Pilates and the Science of Human Movement

Inner IDEA: Top-notch professionals speak candidly about anatomy.

The anatomy of human movement and its importance to the Pilates Method is a provocative and complex topic. Many Pilates professionals have convergent views on the issue, while others have different perspectives and approaches. Rael Isacowitz, MA, founder and director of Body Arts and Science International® (BASI Pilates®), and Karen Clippinger, MSPE, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, are tackling this stimulating subject in a new book called Pilates Anatomy, scheduled for release spring 2011 (Human Kinetics).

IDEA Fitness Journal (IFJ) recently interviewed Isacowitz and two other leading Pilates professionals, John Garey, MS, STOTT PILATES® master trainer and owner of John Garey Pilates in Long Beach, and Sherri Betz, PT, Polestar Pilates™ principal educator/examiner and owner of TheraPilates® in Santa Cruz, California. IFJ presented these three outstanding teachers with a series of questions about anatomy and the Pilates Method. The questions were based on Isacowitz’s first book, Pilates (Human Kinetics 2006), as well as his upcoming one, which he hopes will “create a meeting ground for Pilates professionals and enthusiasts” because it uses the original source, Joseph Pilates’ book Return to Life Through Contrology, published in 1945. “We analyze and document each exercise anatomically, exactly as it was performed in Joseph Pilates’ book. There are no pictures of the exercises per se, but rather anatomical illustrations drawn by a medical artist. The focus is the science of Pilates as opposed to the art of Pilates,” he says. The following is IFJ’s interview with Isacowitz on this complicated subject, interspersed with the viewpoints of Garey and Betz.

The Science of Human Movement

IFJ: Why is it important for Pilates instructors to understand the science of human movement as it relates to Pilates?

Isacowitz: Understanding the science allows instructors to know the potential gains and dangers and, very importantly, the potential contraindications of an exercise so they can teach intelligently, cue wisely and comprehend the difference between concept and fact. It also allows instructors to compile effective programs for their clients. Scientific research now substantiates many of the benefits of Pilates and adds new and welcome credibility to its practice.

Betz: If Pilates teachers are known as movement specialists, it is very important that they understand biomechanics and safe movement practice. For instance, strengthening muscles that surround a joint with the joint in proper alignment is essential; otherwise, the client would be strengthening faulty alignment.

Garey: I always think of the classic axiom “First, do no harm” and how it applies to Pilates. We as teachers take time to understand Pilates exercises and the equipment we use; why wouldn’t we want to understand the body? It’s essential to teaching the work properly, programming appropriately for the individual, modifying exercises to accommodate the client’s needs and understanding the method and its effects.

Client Observation

IFJ: How important is it to observe how a client’s body moves before and during a Pilates session? Do you consider this an ongoing process?

Isacowitz: Observation of a client’s body and how the person responds to movement is absolutely key during a Pilates session. We need to be “detectives” of movement. I often say that every exercise is a tool of analysis for the observant Pilates instructor. We do not necessarily need sophisticated measuring instruments or analytical tables. Instead, we use our eyes. We observe tightness, weaknesses, imbalances, compensations and dysfunctions in our clients. A teacher needs to know what is happening to a student at all times. We can then create modifications to exercises based on scientific knowledge and, of course, knowledge of the Pilates method. Looking at the body and detecting movement patterns is similar to a musician practicing and perfecting musical scales. It is a matter of continuous practice. When you get your certificate of completion [for a Pilates program], then you are essentially equipped to start learning.

Betz: During the initial session, observation of the client is important in order to establish a baseline and identify faulty movement strategies. I recommend that the teacher use a screening tool [i.e., postural assessment and functional or fitness assessment] to recognize faulty movements and set goals for the client, while incorporating the client’s goals, too. Based on the screening, the teacher can select the best exercises to help the student achieve his or her goals. The teacher should reassess the client each session, increasing the exercise challenge when appropriate and minimizing risk of injury.

Garey: Observing how a person stands, sits, lies down and walks is critical investigative work that must be completed to understand a client’s body, movement patterns, function and dysfunction. It is as important as any postural analysis and movement test that teachers do with a client on the first visit. It helps shape the exercises and modifications we choose. It plays an important role in deciding what equipment or props to use, too.

A Genius of the Body

IFJ: Joseph Pilates has been called “a genius of the body,” yet some Pilates professionals who studied with him say Mr. Pilates never spoke in anatomical terms to his students/clients while teaching. What is your viewpoint?

Isacowitz: I did not have the pleasure of studying with Mr. Pilates, but I am sure they [the teachers and students who worked with him] are right in saying he never spoke in anatomical terms. None of the early Pilates teachers who studied with Joseph Pilates spoke in anatomical terms, certainly not until recently. Does this mean they lack expertise, teaching skills or ability? Absolutely not! How could anyone say that? Joseph Pilates was a genius of the body, and the teachers who followed him are all brilliant in their own right. This fortifies my viewpoint that mere knowledge of anatomy does not make you a great Pilates teacher.

However, we need to recognize the evolution of the fitness and wellness industry. Today it is a great benefit to have anatomical knowledge, in part because there is so much cross-pollination between professions. At times, a Pilates teacher will need to communicate with a physical therapist or physician, and being able to speak the common language of science makes communication clear and concise. Pilates teachers are the experts of movement, while physicians and physical therapists are diagnosticians who treat patients. The meeting ground is the science.

