Is it better to lift the head up or keep it down when you are on your back?
This is the question I get asked by so many instructors who want to be doing the “correct position” in their Pilates Matwork and of course my answer is always “both - but, it depends …“ In my group classes today I do teach both and tell my class when we lift the head up we are focusing on the front and when we keep the head down and maintain neutral its to focus on the back and centre first and then to include the front, so both are good. One position is not better than the other they just train you differently. But of course with some posture issues head up is not the best training position and when we design our One to One sessions we can decide what is best, but in a group class this is a challenge, as many modern day students should not be lifting their heads as it re-enforces their existing muscular imbalances. So let me try to distinguish further the differences between the two choices.
When we lift the head up we fire up the rectus abdominus and students love to feel this connection as they have much stronger feedback from this muscle. But if the neck is straining and they are ballooning the abdominal wall they are not training correctly for what their body needs. This is very common when the head up option is first introduced and the position is held for too long – such as in The Hundred when held for a full 10 breaths. Even in Joseph Pilates’s own publication he didn’t start at 10 breaths! He started maintaining the position for only 2 breaths (a count of 20) and only increased the duration by 5 counts at a time as the students capability increased until eventually achieving a maximum of a 100 count*. This also brings in the issue of upper back (thoracic spine) which in modern society is often already over flexed and unable to lengthen out when the body is upright.
With the head down we are able to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis and this allows us to train the deeper core stabilisers more efficiently*. I also make sure two of the movements in each class are in this position and with low levels of loading or challenge, such as only one leg lifted, so I make sure everyone is “switched on” from the centre first. Its best to place these movements in the centre or to the end of a group class as then after a few more challenging movements students will have had that ‘work out’ feeling that many have been looking for. This position also encourages the upper back to lengthen out into a better healthier alignment. Ultimately we should be able to flex and extend the upper back while having a healthy support of the lower back so the initial training choice is specific to the needs of the individual client or the majority within a group class and long term as balance is returned then both are good.
It is also this question which is being asked in another way when people ask me very regularly “Are you ‘Classical’, ‘Pure’, ‘Authentic’, ‘True’ or ‘Original’?” and I often ponder what my response should be? After all I hope after giving most of my life to teaching this method I should be something - but what am I? Ultimately what I see myself as is a Pilates Instructor and I challenge myself all the time to give the best sessions I can, and I do not believe giving yourself a name or title in front of that makes you any better as a Pilates Instructor. By all accounts that’s exactly how Mr Pilates looked at it as well. It doesn’t take much investigation to realise there was not ever simply one way of doing a movement or a sequence of movements in his studio. He changes things depending upon who was in front of him. We have to think on our feet, literally, watching our students and correcting them and changing what we feel is appropriate all the time. We change and adapt for the differing desired results. These questions lead naturally into the next concern that arises from labels like ‘classical’ and that is many non Pilates people have the opinion that Pilates is ‘contraindicated’. During my years as an exercise instructor I have witnessed many changes in the industry, from high to low aerobics, from Slide to Step, from Body Training Systems to Core and ‘functional training’. Yet with all of these changes there has always been a consistent concern revolving around the teaching of contraindicated movements. What I believe today is that there are actually no contraindicated movements, but more so, it's the person who is 'contraindicated' and in a group environment it is the size of the class and the effectiveness of participant screening that helps decide this factor. If all your students have the required flexibility and strength then they can potentially undertake any exercise safely and effectively in any environment.
Reflecting on a Pilates class I participated in, while visiting a Pilates Studio recently, there were movements that for some people would be contraindicated. Someone who does not have sufficient flexibility or strength could not perform the movements as easily, effectively or as elegantly as the teacher/instructor – let’s call him Jamie – who was also former professional dancer. Fortunately, knowing my body and its abilities, coupled with my knowledge of how to modify Jamie's movements to best suit my own capabilities, I was able to enjoy the class and undertake it effectively. The question arises; do Pilates movements become contraindicated for all those participants in the class who do not have the knowledge of how to adapt the moves to their own level? And if so, shouldn't Jamie and other Pilates instructors provide modified versions of moves to ensure participants are all able to work effectively? The answer I believe is yes as without prior knowledge of the participants and their abilities with good pre attendance screening then the movements do become contraindicated. But I stress again that it is not the movement that is the problem it is the circumstances in which it is being taught!
For Pilates, like any other exercise technique, participants need to find the right level of class for their abilities. As most of us are aware Joseph Pilates originally published a book of 34 movements. I would like all of my own students to eventually undertake the original Pilates work, but as a responsible fitness leader, my priority needs to be to cater to the needs of my participants, just as we do in any other form of exercise. As with all other exercise formats, we need to continue to prescribe safe and effective activities and continue to set realistic goals for our clients in the environments that we are in control of.
What a lot of instructors do not realise is that Pilates is not about doing what Joseph Pilates could do so well himself, because he had an exceptional level of physical conditioning. That is not to say that eventually your students would not be able to do the 'original' moves, but as an instructor, you really need to ask yourself whether the original moves are appropriate, and most effective, for what your participants need and are able to undertake comfortably. Prescribing original moves to participants who are just commencing a Pilates program is like suggesting a step novice undertake an advanced step class, or telling a student who is just starting strength training to pick up the heaviest weight, or telling the student getting on the treadmill for the first time to put it on the fastest setting. I believe passionately that the original Pilates moves are not usually appropriate for clients who are not familiar with the correct techniques, and we all know one of the fastest ways to de-motivate participants is to prescribe activities that are unachievable or uncomfortable.
During training Pilates instructors should be educated in how to modify the movements to ensure participants of all levels can be accommodated. And that what is being taught is actually what their body needs to bring balance and efficient movement back to their body. By ensuring we cater to all levels in our classes, we can continue to satisfy the global demand for Pilates classes and keep our clients and participants coming back! This is how you decide if you lift the head or not and that is how I believe we truly honour the ‘classical goals of Joseph Pilates. So do not label yourself as ‘Classical’, ‘Pure’, ‘Authentic’, ‘True’ or ‘Original’, say with pride you are a “Pilates Instructor”.
Michael King A formally trained dancer and founder of the Pilates Institute and now working under the brand name MK Pilates, Michael has taught Pilates internationally for 32 years and in over 60 countries. He divides his time between teaching from one of his studios, and his international instructor programs and courses. www.michaelkingpilates.com
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 Pilates' Return to Life Through Contrology by Joseph H. Pilates (1945) Therapeutic Exercises for Spinal Segmental Stabilization in Low Back Pain: Scientific Basis and Clinical Approach, Richardson, Jull, Hodges, Hides, (Authors) December 30, 1998 Pilates' Return to Life Through Contrology by Joseph H. Pilates (1945)