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