused!), that what they're doing is safe and correct, and hopefully therefore effective.

So, if we're doing the Shoulder Bridge, amongst other things I'm looking for;
  • a relaxed jaw, neck and shoulders
  • relaxed breathing and not holding your breath
  • smooth, articulated movement of the spine
  • alignment e.g. of the rib-cage at the top of the movement
  • even stability from both legs as well as glutes   
I will also be modifying or avoiding the exercise if I know you have a condition that would contraindicate it.

So, there's quite a lot I can see and act on in a class.  In many exercises, I can see which muscles you're using and I can ask you to check by noticing or sometimes touching the muscles involved.

However, there is one set of muscles that I can't check on as easily.  They are extremely important muscles.  They help you avoid incontinence (fecal and urinary), they support your pelvic organs and they have key sexual and reproductive functions.   They are, of course, your pelvic floor muscles.

And outside of a Pilates class,  the chances are unless you're pregnant or know you have a pelvic floor problem, you won't be paying your pelvic floor much attention.

So, when cueing your pelvic floor to work in a class, I can't tell whether you're finding the muscles perfectly or whether it's a big challenge and actually instead you're thinking about your evening meal and whether you should call your friend Susan...  I can ask you afterwards, but I wouldn't expect everyone to want to fully share their experience of finding these rather intimate muscles.

And does it matter?  Is it important?   Well, yes it is.   Particularly if you go to classes where a large amount of time is spent on tough abdominal exercises; lots of lying on your back with head and shoulders lifted with legs also lifted.  Then it's very important that your pelvic floor muscles are strong enough to counteract all of that intra-abdominal (downward) pressure from large, strong abdominal muscles pushing down on your pelvic floor.

So what can you do?  Well, one test is to see if you can breathe normally and find gentle isolated lifting of your pelvic floor muscles.  This is most easily done lying down on your back.  If you're someone who holds on to your abs and the sides of your waist, it's important to try to ungrip both areas.  Try relaxed breathing in which your rib-cage, diaphragm, abdominals and pelvic floor are able to work together, creating a gentle rise and fall of the lower abdomen with each breath.

Next, try to isolate and lift each passage between the legs in turn.  For the back passage, you can imagine holding in wind.  For the front passage, imagine holding on to avoid passing urine.  And for women, think about lifting and squeezing the walls of the middle passage.  In between lifting each passage, try to relax and rest your pelvic floor muscles.   If you can, keep the effort low and try not to use your glutes or inner thigh muscles.

And if you're not sure whether your pelvic floor is doing what you think it's doing there are several ways to follow up and check.

Have a look at these two Chartered Society of Physiotherapy leaflets (click on the PDF downloads)  - one for men and one for women and you can test if your pelvic floor is lifting when you try to lift it.  

CSP pelvic floor exercises for women

- CSP pelvic floor exercises for men

And if it helps you to visualise where your pelvic floor muscles are, the diagrams below give you a simplified picture.

Female pelvic floor muscles

Male pelvic floor muscles

Monday, 26 October 2015

Pilates and Men

Pilates is all about increasing flexibility, improving movement and gaining greater stability.   These benefits are equally relevant for men as for women.

Joseph Pilates on Reformer. Source:KPilates, Creative Commons
Pilates was developed by this man, Joseph Pilates.   He was driven to improve his own fitness partly because of health problems as a child.   Over his lifetime he made dramatic improvements to his body with his exercises.

So why then are Pilates classes not filled with men?   Is it because Pilates has a feminine image?   Is there a perception that the exercises are too easy?   Could there be an element of embarassment around exercises that work on flexibilty and coordination; that men can't match up to women?

Well, Pilates exercises aren't easy!   Exercises can be challenging in many different ways.  For individuals with a lot of muscle bulk, it can be hard to find and recruit the right muscles.  

It can be hard to isolate muscle activation rather than just an 'on and off' with all surrounding muscle joining in.  But, the benefits of getting it right are enormous.   The correct stabilising muscles are used each time instead of a damaging pattern of compensation by other muscles which aren't designed for the job.

Pilates also improves your posture, which can free you from existing aches and pains, whether that's backache or headaches.   It can help undo the damage done by long, desk-bound hours of sitting at work.   The various releases and stretches we use help to combat tension and tightness in, for example, neck, shoulders, pecs, back, glutes and hamstrings.

