An update on our Men’s Pilates! Every Tuesdays 13:45 – 14:45 at Healthflex, The Edge, Woolmer Hill.
The Men’s Pilates classes at Healthflex are open to all men who are keen to work on their flexibility and core strength. Typically we will start the class with some flexibility and mobility drills reviewing the Pilates Principles which we will layer through all the exercises in the class.
We’ll be working on all the key core muscles involved in improving your balance, alignment and peripheral joint stability and whilst there will be a range of exercises, the Pilates ruleset will remain constant throughout all the classes. This means you’ll be able to transition the same ideas we use in class to align our bodies with your daily activities. For example aligning your spine, breathing out on effort and integrating your core muscles with movement throughout your day. It’s about understanding how to move optimally and creating habits and a practice that facilitate a positive change in the way you move and feel.
Pilates creates a great foundation from which to move and play sports, to rehab, maintain and progress.
For more information do get in contact and for class bring along a mat, water, and ask at the Healthflex Clinic reception about small equipment which we use in class.
This week I’ve been incorporating lots of ankle mobility drills into my classes. Ankle mobility refers to the flexibility of the ankle joint and its surrounding muscles and tendons. When your ankle is flexible, you have a greater range of motion during your activities.
Having optimum range at the ankle joint allows for better movement higher up the chain at the knees and hips and will prevent them from weakening. All of which will improve your walking and running movement patterns.
Poor ankle mobility is caused by a general lack of flexibility in the muscles in the calf and back of the lower leg, ankle joint issues (or stiffness) from prior injury or surgery, or inflexible footwear and footwear with any sort of (high or low) heel.
As well as stretching your calves (think heel drops off a step) The Foot Series is a great way to condition the ankle complex by building strength through your range of movement and improving your endurance.
In standing (near a wall for balance if you need it) engaging your ‘Pilates posture’ – lengthened tall, shoulders relaxed, eyes front and weight evenly distributed across the soles of your feet –
Heel raises x10 (control the descent)
Knee bends x10 (keep knees in parallel don’t let them converge)
Combination: Heel raise – knee bend – heels lower – stand tall x10
Reverse combination: Knee bend – heel raise – stand tall with heel still raised – lower heels back down x10
If you travel a lot for work it can be hard to prioritise your own movement let alone specific exercise. This post is an aid to those trapped in their hotel rooms (!) and in need of some body maintenance to cancel out all the sitting, screen watching, suit and work shoe wearing (that also ‘cast’ your body into unhelpful postures).
Chest stretch: Arm at 90 degrees (i.e. bent at the elbow) with your forearm against a wall or door frame the stretch the chest open, away from the wall. One arm at a time then switch.
Door frame: Reach up to a door frame and try to extend your arms whilst breathing deeply lengthening on the exhalations. Try to create space from your ears to your shoulders.
Back extensions: Lying prone, chin slightly tucked – on an exhale raise your chest of the floor a tiny bit whilst lengthening your arms/fingertips towards your feet. Also try to draw your shoulders back as if opening your chest.
Childs pose: Sit back on your heels stretch your arms forward onto the floor.
Hamstring stretch: lying supine stretch one leg up – use a belt or tie around the foot to get leverage (keep the other knee bent and try not to press/flatten your lower back) Switch legs.
Sit ups: support the head if necessary, deep exhale as you come up.
Plank: On your elbows – keep breathing, back of the neck long don’t drop your chin.
Childs pose: same as before but with the palms up.
Note: Written descriptions of exercises and movements can be lost in translation! So if these do not translate easily for you do get in touch via the contact form. Readers who have had been having sessions will recognise the cues!
In sessions we are often trying to ‘undo’ or improve on aches & pains (limitations) we have, whether it be through bad alignment or injury. Both of these are usually caused by having poor alignment resulting in our inability to maintain a sustainable functioning muscle balance.
