By Donna Gambino, PT, CPI
So it’s an interesting change for me. Going from a “lone wolf” Pilates business owner and trainer to now being back in a studio environment. Any of you who know me know that I am easily distracted – from pretty earrings, sparkly necklaces, bird on a branch outside the class window to— poor posture, poor technique, a missed muscle weakness. So you can imagine having lots of people in my view makes it challenging to focus. Now look at the picture of those women diving and all the different positions. LOL
I’ve been actually thinking of this topic for a long time. Ever since the flooding of the market with franchise Pilates studios on every corner. The therapist inside me screams a long howling moan as I hear from and see people go to large classes that they are in no way prepared to attend. I see testimonials on Instagram and Facebook of people saying how it changed their life, and then pictures of them performing the moves. However, in these pictures I SEE the poor alignment issues, the poor techniques, the remaining postural problems. So here’s my question— Should you just dive right into a group Pilates class on the mat, reformer, stability chair or TRX ? Is “just do it” the approach? Let’s talk about it.
So as a therapist , I am all about alignment. I mean ALL ( yes shouty capitals) about alignment. The entire structure and its alignment is what we are always striving to improve and perfect. Perfection is rarely possible, but getting as close to it is what we strive for. The structure- your skeleton- is designed to work optimally with the bones in a certain alignment. The main issues interfering with this alignment are the muscles that attach to the bones pulling them in different directions depending on how strong or weak they are. The length of those muscles put forces on the bones pulling them one way or the other. A strong muscle is a tight muscle and weak muscle is a lengthened muscle. Plain and simple. For you knitters- its like not having the tension right with the yarn. The shape of your sweater depends on the tension of the yarn. The body is the same. SO, if we have poor posture ( and who doesn’t with technology), if we are out of shape, have had an injury or surgery, or have just been doing nothing lately, then muscles will adapt. That’s the simplistic definition for poor alignment.
So if you’ve decided as your New Years resolution or your doctor has said “do some Pilates, it’s great for back pain” Should you just dive into a class head first because you got a Groupon deal? Or should you be assessed by a professional? and WHO?
So of course I am biased I’ve been in my field for 35 years but I am going to try to give you a guide. First– do you have pain? Low back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee. Are you post -surgery? Have cancer or chronic illness? Then in my opinion you need to see a physical therapist first for an assessment. I don’t mean a chiropractor ( sorry guys) no disrespect but they do not receive the training that PTs do in exercise physiology and treatment. Even your family practice doctor does not get many hours in their training curriculum on posture analysis, kinesiology and therapeutic exercise. That’s why we are PT’s and they are Drs. You can see a PT in a clinic so insurance will cover it. Or find a PT that is a Pilates instructor. There are many of them out there now, call around to Pilates studios and ask. OR if you do not have any of the problems listed above then you are fine to see a certified Pilates trainer privately before you start. If they have a certification then they are trained in postural evaluation and some have taken extra classes in evaluating special populations.
What do I mean by assessment? Well if you have the problems listed above and it is your desire to reduce pain, become stronger, change posture and move better, then there is a proper way to do it. Again, in my opinion you cannot just dive right in. You have to get “ready” first. Just like anything else, you can’t just plant a garden by throwing the seeds out in the dirt, you can’t build a house without pouring the foundation. You CANNOT change the body either by just jumping into a class. You need to lay the groundwork for success. Your assessment should be thorough. I mean you should be looked at from head to toe, front to back, side to side, each joint, the movement at those joints, the strength at each joint ( feet too) , and your gait. Now that sounds like a lot right? But for those of us that are trained we can usually look at your posture and tell a lot just from that. Then we delve in further to see what else we can find. We love picking you apart.
Ok, so you’ve been assessed. Can you dive in now? NO not yet! Once you are assessed and have your laundry list of your problems, imbalances, strengths, weaknesses, etc then you have to address those. How do we set you up for success? Example- Are your hamstrings so short your legs don’t touch the mat when lying down? Well then we need to have a plan to get those stretched out first. Are your shoulders so rounded and neck so forward that you can’t lay flat on the mat without neck discomfort? Well, we need to have a plan to fix that first. You see, you can’t just start performing a program if the structure needs work first. You can’t just throw up drywall without the studs being in the right place. By jumping in too soon or ill-prepared you risk a few things. 1. You can make things worse. Your body hates when it’s not in the proper alignment and it will tell you by giving you more pain. You could be reinforcing and irritating what is already wrong. Start doing push-ups with those rounded shoulders and see if your posture gets better ( hint – it won’t) Start doing squats with those tight hamstrings and see if they get looser ( hint- they won’t) 2. Nothing will change. How do I know this? I see it all the time. People who work out regularly and have cut muscles but their form is still off and they still have pain and dysfunction but tell me they’ve been working out regularly for 2 years or more. They have problems that weren’t addressed.
So what should you start with- a private session or class? Quick answer- private sessions. In my opinion again, I think its crucial to begin with the assessment, then train with a trainer who knows their stuff and fix the foundation first. That’s not saying that you won’t be able to do any Pilates moves, but you may not do many of them at first. You only should be doing the exercises that are fixing your specific issues. If you are in a class you will be following the herd. And the herd is all different ( refer to diving picture again), so it may not address your specific problems or you will feel inclined to follow the herd with a move that is of no value to you. You should continue with your private sessions until you’ve started to see changes ( in structure or pain) and have reviewed the exercises for the class you think you want to attend – mat or equipment. This way you will know if there are any modifications specific for you and you will know them ahead of time. This way there are no deer in the head light looks for the teacher when you start. In this phase of your training you should be performing a home program daily to help with moving the process of change along. Have at least 3-5 exercises that are critical in helping you change. They may be stretches, strengthening or both. ( get a trainer that will give you the exercises, if they won’t, find a new trainer)
What should I start with- mat or equipment? I think mat is the way to start. On the mat, its just you and your body. No shiny objects to distract you. The equipment work is great but remember at this point you are learning to move correctly, learning to feel your body move correctly, learning to breathe with movement, changing posture, improving strength and changing imbalances. By starting on the mat you will be able to perform the exercises at home on your own without the equipment. Mat teaches you so much about how to move, how to adjust and self correct. This is functional movement. Once you have a good understanding of the mat work you can easily transition to the equipment, and in my opinion do much better.
So I hope that I explained my thoughts/ frustrations with clients wanting to dive into a program too fast. I get that it’s exciting and new and you want to “just do it.” But I hope you now understand why you should pump the brakes. I hope if any trainers are reading this you will see how laying down a pathway to success for new fitness clients will improve your outcomes and by that improve your businesses reputation. Maybe this can change the way we look at exercise more than as something we just DO to stay fi and look good, but as something we do to keep our bodies really working to the best of its ability for the long term.
Questions? Ideas for another blog? Send me a message.
Donna is currently teaching at My Pilates Studio, Dayton Ohio.
infinityhealth.org for info on Donna’s books and home equipment she recommends.