If you have a sport, Pilates is a fantastic way to cross-train.   I can't think of a sport where greater movement and shoulder, core and pelvic stability aren't going to help you to perform better.

It's also a great way to deal with stress, leaving you feeling freer in mind and body.  And, the chances are no one is really looking at anyone else in a class as everyone is busy focussing on what they're doing!

Why not come along and try a class this term and see what you think... 

p.s. here's the small print - please get in touch first and I'll send you a health form to fill in

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Pilates in the Pool

I love swimming, it's a great, low impact, full-body workout.  Swimming first thing in the morning sets you up for the day, it makes you feel alive!

As a teenager I swam every day before school.  At university I moved on to play squash instead.  Then after university, I broke my ankle (bad landing from a parachute jump).   So no squash for some time.

After months on crutches, I wanted to build my fitness again.   I joined a swimming club and they helped me to work on my fitness.  The drills we did also helped me to work on various issues.

1. Symmetry
To start with I began to address having a dominant right arm due to playing squash.  For this, I swam front crawl with my right hand in a fist.  This made my left arm work harder and so helped me re-balance my upper body strength.   

This can also work if recovering from a shoulder injury.  Using a fist on the injured side (instead of a flat hand) will create less resistance through the water and therefore less work through the injured side. 

Training aids such as kickboards (floats) and fins can also help you work on symmetry by letting you focus on part of your body.   If you need to build leg strength, for example, you can do front crawl legs while holding a kickboard.

 2. Flexibility
Swimming helped me to work on my ankle flexibility without the impact of training on land.

Training aids can help again. Using fins when practising front crawl legs can increase the movement of your ankles as well as help with your leg technique.
As a regular activity, swimming can improve flexibility as many strokes involve taking the body in and out of a stretched position, such as the lengthening of arms and legs in breaststroke as you glide.

Conversely, a lack of flexibility can be a problem in breaststroke.  The upper back needs to gently extend to allow the head to leave the water each time.  If the thoracic spine is stiff then the movement will have to come from the lumbar region and may cause discomfort.   Finding the movement in your upper back (for example with Pilates exercises) before swimming can therefore be beneficial.

3.  Body alignment / posture
Swimming with the club helped me to work on my alignment within strokes - particularly my head position in front crawl.
If you look around the average swimming pool you will see people swimming breaststroke with their head held out of the water throughout the stroke.  This can cause problems with existing neck issues as well as creating new problems.   

Learning to swim with your face in the water is the best way to avoid neck issues.   Swimming lessons can be a good way to gain confidence in the water and improve your technique.

Because competitive and regular swimming puts repetitive force through the shoulders, having good shoulder alignment (as well as scapular stability) is very important. 

4.  Body awareness of how you move and feel

Swimming with the club helped me enormously but it's only since doing Pilates that I've really developed my body awareness.   If you can take that awareness to your swimming, all the better!

Feel that your spine moves segmentally as you swim; whether that's the gentle extension in your upper back as your head lifts out of the water in breaststroke or the rotation of the upper back as your rib-cage twists each time your arm lifts out of the water in front crawl.

Pilates exercises for swimmers
Good spinal mobility is important in swimming.  If you already have a lower back problem, the availability of thoracic mobility may be key in whether you can enjoy swimming or not.   Exercises such as Standing Side Bends and Spine Twists will help before swimming.

Similarly, for regular swimmers with good spinal mobility, exercises to improve shoulder stability such as Shoulder Squeeze and Swimming Arms are great.

Exercises for core and pelvic stability will also have a positive impact on more competitive swimmers.  In our classes we cover all of the above every week!

Doing some stretching afterwards is also great to work on the movement you've found, perhaps a Shoulder Bridge on the side of the pool if you feel brave!

And if you swim outdoors over the rest of the summer, enjoy the experience and do a couple of extra laps for me too!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Letting it go

Muscle tension and tightness is costly to our bodies, it restricts our movement and can lead to further problems.  Take neck or shoulder tension, which can eventually lead to problems with the shoulder joint and / or tension headaches. 

If you regularly go to exercise classes, lift weights or take part in sport with very tight, tense muscles and work them extremely hard you may not be doing your body any favours.

In our Pilates classes, we work on releasing muscle tension first to increase our flexibility before we work hard and challenge stability and strength.