If much of your day is spent sitting or sedentary your body will be cast into that shape, there will be adaptations which define your body as ‘a sitter’ – even if you did a ‘workout’ (whatever that may be). What you do for the majority of your day will dictate how your muscles are conditioned. There will be specific movement pathways that your lifestyle does not expose you to due to ‘modern living’ & in particular the time saving devices we now have at our disposal e.g shopping online instead of walking to the shops & carrying it home, buggies, washing machines, cars etc.
In order to counteract this we need to look at steps we can take to change our environments to afford more movement time, different working postures or movement breaks spread out across the day.
3 steps to improving your ‘sitters body’.
Work on corrective exercises to help counter the effects of sitting.
Try to sit & do the movement we’re already doing with better alignment. See the picture on the left for ideal sitting alignment.
Look at ways we can change our environments & lifestyles to incorporate more activity where possible.
Modern living tends to cast our bodies into a forward flexion bias stiffening & restricting movement of the upper back, neck & shoulders. It seems to be one of the main complaints & one of the things most class participants would like to relieve.
The thoracic spine (upper, mid back) provides much of the rotation & extension of the spine but thanks to lifestyle factors such as looking (down & forward) at phones or computers, driving, leaning down over children or poor posture it tends to get very restricted. Anyone that plays sport is likely to find their performance limited by stiffness in this part of the spine & it’s common to get compensation injuries in other parts of the body as a result.
Typically a stiff thoracic can cause pain between the shoulder blades but also transfer excess loads onto the lumbar spine, neck & shoulders, which in turn can lead to pain in these areas as well as headaches. A stiff thoracic spine will also result in the Old Hunchback of Notre Dame look (!) & lead to a Dowager’s (or Bison’s) Hump – a thickening of the soft tissues at the base of the neck. So, some good reasons there to keep up with some basic maintenance to keep it supple!
In the classes we work through a few different exercises both in side lying & on all 4’s to help mobilise the thoracic spine & then follow up with some strengthening work to help keep the spine aligned. Here’s one of those exercises that’s really effective as the ground ‘fixes’ the hips which will give you a better chance at rotating correctly through your thoracic instead of cheating with another joint deformation.
Thread the needle
Make sure you have your knees hip width apart & hands, shoulder width apart. Don’t collapse your supporting shoulder / shoulder blade as you bring the other arm under & as you reach up try to really extend through the arm (….mine is bent, probably from too much baby holding!). Try 10 on each side, exhaling as you extend the arm up.
From time to time in class we focus on standing balance – it’s a good way to test all the principles we practice throughout the classes & as an indication of general muscle balance health. So I wanted to use this post to look at what goes on when we try to balance, how to test it & how to improve your ‘true’ balance.
So our body’s stabilise by using the relationship between the proprioceptive system (that’s information coming from the muscles, joints & tendons) & the processing of that sensory input (i.e. what the brain tells the body to do with that information). Tight or shortened muscles send ‘fixed’ information from your proprioceptors and this data/sensory input gives incorrect information to the decision centre (the brain) which in turn acts on this mis-information. The outcome is an overcorrection, a wobble or lurching movement in an attempt to stabilise you. Any restrictions or sub optimal muscle length tension will alter the correct information given to the brain.
Testing your ‘true’ balance – See how well you’re balancing with these simple tests.
Stand with your feet pelvis width apart & check your feet are straight (as in the outside edges, see pic) – how does this feel? Any wobbles? Now close your eyes & see if there’s any difference with them open or closed. Maybe you felt you moved about more with your eyes closed – this is the ‘true’ part of the balance test – your eyes are not part of the sensory input we speak about when we mean whole-body balance, they are not part of the proprioceptive system they are part of the vestibular system (eyes & inner ears) but the poorer your proprioceptive system is the more you rely on your eyes to make corrections. So in order to stop the eyes doing all the work (& incurring eye muscle fatigue, dizziness & age-related changes in vision) you need to fix your body’s internal sensory input or proprioceptive system.
The progression to the 2 foot balance with eyes shut is to come onto a single leg with eyes shut. Whilst we may have some muscle tension issues within the body it’s also our inability to process information through our feet & inform our bodies of correct posture, due to footwear that down trains our proprioceptive system. Think any type of heel, thick inflexible soles & too narrow toe boxes.
