Pilates and posture, part two

watchdogIn addition to maintaining the three natural curves of the spine, head placement is important for ideal posture. Because we as a population spend most of our time leaning over a desk, driving or propped up on pillows in bed watching TV, a common postural flaw in this country is forward head posture.

Ideally, the head is centered over the body with the ear lobe aligned with the midpoint of the shoulder (and the shoulders should not be rounded forward, but more on that tomorrow!) But most of us look down when we walk, read a book, write, use the computer, cook, etc., so our heavy heads pull us out of ideal alignment. Soon, the forward head posture feels normal and if we align our heads over our shoulders, we feel like we will fall backwards!

Here’s a good exercise to try: assume the “all 4″s” position and feel how gravity wants to pull your head closer to the ground. Don’t let that happen! Think of pulling the backs of your ears up towards the ceiling to bring your head in line with your spine. Do NOT think of jamming the chin into the chest as this usually creates tension and poor alignment.

Remember, your head weighs about 12 to 15 pounds, and every inch it sits forward of ideal alignment on top of the shoulder means another ten pounds of weight is added to your head from your body’s perspective. This can lead to muscle strains in the upper back, a rounding of the upper spine and cause neck and shoulder tension as well.

April 21, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Pilates on Fifth Postings, Pilates Posts, The Pilates Center of New York Postings, UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com Postings. Leave a comment.

Pilates and posture, part one

posture“Stand up straight!”  “Pull your shoulders back!”  “Don’t slouch!”  How many of us heard this as kids?

Good posture conveys self confidence, poise, leadership and many other positive attributes.  But posture is important not only for aesthetics, but also — and most importantly — for proper biomechanics, alignment and weight distribution throughout the body.

This week we will dissect the various aspects of good posture and the most common obstacles to achieving it.  As the spine is the center of the body, we will begin with a description of the spine and a definition of “neutral spine,” which is important for achieving proper posture.

First of all, the spine is comprised of 24 vertebrae that articulate with one another and another nine vertebrae in the sacrum — the bony triangle at the base of the spine with five fused vertebrae — and the tailbone consisting of four fused vertebrae.  The 24 vertebrae which articulate with one another are flexible enough to give us the movement we require to complete our daily functions.

The neck — or cervical spine — contains seven vertebrae and has the most flexibility of any part of the spine.  The rib cage area — or thoracic spine — contains twelve vertebrae and has the least amount of flexibility because of the limitation (and thus the protection) imposed by the ribs.  Finally, the lower back — or lumbar spine — contains five vertebrae with a fairly large degree of flexibility naturally, though many find limitation as they age due to muscle tightness.

Contrary to the common command, “stand up straight!” the spine is not naturally straight!  The spine has three curves which should be maintained for proper biomechanics.  The cervical spine (neck) curves slightly forward, the thoracic spine (rib cage) curves slightly backwards and the lumbar spine (lower back) curves slightly forward again.  These curves give the spine resiliency and aid in the absorption of impact and stress to the body.

Pilates seeks to preserve the natural curves of the spine, which is why you may have heard the terms “neutral spine” and “neutral pelvis” in your Pilates class.  The spine in its neutral alignment facilitates proper breathing, proper functioning of the bodily organs (as nothing is compressed) and as mentioned, proper transfer of weight through the joints.

Want to learn more about good posture?  Check back the rest of the week for more on head placement, pelvic placement and more!

April 17, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Pilates on Fifth Postings, Pilates Posts, The Pilates Center of New York Postings, UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com Postings. Leave a comment.

Golfers find better posture through Pilates, part 2

power-golf-pilates-1Yesterday we showed you “ideal” alignment in the set-up of the golf swing.  Today, we’ll discuss one of the most common errors that negatively impact the success of the swing:  rounding the shoulders and the spine.

“Most golfers bend from the waist instead of the hip sockets due to lack of body awareness and the inability to physically do it,” says our favorite Golf and Pilates expert Rick Nielsen.  “The hip girdle and spine should be tilted forward about 25 degrees to allow the arms to hang freely and the club to move around the spine in a predictable manner.”

Rick suggests holding a golf club at your back to keep the spine straight before and then leaning forward from the hip socket.  “Of course your entire spine will not stay in contact with the club due to the spine’s natural curves,” says Rick, “but doing this can tell you if you are rounding your spine.”

The below picture shows proper set-up:

power-golf-pilates-2Not only does setting up with rounded shoulders and a rounded spine take the body out of the optimal alignment needed for a good swing, it could also lead to injury.  Rotating the spine abruptly with the spine flexed (rounded) instead of straight is more damaging to the discs and the surrounding musculature.

