What’s Moving vs. What’s Not Moving?
As a perpetual anatomy student I’m fascinated by concepts involving the moving body. In muscular terminology, you have muscles that do the main action, agonists, those that oppose the action, antagonists and synergists who play an supporting role.
You also have types of muscular contractions, such as isotonic (concentric and eccentric) which is when either the muscle contraction shortens (concentric) or lengthens (eccentric) both utilized in Pilates’ exercises. Think of the pull-ups in the Traditional Ending on the Cadillac (photo at top of post), where the biceps muscle shortens (concentric contraction) to pull yourself up and then must lengthen (eccentric contraction) to lower the body. And of course all the other muscles involved in stabilizing the body in order to execute the exercise efficiently while in motion.
Opposed to isotonic is isometric in which the joint angle doesn’t change but the load increases. This last one a good Pilates’ example would be Front Support on the mat (in fitness terms a plank or push-up position) the longer you hold the position the more force needed to hold it, but the muscle length did not shorten or elongate.
Here’s a quick 2 minute video that explains all the above very basically.
In simple terms for most movements it takes a team effort. In other words nothing happens in isolation. To do any type of movement, you have muscles shortening, lengthening and holding their position, plus numerous variations within these groups.
Therefore, I love this term Sean Gallagher has coined and trademarked “Dynatonic™ muscle action for what we do in Pilates.”
Sean explains further:
“Since there is never just a isometric or isotonic (eccentric/concentric action) muscle action happening in isolation when doing Pilates or for that matter movement in life. We need to look at it as what is happening in the whole body (Pilates is whole body exercise) not isolationism in exercise which many strengthening programs try and emphasize. There is always some parts of the body working to stabilize (isometric) while other parts are working to mobilize (isotonic) and then there are the synergistic actions of different muscles that facilitate and help allow for control of the actions requested of the bones.”
Why is this important?
As a Pilates’ student in the beginning learning how to stabilize is a crucial component to the method. Being able to hold the torso steady while you do something else, at first it seems like rubbing your head, patting your stomach all the while standing on your tip toes. Slowly but surely though you begin to grasp the stability concept and how to apply it in a variety of exercises.
One of many reasons why Pilates’ exercises begin primarily lying on your back where it is easier to stabilize the core than standing up or other more challenging position. You have the support of the mat or apparatus underneath you as support and a larger area for the body to utilize than just your feet.
As you progress up the ladder in Pilates you are asked to stabilize your body on smaller surfaces, upside down and in a host of other body positions and planes of motion. Throughout all the classical exercises you will continue to explore what is moving in the body and what is not. As most of our clients will attest to the “what is not moving part” is often the more difficult.
In essence this is the beauty of training consistently. You acquire skills to turn down the noise. Meaning, you learn what you need to do to do the action, and recruit less of the actions that get in the way of a successful motion. Think of someone who swims for the first time. Put them in the water and everything starts moving but they don’t go anywhere, lots of motion but little real swimming. As the individual takes more lessons the movements become more refined, less splashing and more swimming.
This is the same in Pilates. The point is though it is not just one muscle or one action in isolation. I often hear discussions or individuals inquire which muscle am I using? Well the short answer is several most likely. Some muscles do the main action, others oppose the action and some offer support, as stated in the beginning of the post.
And from a Pilates’ perspective to execute exercises efficiently you must stabilize parts of the body while you move others. Knee stretches (knees off) offers a perfect example of this. See picture below.
The upper body must hold the rounded curve of the spine, the arms extended on the foot bar must not move, all the while you stretch the knees to the full extension behind you and bring the reformer carriage in and out with a consistent rhythm. The legs (knees off) remain in the air off the reformer, upper body doesn’t change its’ shape while the legs carry out the action.
Everybody working, a total team effort, ask any client. Knee stretches, knees off is a certain rite of passage in the Classical Pilates’ repertoire. So you still say what muscle do I use for knee stretches knees off?
Short list in basic/generic terminology is below.
- Quadriceps (front of upper thigh) for knee extension
- Hamstrings (back of upper thigh) in knee flexion
- Hip flexors to pull the legs and carriage inwards
- Gluteal muscles for hip extension, pelvic stability
- Muscles of the shoulder girdle to stabilize arm to the bar
- Abdominal muscles to stabilize the torso
- Wrist muscles to stabilize the hand on the bar
- Ankle and toe muscles to stabilize foot against the shoulder blocks
Understanding that even within the specific points mentioned above there will be muscles working in corporation with others not solely in just what is described above. They might take on a different role if needed to execute the exercise. So, the next time you are in a class or somewhere and you hear someone say use “this” muscle to do the exercise…say wait a minute…there is more to the story.
As Sean* said, “Pilates is total body exercise!” (My exclamation point!)
*Thanks Sean for letting me use your terminology as an example in the post and for your years of service/expertise/knowledge to the field of Classical Pilates.