Has a client ever asked you, “How many times a week should I do Pilates?” You may have answered, “It depends.” Truthfully, both the question and the 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 over 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 practice so they can enjoy all the benefits Pilates offers.
Recommended Exercise Frequency
Let’s review the general recommendation for exercise frequency, known as the dose-response relationship. The dose-response relationship refers to the ideal exercise quantity, or dose, that leads to desired physiological changes (Lee 2007). The concept posits there is a minimum dose that garners results; and results improve in response to a dosage increase. Exercising too much, on the other hand, may be detrimental. An effective program offers an exercise dose that elicits the highest benefit without veering into the detrimental zone. Determine the ideal dose by looking at a client’s current fitness level, and consider the frequency, intensity, type and duration of a targeted move.
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 strength training on 2-3 days per week (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, as are sessions that don’t adhere to a regularly recurring schedule.
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, such as poor posture, which 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 while sitting, standing, walking or performing any task. With enough repetition and practice, Pilates transfers to daily life. The key is repetition and practice.
Motor learning and memory rely on muscle memory. As with all memories, muscle memory is retained and stored in memory patterns in the central nervous system. While repeating a behavior a few times may form a pattern in the short-term memory, that pattern is easily forgotten after a few minutes. When we repeat a behavior, we retain the memory pattern and store it in long-term memory, where it can remain for a lifetime (Muscolino 2011).
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 that makes it easier to better understand how neural pathways are formed (2010). He likens these 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 depend on a firm commitment to an ongoing Pilates practice.
While each client’s program may be slightly different, to best suit his or her levels, needs and desired outcomes, the general rule remains the same. The body will slip into old habits and detrimental movements unless new ones are firmly instilled and repeated. What can you do to help clients improve and practice more than once a week? Here are some tips on how to motivate and inspire them:
- Summarize the main points in this article and share them with students so that they understand the science behind making lasting physiological changes.
- Share success stories from existing clients (with permission) and highlight the frequency and dedication that was necessary to reach their goals.
- Discuss goals during the orientation and draft a “contract” that clearly outlines the steps necessary in order to reach them, including practicing frequently.
- Give clients “homework,” such as simple mat exercises you know they can do correctly, and offer incentives such as a T-shirt or a free class if they do a certain amount (and can prove it with a photo or short video).
- Give clients positive reinforcement and feedback for the extra days they do come in to the studio.
Michael Salvatore, MBA, is certified in foundational training from Romana’s Pilates. He is also certified as a clinical orthopedic manual therapist and an EBFA master instructor in barefoot training. He can be reached at [email protected]