To build body awareness and strengthen appropriate muscle groups, try the following exercises:

1.    The Spine Twist:  This original Pilates exercise will teach you to keep your hips completely still and just rotate the spine. This will strengthen the deep muscles that stabilize the spine and build awareness of the ribcage and the hips as independently moving parts.

2.    The Spine Stretch Forward:  This original Pilates exercise takes you from a straight spine to a flexed spine and then back to a straight spine again…all using the abdominal muscles instead of gravity!  This is a great choice for those of you who may not know your spine is rounded to begin with!

3.    The Saw:  This original Pilates exercise combines flexion (rounding) of the spine with rotation, building abdominal strength and body awareness.

For all of the above exercises, it may be necessary to sit up on a cushion or pad if the hamstrings or hip flexors are tight.  The most important part of these exercises is to perform them from an optimal starting position, which means the spine should be as straight as possible.  It is ok to perform these exercises sitting in a chair as well!  (Hint….you could probably sneak some of these in at work!)

Interested in longer workouts?  Try the “My First Pilates Workout” or “Technique and Fundamentals” workout from UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com!  And if you’re interested in a golf lesson, don’t call us!  Contact Rick Nielsen at PowerGolfPilates.net.

April 13, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 1. Leave a comment.

Simplifying the Saw

saw“The Saw” is one of those Pilates exercises that a lot of people “just don’t get.”  At first glance, it might just look like a hamstring stretch, but it’s actually more complex.  The Saw is a classical Pilates exercise that increases flexibility of the spine and strengthens the core.  The goal of the exercise is to use the abdominal muscles to rotate the spine, then flex the spine over the leg, scooping in the abdominals.  You can also think of it as combining the classical Pilates exercises of Spine Twist and Spine Stretch Forward.  Now, because some flexibility in the hamstrings as well as freedom of movement through the hip flexors is required, you might find it necessary to sit on a small cushion or even in a chair so that it is easier to keep the focus on the spine and the core.  It’s very important to start the exercise with your pelvis in neutral (think vertical) alignment.  First, rotate your ribcage to one direction, feeling like you are growing taller as you rotate.  Then, imagine that you’re trying to round your spine over a beach ball….  You have to lengthen first, then round to try to go over the ball.  The opposite hand reaches to the outside of your foot, as if you were planning to saw off your baby toe.  The other arm naturally rotates so that the thumb faces the floor…. It’s simply more comfortable!!  For a detailed video of how to get the most out of the Saw, visit our Pilates on Fifth podcast at http://pilatesonfifth.com/video/2007/10/03/saw/.  We also feature the Saw in many of our Mat Pilates Workouts at www.ultimatepilatesworkouts.com.

April 10, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Pilates on Fifth Postings, Pilates Posts, The Pilates Center of New York Postings, UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com Postings. Leave a comment.

Golfers find better posture through Pilates, part 1

golf-pilates-pictures-posture-1We’re back for a week of golf-related Pilates articles with our resident golf expert, PGA member and certified Pilates teacher Rick Nielsen.

Pilates offers many benefits to the golfer looking for effective cross-training by focusing on alignment, proper biomechanics and symmetry of movement.  Good posture is key to achieving a good set-up position for the golf swing, so this week, we’ll focus on proper posture in the set-up along with some common errors.  We’ll also recommend some exercises for building body awareness and strengthening appropriate muscle groups.

First, the feet should be approximately shoulder distance apart and the weight evenly distributed between the right and left feet.  Next, the knees should be slightly bent with the body angled forward (approximately 25 degrees) from the hips to hold the club.  The shoulder of the dominant hand should be slightly lower, as it is the hand holding lower on the club.  As you can see from the side view, the shoulders, knee caps and balls of the feet should be in one line.  From the front, the joints of the body should be stacked on top of each other:  knees over ankles, hips over knees and shoulders over hips.

“Sound posture produces good balance by establishing a solid foundation,” says Rick Nielsen of Power Golf Pilates.  “Pilates facilitates good posture because it not only strengthens the deep muscles of the abdomen and spine which help maintain the body’s proper posture but also it enhances body awareness.  Most golfers aren’t aware of their own faulty posture habits, and Pilates builds the body awareness necessary to recognize one’s own posture.”

As a training tactic, Rick often has his students stand on two air pads or balance discs in their set-up stance both to challenge the musculature that supports good posture AND shine a light on some bad habits!  By doing this, you’ll see where you tend to carry your weight (because you’ll start to fall that way…) and you can correct accordingly!

Check back tomorrow for more tips!  Can’t wait to get started with exercises?  Try the Spine Twist, Spine Stretch Forward and the Saw!  If you wake up with low back tightness, try the Morning Low Back Care Workout on UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com.

