February 25, 2018

Pilates, Strength Through Flexibility

What is flexibility?

We all know about strengthening muscles, and stretching muscles. Exercises that are designed to make the muscles and body stronger and longer. But flexibility is the combination of these two elements, making the body adaptable, bendable and strong in extended positions.

Flexibility is about making muscles strong throughout their range of motion, making muscle groups strong though every axis and making the body adjustable and resilient to the movements, stresses and strains that we put it under, both in exercise and everyday life.

It is a global system or holistic approach to muscles and the body. Like Pilates itself we try to not only increase the strength and flexibility of the individual muscle or group but also the muscles around it that help support a particular movement and the balance of the body as a whole. The first time I came across this was when I was trying to learn the splits. One would imagine that to do the splits you simply had to stretch the muscles of the groin area. But in order to achieve the split’s the hips have to be placed and held in the correct position or the hip bones get in the way, the spine has to be flexible enough to allow this. The muscles themselves that are involved need to be long, but a muscle will always protect itself.

There are two systems that protect the muscles. The first is in the muscle fibres and this prevents the muscles from being lengthened or stretched too quickly. If you’ve done stretching you know that the idea is to slowly lengthen the muscle and hold for a period. The second is in the tendons that connect the muscle to the bone. If these feel the muscle is under too much strain, either from stretching too far, too quickly or from too heavy a load they will shut the muscle down.

In extreme cases when they don’t have the time to respond appropriately they will allow part of the muscle to tear to protect the whole. Yes tearing muscle is sometimes a defence mechanism that benefit’s the muscle, but then ask anyone trying to build muscle and they’ll already know, micro-tears are what build muscle, damage and repair, apparently. In truth though most muscles are long enough to allow you to achieve the majority of positions but if they are not strong enough to support that posture then they won’t allow themselves to be lengthened.

So back to the splits. I surely did not want to tear muscle in that most sensitive groin area. So I had to make sure the muscles felt comfortable in the splits position and strong enough to support my weight. And there it was. The muscles, in order to lengthen so that I could achieve the splits had to be strong enough to maintain that position comfortably. The pelvic muscles had to strong enough to hold the pelvis at the right angle and the spine and its muscles had to be strong enough to hold their position. Stretching was only half the answer, not even half, strength was even more important, but strength in a structurally weaker position. Flexibility!

Benefits of Flexibility

Apart from being able to do the splits flexibility has many much more practical uses. Firstly it gives you stronger muscles, not in the sense that you could lift heavier loads but that you can lift the same weight from extended or more difficult positions. This in turn helps to prevent injury and can even aid with the recovery of injured muscles. It also means a greater range of motion and faster reflexes.

Pilates helps to train the muscles in a holistic way, as previously mentioned, meaning the body is used as a whole but also that each aspect is addressed. This includes the fact that muscles are made of both slow and fast twitch fibres. Basically this means they are able to perform for long periods under an average workload, and under a greater workload for shorter periods. The best example are the large muscles in the legs, which will carry you about all day, but also allow you to sprint or jump for short periods. Different muscles have varying percentages of each type of muscle fibre and different averages when it comes to work load.

Your arms, for example, would consider carrying your body around quite a challenge, but that is average for the legs. Pilates works the muscles in various states from stationary, slow moving and fast moving. This way it ensures it works all the muscle fibre types, strengthening though movement, so that flexibility develops with strength and length of the muscle.

As we have previously discussed flexibility of the spine is incredibly important to good posture, the benefits of which would not be possible without, flexibility. Spine mobility is necessary to return to and maintain a healthy posture and a healthy spine. This flexibility also allows the body to be adaptable, adjustable and malleable making it easier to learn new skills, adapt old skills and adjust to a changing environment, situation or body.

From a Pilates point of view strength is flexibility and flexibility is strength. Strong but immovable muscles are fairly pointless and somewhat ridiculous, just look at the bodybuilder in your gym who’s never stretched a day in his life. Muscles that are restricted in movement, or immobile are as bad as weak muscle. So what if you can lift 40lbs with one arm through this range of motion, if you can’t lift 10lbs through a slightly different range. Being flexible allows for change and strength in those changes mean fewer injuries.

Being super-stretchy is no good either. Having too much flexibility and not enough strength to support it is also detrimental. Young gymnasts who can do amazing contortions, or people who are naturally double jointed need strength in their movement. The effects of both these things can lead to weaker ligaments and tendons. Tendons hold muscle to bone and ligaments hold bone to bone. Keeping bones together is very important.

The most common, as it happens with dancers and martial artists too, I know, is a stretching or snapping of the ligament holding your thigh bone into your hip. If your muscles are not flexible around the hip then they will either seize up to protect themselves or become weak allowing the thigh bone to be easily relocated, if not dislocated. This can occur with any joint that has been weakened. These things usually happen years later when training and possibly exercising have ceased.

Flexibility, movement and the human body:

Human beings, or bodies, were never meant to sit still for too long. The body is a thing best kept in motion. But in order to do this it must be kept flexible. To be kept in a flexible and malleable state it must be kept in motion. The two are reciprocal and again bring us back to the holistic approach which myself and Pilates bring to exercise. Body works best in motion, digestion, circulation, breathing, and mental acuity all benefit from some movement.

Movement can only be achieved if the body is strong and stable enough to support itself. But it is a fluid thing, like water, with many moving and interacting parts. Even lying down there is motion in the body, even when we sleep. In order to keep all these parts working together we need each part to be strong of itself but adaptable to the others. Flexibility. This allows for good posture through a mobile spine, movement through mobile muscles, focus through agile mind and action through an elegant unity of all three.