‘Sneaky’ Pilates means ‘more bang for your buck’ exercise-wise. There are many ways to make your workout more effective by ‘sneaking in’ some extra moves. Just as an example: you might work one part of the body, say performing a series of squats designed to strengthen legs and buttocks, while at the same time sneaking in robust upper body exercises such as bicep curls or overhead presses. Or you might change how you organize the body: to focus first on the inner core or ‘stabilizers’; then add in movements that challenge the outer, more visible layer of muscles in the arms, chest and legs, the ‘mobilizers.’ ‘Sneaky’ Pilates may be as simple as only using the resistance of your body, instead of props (think of yourself in a hotel room without the weights you use for your usual workouts).
Why do we need to be sneaky?
Pilates exercises are not always viewed as strength exercises as we generally know them. Often Pilates starts at a low level of intensity. The goal is to use the work of attention to re-educate the body and, if necessary, the nervous system, so that the stabilizers of the low back, buttocks and abdomen are working together to safely withstand the movements of the heavy limbs or the spine itself. We do this by putting the body through precise movement patterns and repeating them frequently. And we often use a ‘less is more’ approach.
But ‘less is more’ is not what older adults need. They benefit most from working their bodies to fatigue rather than dialing back intensity, as considerable strength is lost through the ageing process (see March 31’s blog). Tweaking Pilates so that the exercises challenge both stabilizers and mobilizers can support older adults to remain strong in their daily functions; whether climbing stairs, getting in and out of chairs or cars, or lifting objects – not to mention picking up grandbabies. But the challenge is how to slip more vigor into workouts without overwhelming the older body and discouraging people.
Stabilizers and Mobilizers
Stabilizing muscles are designed to contract for sustained periods of time to provide support for large movements. Usually they are deep (though in the shoulder area they are not as deep or as small as in the spine and pelvis) and are associated with fixing the spinal joints in place, supporting the bone in the socket or joint, as well as allowing us to perform functions that require endurance. Mobilizing muscles are designed for one-off, powerful movements such as lifting an arm or a leg up into the air.
Older adults need both stabilizers and mobilizers to work well. ‘Sneaky’ Pilates means starting with strengthening the inner-layer muscles and then adding in lots of moves that challenge bigger ‘blast-off’ muscles such as lats, biceps, and triceps. Think of a spaceship: it is the control engines (stabilizers) that allow the spacecraft to operate safely as the big engines (mobilizers) function during blast off.
Let’s take a simple exercise like Heel Slides, where you begin by lying on your back with your knees bent. After you find neutral pelvis and ensure that both sides of the buttocks remain heavy and grounded on the mat, one heel slides slowly down the mat away from a stabilized pelvis. This exercise can be made even more effective (and interesting) by adding in an upper body strengthener such as Flies or Chest Press. Another ‘sneaky’ approach, this time when standing, might be to ‘distract’ the body with a simple knee bend, or one-leg-behind-the-other ‘curtsy’, while you slip in some upper body weight exercises like bicep curls or overhead presses.
‘Sneaky’ Pilates is a balancing act
A class designed with ‘Sneaky’ Pilates in mind is a balancing act. Too much effort can pull the body out of alignment and recruit the wrong muscles, yet too little effort can result in boredom, dissatisfaction, and diminishing returns. We want a pace to the class, and we want to work the muscles, but not to make things too hard or discouraging. We want people to keep coming back and not give up.
‘Sneaky’ Pilates may be as simple as starting every session lying on the mat. I do this because I know students (and I) want it. When we feel utterly exhausted, it may be the difference between showing up for class or not. The first time I lay down on a Pilates mat, I felt the profound sensation of getting close to the ground and just being. How could one not love a workout that begins with lying and relaxing for five or so minutes. (We use this time to scan and check-in with the body and notice what parts might require particular care during the workout).
‘Sneaky’ Pilates could also be about reframing how you think of exercise. You may decide to view it as a practice instead of a workout. Or you might focus on the benefits you are getting from Pilates when you are off the mat. For example, doing your classes may help you slow down and be more in the moment in other aspects of your life. ‘To work from a strong core’ can mean not only strengthening the abdominals but also finding your own spiritual or emotional center.
Working with balls is, I believe, ‘sneaky’ Pilates at its very best. Ball work helps balance and strength training and can keep older bodies functioning better for longer. Next week we will look at how large balls can enhance any workout. This blog will feature a video showing how to use a large ball as a bench for strength training.