April 9, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Pilates on Fifth Postings, Pilates Posts, The Pilates Center of New York Postings, UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com Postings. Leave a comment.

Pilates for two: Spice up your workout! part 4

pilates-for-two-part-41Now it’s time to work the abs more and stretch at the same time! Today’s exercise is the original Pilates exercise “the Roll Up.” Here, using a stretch band with a partner, you’ll get support from your partner and the band to help you articulate through the spine, and you’ll get a fabulous stretch while providing the support for your partner!

So here’s how you do it: To start, sit up as tall as possible facing each other with the abs pulling in and the spine straight. Ideally, the legs will be straight and together as well, BUT if the hamstrings are tight making it impossible to straighten the spine and the legs simultaneously, then bend the knees and focus on straightening the spine as much as you can in the start position! Hold the band, one holding the middle of the band shoulder distance apart, the other holding the edges.

Inhale, one partners starts to roll back one vertebrae at a time while the other reaches forward. Then exhale and continue rolling back (while the other reaches forward) until the individual rolling back is lying on the mat with the arms reaching overhead. At this point, the other partner is indulging in a forward bend stretch.

pilates-for-two-part-42Inhale, start to reverse, the partner on the floor lifts the head and shoulders and starts to roll up while the stretching partner starts to roll back.  Exhale, continue rolling up and back respectively until the reverse is happening…

pilates-for-two-part-43

Repeat 4-6 times according to both partners’ strength and flexibility.

April 8, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Pilates on Fifth Postings, Pilates Posts, The Pilates Center of New York Postings. Leave a comment.

Can Pilates help reduce cellulite?

small-ball-toning-workoutThough Pilates was designed to re-align the body and re-balance muscle groups, many people — namely women — use Pilates for vanity!  From sculpted arms to toned abs to tighter hips and buttocks, Pilates definitely helps prepare the body for bikini weather!

But many people seek to “spot tone” and accomplish cellulite reduction in specific areas.  At our New York studio, second only to questions about weight loss, women ask “will my cellulite go away?”  Unfortunately, spot toning is not possible with Pilates or any other exercise system.  Cellulite reduction occurs only with fat loss.

Factors that contribute to one’s susceptibility to cellulite development are gender, race, age and body composition.  Women are more prone to cellulite development than men.  This is due to structural differences in the connective tissue that lie below the skin in men and women.  If you think of connective tissue as fish net stockings lying under the top layer of skin, men have smaller squares per inch in their fish net stockings, and the “netting” is thicker and lies more horizontal to the skin’s surface.  On the other hand, in women, the squares are larger, the netting is thinner and the strands of the netting lie vertical to the skin’s surface.  Thus, more fat breaks through the squares and produces the dimpling effect on the skin’s surface.

Moreover, studies have shown that caucasian women are more susceptible to cellulite development, whereas African American and Asian women are less susceptible.  Just as darker skin tones — those with more melanin — display a stronger resistance to UV rays, so to do darker skin tones show more resistance to cellulite development.  As the levels of melanin, and thus skin tones, can vary greatly among caucasians, an individual’s susceptibility to cellulite development will depend on genetic make-up.  The more an individual tans naturally, the more melanin in their body, and the more resistant to cellulite development they naturally are.  Redheads with blue eyes have the least amount of melanin in their bodies, while African American women with dark eyes have the most.

Next, the natural process of aging causes a decrease in firmness of the skin.  The older one is, the more susceptible they are to cellulite development.  Research indicates that most women start noticing cellulite most after the age of thirty.  This should not be new information to anyone, as wrinkles start to appear “suddenly” after age 30 as well.

Finally, body composition plays a part in cellulite development.  Bodies with a lower body fat percentage will be less susceptible to cellulite because the fat simply is not there!  Increasing your body’s lean mass (or increasing muscle tone) will not only help that percentage, but also increase the body’s metabolism, or capacity to burn more calories, even when the body is at rest.

Pilates helps increase muscle tone, so in a very indirect way, yes, Pilates can help.  But if your goal is to rid yourself of unsightly cellulite, you must do more than Pilates.  Both engaging in cardiovascular activity and consuming a sensible diet are key components that can not be overlooked.  As you know, we recommend CARDIOLATES, but any physical activity that elevates the heart rate is effective.

Losing overall body fat and increasing overall muscle tone will help you lose the unwanted cellulite!  So keep up with your Pilates, take a brisk walk a day and watch what you eat!

April 7, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Pilates on Fifth Postings, Pilates Posts, The Pilates Center of New York Postings, UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com Postings. Leave a comment.