When I first started Pilates I was an avid rock climber dedicated to a rigorous training schedule with the goal of climbing harder and longer routes to no end. Needless to say, I had great endurance and strength. And one more thing – I thought I was really flexible. I could stem between footholds five feet apart, high step up to my elbows and do crazy cross-through moves. Yet my muscles had no strength or flexibility support my spine in something as natural as a backbend. My spine was as stiff as a board. According to Joseph Pilates, “If your spine is inflexible at 30 you are old, if it is flexible at 60 than you are young.” What I perceived as great flexibility and range of motion were actually hyper-extended (locked out) and stressed knees, elbows, and shoulders. But it wasn’t until I injured my shoulder that I took a closer look at my overall fitness. I discovered muscles imbalances from years of climbing that had created vulnerability and lead to my injury.
How your body looks and performs are incomplete measurements for evaluating the muscle balance of your body. Sculpted biceps, triceps, pecs, and a six-pack have many athletes believing that they are as fit as a fiddle. But what about less showy muscles like the rotator cuff or transverses abdominus? Your rotator cuff consists of four shy muscles that form a mighty team holding your arm in your shoulder socket. Climbers, golfers, paddlers, and swimmers all benefit from a strong rotator cuff. The transverse abdominus doesn’t get the hype that the “six-pack” rectus abdominus gets – yet it supports your spine, keeps your back injury free, and enables you to be infinitely more powerful.
Sports by definition require repetitive movement that creates muscle imbalances. Have you ever tried to guess what sport someone does based on his predominant muscle mass? Cyclists are easy to spot – quads of steel. So are climbers – forearms the size of bricks and lats like boat oars. As athletes, we tend to overdevelop some muscles and underdevelop others. The outcome: lack of flexibility, poor biomechanics, and joint instability that leads to common injuries such as tendonitis, bursitis, and dislocations. For athletes, keeping muscles balanced is vital to avoiding injury. Pilates can help you maintain and/or regain the integrity of your body.
Pilates is unique in that it seeks to balance your whole body. Rather than isolating muscles of your body and working repetitions like mad to get them strong – Pilates demands that your entire body work during each repetition. Pilates demands mindfulness and a commitment to mastery, verses mindlessly motoring through a workout. As you switch from one movement to the next, you’ll build flexibility, strength, and stamina. Pilates strengthens and stretches all parts of your body, front to back, left to right, and top to bottom. Depending on your sport, you’ll have different strengths and weakness and benefit from different exercises. Regardless, the goal of all Pilates exercises is to create uniform muscle balance. By grouping mat exercises together that compliment each other in a cross-training routine, as suggested in my book Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete (Fulcrum 2008), Pilates can transform your fitness. With consistent practice, patience and commitment to the Method, you will create a body that is uniformly strong, flexible and resilient.