Betz: Pilates is a movement regimen. It is not necessary to use anatomical language to teach people to move. Imagery, creative cuing and alignment concepts are most effective. Even the brightest people with deep knowledge of anatomy [may not be] well aligned and efficient with movement.

Garey: Most great Pilates educators use various methods to teach the exercises. Knowledge of the body does not always have to translate into talking about that expertise in technical terms. Certain people have an innate ability to communicate, whether they are using visual (demonstrating the exercise), tactile (touch and proprioception) or verbal skills. I don’t think anyone would argue that Joseph Pilates understood the human body and did years and years of personal study on the subject [even though he did not speak in anatomical terms].

Key Anatomy Concepts

IFJ: In your opinion, what are the key anatomy concepts that instructors should focus on in the science of human movement?

Isacowitz: First, instructors should focus on good alignment. This translates to the body working in synergy with the laws of nature, particularly gravity. To understand good posture and alignment is to know the joints, muscles and mechanics of the body. Good alignment means you are aligned with gravity. Instructors should focus on the relationship between muscle groups; for instance, the unique and intricate relationship that exists between the abdominals and hip flexors, the abdominals and back extensors and the muscles of the powerhouse working together to support the core of the body.

Betz: “As much as necessary, as little as possible”—Alan Lee, grandmaster of traditional Chinese martial arts—This describes the concept of efficiency of movement.

A Pilates teacher should focus on alignment of joints during simple movements, progressing from the anatomical neutral position of the joints in small range of motion to larger and more complex ranges of motion in multiple planes.

Garey: Start with the basics: the structure of the body; the bones, joints and ligaments for all areas of body movement. Second, progress to the muscles that create that movement and ask how much they are moving and in what direction. Third, study the normal function of the joints (ankle, knee, spine, shoulder, etc.). What is ideal posture/alignment and optimal movement of that particular area of the body? Next, analyze if there is any dysfunction in those joints. How does this dysfunction present itself in the body when things don’t move properly or posture is not ideal? Finally, examine which muscles work with each Pilates exercise to design the best exercise program for that client.

The Significance of the Powerhouse

IFJ: What is the significance of “the powerhouse” in the proper teaching of Pilates anatomy?

Isacowitz: In terms of anatomy, the powerhouse supports and protects the pelvis and spine, essentially providing a strong foundation upon which all movement can be performed. However, the concept of the powerhouse goes far beyond anatomy; it is where body meets mind. The powerhouse is the source of all movement and the central pillar of the Pilates philosophy. We cannot look at the powerhouse simply as the muscles of the abdominals, the back extensors, the pelvic floor, the diaphragm (some people would include the hip flexors; I do). As teachers we have the ability to delve a layer deeper and be more specific by citing the transversus abdominis, multifidus and psoas.

We can get more detailed anatomically, but when we talk about the powerhouse, we are also talking about an inner sense that goes beyond the muscles that are working. It is not just about muscles working in isolation. It is also about the relationship between those muscles. I call the muscles of the powerhouse the mind muscles, as activating them requires focus, concentration, control and precision—all principles of Pilates.

Betz: In my opinion, the powerhouse is the core of the body, formed by the respiratory diaphragm, pelvic floor, transversus abdominis and multifidus. These muscles work together to regulate intra-abdominal pressure around the lumbar spine between the lower pelvis and lower ribs. They act to anticipate movement in order to stabilize the lumbar spine even before movement occurs. Therefore, the importance of breathing properly and understanding the mechanism of respiration is especially important for proper recruitment of the powerhouse so that the pelvic floor is not damaged through inappropriate holding of the breath (Valsalva maneuver) or over-recruitment of the superficial trunk muscles (obliques and erector spinae), which compress the lumbar spine when attempting to stabilize it.

Garey: As the saying goes, “A house is only as strong as its foundation.” To me, the area described by Joseph Pilates as the powerhouse is our foundation. It is where we draw our strength and stability from; knowing how to properly activate the muscles that support that area is key to ideal movement throughout our lives, not just in Pilates exercises. This is one of the most important reasons we teach Pilates, to improve the quality of movement in our clients’ daily lives.

Becoming a Good Teacher

IFJ: Is a detailed knowledge of the Pilates Method, as well as an understanding of anatomy, key to becoming a good teacher?

Isacowitz: Detailed knowledge of the method is absolutely imperative to becoming a good Pilates teacher. Immaculate scientific knowledge of the body does not and cannot make you a good Pilates teacher; that is why a short training in Pilates does not ensure that a physical therapist will be a good Pilates teacher. First and foremost, one needs knowledge and experience in Pilates, and scientific information fortifies this knowledge. As much as I believe in anatomy, at the end of the day, Pilates is about movement. You need to move, and you need to know this enormous repertoire of exercises.

The principles of Pilates all have a scientific aspect as well as an esoteric aspect. It is the basic principles that make it a mind-body system, a combination of science and art. The principle of breath is a good example. Breath can be understood anatomically, and should be, but breath has far-reaching implications that go well beyond anatomy and physiology. It is the link between body, mind and spirit.

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Rosalind Gray Davis

IDEA Author/Presenter
Rosalind Gray Davis is a dynamic and creative author and highly regarded health, fitness and wellnes... more less
September 2010

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