So hopefully this will give you a clearer idea of what you are aiming for when you consider/assess your balance – test yours & practice some ‘eyes shut’ standing to monitor your progress.
If you have tight shoulders & are looking for relaxing ways to ‘unstick’ them here’s a few ideas that we use in the classes that also work really well particularly as transitions from one exercise to another. If you imagine where your arms are hanging most of the day & the range with which you mostly use them in you can see that these 3 variations on a shell stretch really take them into much more of an unused plane thereby freeing up all the stuck tissue around pectoralis & latissimus dorsi.
The picture above shows how you should anchor the stretch. Arms are pushing away into the mat & sit bones are pulling down, so you’re flexing the lumbar/lower spine by engaging the abdominals & pulling the ribs up (in the direction of the second smaller arrow). By drawing the ribcage up you will tension the stretch better through the shoulders instead of over extending into the thoracic spine – have a go with the ribs up & then down on your thighs & you’ll feel the difference.
If you want to optimise the stretches try to work with the breath by directing it into the ribs & underlying diagram in a 3 dimensional way (think like an accordian). You’ll be able to feel the skin stretch around the rib cage & so try to emphasise that expansion as you inhale & breathe out the tension from the stretch as you exhale.
In the first variation the arms are straight out in front, trying to keep the hands in line with the wrists, elbows & shoulder. Head is relaxed, toes are tucked under for an extra, bonus plantar fascia stretch! There are many variations on the specifics of this pose for example Yoga’s Child Pose comes with a different emphasis but here as we are trying to specifically release the fascia around the shoulders I’ve selected these teaching points.
In the second picture the arms are externally rotated with the palms up & correspondingly the forearms are also rotating outward – you will feel how this tensions the stretch differently & you’ll probably find it more of a challenge. See how far round (or not!) you can get your thumbs/backs of the hands flat to the floor! Head relaxed & breathing wiiiiide! Keep thinking about the same anchor points, this is not a flop-on-your-thighs-&-go-to-sleep kind of stretch, you want to be actively working on the position both with the breath & with the anchor points. As the intensity of the stretch dissipates you can try to reach a little further.
Lastly we’re working more laterally into the sides of the back by bringing one arm all the way across & anchoring onto the the other side. This time we breathe into that side – feel the skin stretch & try to expand it with each inhalation.
Tight necks, shoulders and back are par for the course with modern living leading to shortened chest, neck & anterior shoulder muscles & can result in and/or exacerbate a forward head posture as well as restrict correct breathing strategies.
This diagram shows how the fascia connects along the Arms Lines (pic A. Superficial Arm Lines on the left arm & Deep Arm Lines shown on the right arm) & the top of the Deep Front Line (pic B.) The posture of looking down whilst holding a baby will involve & place all these tissues into a shortened, tightened position – add this to our modern lives where most people have a forward head posture anyway from screen watching & it’s going to be a real pain in the neck (sorry)!!
Regularly stretching & de-fuzzing your neck will help relieve tension & prevent the build up of poor alignment adaptations. Head placement is key to having a tension free neck but tissues that are locked long or short will create pain & discomfort so try these 3 stretches to help stick your head back on top of your body where it belongs!
Lateral neck & arm lines stretch: Standing or sitting with a neutral pelvis, extend one arm with your palm up and then tip the opposite ear to shoulder. Try to keep your chin tucked and if you want to increase the stretch then place your palm flat against the wall (fingers back) as you do it.
Posterior neck stretch – head nods: Lying on your back with your knees bent, as you exhale nod your head and gently press the back of your head down into the floor to feel the stretch – then inhale to relax. Make sure that you don’t push down so much that you can’t maintain your chest position – if you notice your ribs lifting up then lessen the movement to control it. Also to optimise the stretch draw your shoulders down and away from your ears – think about reaching your fingers toward your toes throughout the nods. You should feel a lengthening on the back of the neck and remember this is just a small movement!
Try these 2 or 3 times a day to feel a difference.