What needs releasing?

It can be quite difficult to know where in our bodies we carry our tension.   Some of us hold our mouth tense, with the tongue lodged to the top of the mouth and the lower jaw tight.  Many of us feel tension in our shoulders and neck.   Long hours of sitting or standing can lead to stiffness and tension in the back too.

How you walk and run will also impact on your body, e.g. how you distribute your weight through your feet as you move will affect soft tissue in the feet, legs, plus potentially hips and lower back too.

It's good to be aware of when and where you feel tightness creeping into your body.  Ideally, we would all be able to identify tension and start to consciously relax our muscles and so avoid the need to unwind tension later on.

Ways to let it go

Having done Franklin Method training with Polestar Pilates, I find Franklin Method equipment is fantastic for muscular and fascial release. 

Using Franklin balls under the feet releases the fascia which in turn creates a release further up the leg and even around the hip joint.    Using them under the glutes while lying on your back has a great effect on gluteal release plus a positive impact on the lower back.

With releases, we generally work with gravity, rather than against it.   The exercise below comes from Susanne Perks, a great teacher at Perks Pilates.  The exercise uses a wall to partially take the weight of your legs.  This allows your arms and upper body to relax fully.   A less relaxing alternative (that works against gravity) is holding one thigh with your hands.   This means that the weight of both legs is taken partially through your arms.   You may end up with some release for the glutes but more tension in your neck, shoulders and back muscles!

Lying Gluteal Stretch

Lie on your back in front of a wall.   Have your feet on the wall, legs straight.   Bend your right knee so the right ankle sits on top of your left thigh (pictured left).

Slowly bend your left knee so that your left foot comes lower down the wall (pictured right).   As you do this you should feel a stretch across the outside of your right hip and potentially along the outside of your right thigh.   Stay in position for a minute of so and relax as you enjoy the stretch.

This stretch shouldn't cause discomfort in your knee, hip or back.  If it does, please stop.

Why not have a go?    And do post your comments on the importance of letting it all go!

Happy Holidays!

More info;
Franklin Method 
Polestar Pilates
Perks Pilates

Friday, 5 June 2015

Pilates in the Garden

Gardening is therapeutic, relaxing and good for the soul...    But it isn't always great for your back...

This can be because of overdoing it when spring arrives, having had the winter off.   Or it can be due to repetitive actions such as digging or heavy lifting.   It might be that excessive gardening triggers an underlying back problem.  

Being Body Aware
As with all physical activity, it helps to be body aware while you're gardening.  You could ask yourself;

Do my shoulders tense and creep upwards when I lift something heavy?  
Does my neck tense as I dig up weeds?

Is that hurting my back?

Can I find a good squat technique as I lift the heavy wheelbarrow?  

Can I work on all-fours instead of standing and weeding double-bent for hours?

Going the extra mile!
If you open your garden for the National Garden Scheme for charity you're likely to be doing a lot of gardening, as I'm finding out..!

Warming Up
As with all exercise, it's good to warm up first.  With a back issue that could be some Standing Side Bends and Spine Twists.   And if shoulders and neck muscles are tight, a Neck Stretch.

It's also good to be able to pace yourself in the garden and progress the intensity you work at over time.  And if you find yourself doing an 11 hour day in the garden (for me, last Saturday!) try to build in a recovery day in to your week.

And if you have time off on Sunday the 14th of June between 2.00 and 6.00, come along to East Hagbourne Open Gardens to see ten different gardens all looking great!

Happy Gardening!

Saturday, 25 April 2015

We're off to the Pavillion!

Welcome to the first blog and new look website!

The news is that from June, our Tuesday classes will be moving from the Village Hall to the brand new Hagbourne Sports Pavilion. The Pavilion was built for local sports and community use and is now ready for Pilates!

It's an ideal, calm and spacious venue for Pilates in the peaceful, green setting of Hagbourne Recreation Ground.

The first classes at the Pavilion will be on Tuesday the 2nd of June.  The 12.45 to 1.45 class will stay at the same time.   The second class moves slightly earlier to 1.50 to 2.50.

If you're not already signed up for classes, why not join for the June and July term in our lovely new Pavilion?

And this is not a picture of the new Pavilion but this is the calm, happy feeling I get when I think about teaching Pilates at the Pavilion!


Come and see what you think!