Until recently I had neglected going to the dentist for five years.
Yes, you read that right. Five years.
Finally, I dragged myself in for a cleaning and as expected, the experience was miserable. No cavities or root canals needed, but it felt like the longest teeth cleaning of my life. I guess our mouths need regular maintenance just like our cars and nails do (mani, pedi anyone?).
We can apply this same idea to our bodies too. We only have one and should do our best to keep things running smoothly. Yet for an odd reason, we’ve grown accustomed to feeling pain or being injured all the time instead.
Low back pain at 25? Not normal. Shoulder injury at 30? No, bro, not normal either. Knee replacement surgery at 45? Totally preventable.
Feeling like crap is not the norm, but plenty of us accept it and live with it. We’re meant to thrive not suffer under pain, injury and discomfort. So what does it take to build strong, resilient bodies?
- Good programming / coaching
- Smart training
- Smart recovery
When all these elements are in equilibrium, and assuming you’re eating well, results are great! Yet when we miss one element, things get a little wonky. We hit a plateau, performance dips, body parts hurt or break down.
“Success leaves clues” – Tony Robbins
When it comes to resiliency, I often look to athletes for clues. What do they do differently? Athletes are concerned with three main things: Performance, longevity and injury prevention. Yes, they may want an Olympic medal or championship ring but to get there they need to have those three things on point. Or as the youngsters call it “on fleek.” (Insert eye roll here).
Oddly for some reason, us mere mortals are more concerned with looking good than living well or being able to work out hard without blowing out a kneecap. We may not compete professionally but living an active, happy life means we must also emphasize performance, longevity and injury prevention. Am I right, or am I right?
Pilates as the slight edge to lifting
In the book The Slight Edge Jeff Olson describes how small daily actions can up-level our success in life, money and business. Regarding fitness, it’s the little things we do consistently everyday that make all the difference. My edge is Pilates. Now, I may be bias as an instructor but knowing how effective the practice is and how it complements strength training and sports performance is enough. As far as building a resilient body is concerned, Pilates does double duty in “smart training” and “smart recovery”. Let’s look at a few common issues in lifters and how Pilates hits on all of them to create more resilient, unbreakable bodies.
Balance: The demands of our lifestyle, sport and recreational activities weaken our tendons, ligaments and muscles over time. As we train with these imbalances our risk for chronic pain or injury increases. Pilates zeros in on the weak links in the body, strengthens the weak areas while opening up the overactive, tight and stronger areas of the body. A lifter with anterior pelvic tilt, for example, suffers from tight hip flexors and weak obliques. There are numerous – actually, hundreds – of exercises for this specific body type in Pilates. No muscle groups are left untouched in Pilates – even the feet and ankles get love. As you create balance in the body and movement quality improves, lifts get easier; performance improves and the risk of injury decreases as there is less compensation in the body.
Core control and breathing: As lifters, we want to actively fire up our core (i.e. all the muscles in the trunk) to stabilize the body during movement. But faulty breathing patterns, or breathing with the upper chest, combined with muscular imbalances compromises spinal stability. This leads to inefficient movement patterns, which leads to chronic lower back pain, disc issues, fractures, or constant tightness later on. Pilates trains participants how to breathe properly through the diaphragm, allowing accessory muscles in the chest, back and neck to turn “off”. Less pain and tightness, yo!
If you’ve every squatted or pressed a significant amount of weight overhead you know it’s a lot easier to do so once you’ve activated the anterior core and taken a deep inhalation before initiating the movement. Trying to gather your senses with 135lbs or more on your back is a lot harder to do when you’re sitting at the bottom of a squat. The breath pattern in Pilates is used to make exercises easier or harder, and knowing how to breathe activates the right muscles for that given exercise. Try doing the classic hundred exercise with your neck muscles on and your core muscles ‘off’ – your neck will give out!
Spinal integrity: Every time the spine moves to create force, say in throwing an object, we are at risk for injury. Kind of a raw deal, eh? Our spine is at the center of every movement! Core control is one way to respect and protect the spine, but our lifestyles and physical activities tend to place the spine in a compromising state. The compression and shear forces that occur in the spine during heavy lifting can lead to tightness and/or injuries down the road if you’re not careful. Pilates trains you to protect the spine during movement by firing up the deep abdominal muscles (i.e. transverses abdominis), articulating through spine during rolling exercises, and opening up space between the vertebrae. Before Pilates, my spine felt like it was crushed together between two boulders and I could barely forward fold without intense pain in my mid to upper back. It only took a few sessions to alleviate the pain. There are several ways to stabilize the spine during lifts and Pilates teaches that in a safe and precise manner that is easy and gentle on the body.
Now, this doesn’t mean that lifting weights is bad for the spine. If anything, heavy lifting teaches you how to do it right so in you don’t throw out your back doing something simple like bending down to pick up your cat. We need to keep moving with or without weights – might as well learn to do it right.
Body awareness: I know this doesn’t sound sexy, but in order to be a good lifter, you need some form of kinesthetic awareness. Knowing how to fire up the glutes in a deadlift, for example, means no back pain. Knowing how to turn “on” the glutes, thighs and abdominals in a squat takes the strain off the hip joints and improves the movement overall so you can lift heavier.
Similarly, body awareness means you can feel the difference between your lats and your traps during movement. Learning to turn the lats “on” is a basic function of overhead movement and shoulder mobility. When the lats are overactive you limit the body’s ability to reach overhead. Kind of problematic if you’re snatching or pressing weight overhead. Engaging the lats in a pull-up also means your back can do the bulk of the work getting your chest to the bar rather than relaying on your biceps and forearms. (Read: 6 Tips to Crush your First Pull-Up) One of the principles of STOTT Pilates is scapular stability. There are probably 100+ exercises dedicated to scapular movement in Pilates because it’s that important.
Building a resilient body enables us to enjoy life more. The only way to do so is to apply daily, consistent habits and actions that allow us to train smart and recover smarter. As an active recovery tool, lifters would benefit from a consistent practice 2x a week. Others might benefit more with 3-4x a week of Pilates depending on their goals and fitness levels. It all depends on the person and her goals. But if I could put every athlete, lifter or Average Jane on a mat or reformer, I would because it’s the proven edge for longevity, injury prevention and performance. Can’t beat that!