In the last post I talked about the importance of training the whole body in the Pilates method and I was not intending to do a series on the notion of part vs whole, but my research this week has brought to mind another element in this idea.
In addition to not dividing up Pilates into exercises isolated to this or that part of the body, there generally is a focus on whole movement patterns rather than partial movement patterns. One example that comes to mind is the comparison between the traditional bicep curl and the Pilates Arm Circles/Curl on the Reformer.
Movement patterns are the coordination of mobile and stable parts of our bodies that enable us to move throughout the day efficiently and effectively, and frequently with very little conscious attention on the process. For example, walking involves a significant amount of balance and coordination from heel to head, as we spend more time in the single leg phase of the walking cycle than in the double leg phase. But we rarely think of this when we walk from the house to the car.
Basic movement patterns, such as walking, are so entrenched in our daily lives that we do not think about how much is involved in performing them. If you have ever broken a toe or suffered from lower back pain, you will likely have come to some awareness of this, but most of us forget the realization once the injury has healed or the pain has subsided. Yet, whether we think about it or not, movement patterns are fundamental to our day and keeping them efficient and effective should be a primary objective in any exercise program that is to be beneficial.
Returning to the comparison of bicep exercises: certainly, strengthening this muscle through any exercise can have functional benefit. A person who does 10 reps of bicep curls with heavy weights several times a week will increase the force the bicep will be able to produce, but how often in our daily tasks do we lift an object with our shoulders held still and our elbows stabilized in at our waist? The strength will be there but the movement pattern was partial in training and so it does not fully correlate to our day-to-day function.
Now, let’s consider the Pilates exercise most similar to the traditional bicep curls: Arm Circles/Curls on the Reformer. In actuality, the Arm Circles are not a concentrated exercise for the biceps. The biceps are more working in coordination with the anterior deltoids, coracobrachialis, and pectoralis major. Additionally, well-executed Arm Circles require stabilizing muscles, such as the serratus anterior, trapezius, and rotator cuff muscles (and the Powerhouse). Yet, Arm Circles incorporate a movement that is a lot more similar to those that we carry out in daily activities, such as lifting a child up from the ground or collecting the grocery bag from the trunk. Now, the Curls are more focused on strengthening the biceps. However, the starting arm position is forward and away from the torso, and this requires those shoulder and torso muscles mentioned above to both stabilize and move the arm more than what takes place when bicep curls are performed with the elbows in at the waist.
Daily movements often involve more than just the partial movement that we see in the traditional bicep curl, and training that partial movement pattern, while it does build strength, it does not help refine the whole movement pattern. Why does a refined whole movement pattern matter? It goes back to the point of efficient and effective movement because it will translate to less compensation from other parts of the body, less vulnerability to an injury, and therefore less doctor visits (and doctors’ bills).
As I have said before, the movement we do all day long, every day has a greater impact on our overall health than the several times a week we “work out.” And if our “training” (i.e. whatever exercise we do) simulates the movement patterns common in daily life, the separation between exercise and movement disappears and when it does we are effectively “working out” all day long. There may be hard workout days and restorative workout days, and our favorite exercises can happen whether we are in the studio, at the park, or in line at the market. In any case, if we are performing our exercises in the studio with good technique and reinforcing good, whole movement patterns, these skills will carry over into how we move when we are not thinking about it.