Have clients asked you, "How many times a week should I do Pilates?" You may have answered: "It depends." Truthfully, both the question and response are loaded. Many things factor into the ideal Pilates program, including the client's fitness level and goals. While some use Pilates for rehabilitation, other popular goals include increased strength, enhanced flexibility and the sculpted "Pilates body."
Another vital factor is what the body is doing "behind the scenes," in the nervous system and muscles. If a client wants to increase her strength and flexibility for the long term, she must rely on motor learning, motor memory and muscle memory. Therefore, one session a week is rarely, if ever, enough. This article explains why in more detail and includes tips on how to inspire and motivate your clients to incorporate additional Pilates sessions into their practices so they can enjoy all the benefits Pilates offers.
Recommended Exercise Frequency
The general recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, coupled with 2‐3 days of strength training (ACSM 1998). ACSM also stresses the need to keep exercising regularly, to maintain results. One Pilates session per week is inadequate based on these recommendations alone; so is inconsistency in practice.
The body tends to regress after each Pilates session. The extent of this regression depends on how much time has passed between sessions. Clients who practice regularly (several sessions per week over an extended period) build up neuromuscular coordination and memory. This is not the case for beginners. If new clients allow their bodies to regress for an entire week between sessions, they may regress into old patterns and return to nearly the same state as before the previous week’s session (Muscolino 2010). Thus, once-a-week sessions pretty much force the body to start from scratch rather than allowing it to build on previous learned behaviors.
Motor Learning and Motor Memory
People don’t consciously think about their movements when they sit, walk or stand. Such motor behavior is automatic, thanks to years of repetition that starts as far back as infancy. Watching a child learn how to walk reminds us of how much practice, stumbling and dedication it takes to instill a motor behavior. A problem arises, however, when automatic movements are detrimental to the body; for example, poor posture can eventually take a toll on overall health and well-being.
Pilates aims to correct detrimental motor behavior by replacing "bad" movements with positive ones. Just as it took years to establish poor motor behavior, it takes time for the body to automatically move in a way that is balanced, healthy and beneficial. Once positive motor behavior is instilled through motor learning and motor memory, it remains as the foundation for subsequent tasks and movements (Jarus 1994). Proper posture begins to take over when a client is sitting, standing, walking or performing any task. With enough repetition and practice, Pilates transfers to daily life.
Motor learning and memory rely on muscle memory. Repetition is the key to transferring muscle memory from short-term to long-term memory. Short-term memories involve functional changes in the neural pathways, whereas long-term memories actually change the structure of the pathways so the muscle memory can be recalled.
Author and noted industry educator Joseph E. Muscolino shares a useful analogy to better explain how neural pathways are formed (2010). He likens neural pathways to a stream running down a mountain. If the stream runs a few times after a heavy rain but remains dry the rest of the year, the stream bed remains shallow and unstable. If the stream runs heavily day after day, the stream bed becomes deeper and can even evolve into a permanent fixture on the side of the mountain. The same thing happens with neural pathways during the formation of long-term memories.
Commitment Achieves Results
The more any new skill is practiced, the better the results. Pilates is no different. Pilates relies on muscle, motor and cognitive memory, all of which rely on repetition. Cognitive memory is particularly important for recalling the names and proper positioning of the more than 500 exercises, which allows people to more readily and steadily deepen their practice. The steady deepening and progression depends on a firm commitment to an ongoing Pilates practice.
What can you do to help clients improve and practice more than once a week? For more information, please see "When Will I See Results?" in the online IDEA Library or in the June 2015 issue of IDEA Mind-Body Wellness Review. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.