Pilates Strength Training
Strength training is a type of physical exercise that uses resistance to build strength, anaerobic endurance and size of skeletal muscles.
More common practices of strength training are weight training and powerlifting, but the lesser known is Pilates! Unlike most practices, Pilates exercises focus on ‘lengthening’ muscles, and not ‘straining’ to build bulk. The lengthening maintains flexibility and suppleness in the muscles.
Much of the work in Pilates works on the anatomical balance of muscle engagement — Antagonist and agonist (Prime mover) muscles often referred to as antagonistic pairs. It is the balance of opposing muscles when one muscle contracts & works, the other relaxes & stretches. This is key to functional movement.
A classic example of an antagonistic pair are the biceps and triceps muscles of the arm. When flexing / lifting the forearm — the biceps contracts & works while the triceps relaxes & stretches. When extending/ lowering — the biceps relaxes and stretches, while the triceps contracts and works.
The level of resistance in Pilates is also key in how muscle length is maintained while training. When working with Pilates apparatus, the spring resistance is moderate. The resistance is to create muscular contraction without strain. Exercises on the reformer factors in additional resistance with the exerciser’s weight but the resistance is still relative.
If the resistance/ weight is too great — to lift, pull, press or push, muscles will ‘strain’ and the balance of the antagonistic pairs become compromised to effort the load.
The crux of Pilates strength training is to strengthen and work from the ‘Powerhouse’ — gluts, lower back, upper and lower abdominals and hips. So when you are working with your extremities — arms and legs, the effort of load stems from the powerhouse and not simply from the limbs.
Pilates is a method of physical exercise that is focused on building strength still maintaining muscular integrity opposed to strength in simply building bulk. It is a strength and conditioning program that is transferable to most — if not all kinds of activities and other strength training regimes.
Author’s note — More and more people seem to either gravitate toward being bulky or flexible. It is important to note both straining muscles to build bulk and pushing flexibility without strength can lead to injuries over time.
It’s also important to clarify between difference types of flexibility;
- Flexibility without strength is hypermobility — where the flexibility lies in the ligaments and joints, yet the muscles itself are not flexible. In this instance joints are weak and ligaments are overstretched.
- While flexibility enabled through strength — provides joints, ligaments and smaller muscles that attach to bones (skeletal muscles) much needed support to maintain muscular integrity.
And this is what Pilates Strength Training is all about!
PILATES FOR BACK PAIN RELIEF
It is no secret that Pilates is great for back pain management, maintaining spine health and prevention of back injuries.
Why? Because Pilates is all about stabilising and strengthening the trunk to support the spine. We refer to this as strengthening the ‘Powerhouse’.
The Powerhouse is composed of muscles in the trunk & pelvic stabilisers. The Abdominals (upper and lower), lower back make up the trunk, and the hips and gluts make up the pelvic stabilisers. Pilates differs from most core training regimes as it anchors the spine while maintaining the strength, suppleness, flexibility and stabilises the pelvis in motion.
We often over simplify when referring to the abdominals, dividing them into two components — upper and lower. But if we were to be more precise — the abdominals are made up of 4 layers. All of which adds to the integrity and strength powerhouse, thus spine.
Clarification of the abdominals layers;
Rectus abdominis — the most superficial muscular layer. Often referred to as the ‘six-pack’ muscles. Its main function is to move the trunk between the ribcage and pelvis.
Transverse abdominis — the deepest muscular layer and stabiliser. This layer works to maintain abdominal pressure, and with co-ordination with the obliques rotates and side bend the trunk
External oblique muscles — located on the sides of the rectus abdominis, it allows the trunk to bend laterally and twist. When bending one side contracts and the other stretches ie. the right contracts to bend to the right as the left stretches. But when twisting the contraction is oppositional ie. when twisting to right, its the left oblique that contracts
Internal obliques muscles — sits at the base of the trunk in-between the hip bones, also responsible for twisting action. They work in conjunction with the opposing external obliques, as you twist to the right — the right internal oblique contracts with the left external oblique
So how does Pilates help with back pain?
When these layers are strong, they act as a tight abdominal corset scooping/pulling the organs inward and closer to the spine. If these layers are weak, the abdominal corset is ineffective and the organs distend and pulls on the spine. As it pulls, it compresses parts of the spinal column.
By keeping these layers strong with the organs ‘scooped’ in — it helps lengthen and support vertebral column in its verticality. Thereby giving the vertebral discs that act as shock absorbers more space to move effectively.
These days spinal injuries such as tears, bulges or herniations are due to compression between the vertebrae of the spine. It is important to note without abdominal strength to support the flexibility, the spine is hyper mobile and unstable. Note in both instances of rigidity and hyper mobility of the spine are both equal culprits to compressing the spine that can lead to pain and injury.
Treatment for Back Pain
Unless you have a structural reason (normally from injury) for back pain ie. Herniated, disc bulge — instances of unexplained twinges can be symptomatic of tight muscles that are pulling and straining the lower back. In which case, a program of stretch and abdominal strength training can be adopted. The stretching will alleviate the pain.
If the back pain is from injury — wait till the inflammation is over, and start with a gentle program of stretch and slowly increase the intensity of abdominal strength building. The goal is for the program be dominated with strength building and the stretches are incorporated in the exercises. The strength building will prevent future injury.
True core strength work should enable strength and flexibility in the spine and stabilize the pelvis. It should promote good posture and muscle integrity throughout the body to support, maintain and protect the spine in its full range of motion ie. flexion, extension, lateral bending and torsions.
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