By Nic Conroy, Studio Founder & Lead Instructor
This summer I was approach by Hadrian Stiff, Director & Founder at Elite Squash to teach Pilates to some his clients during their summer break in Bristol. Hadrian coaches a number of elite squash players, including the current World Number 1 and has an amazing, holistic approach to get the best out of the best.
One philosophy I live by is ‘efficiency’. If we can walk through life with the most ease for the greatest output then this has to be a good thing right? What if I said “you can do less, and achieve more”? This so often goes against everything we’ve been taught in life: “No pain, no gain". But actually working with Hadrian has cemented my view because this is exactly his approach and he’s working with top flight athletes who are hugely successful at what they do.
My first thought when asked to teach his players was “what on earth can I teach these guys, they are the creme-de-la-creme of their sport?”. But it turns out that even top flight professional athletes have movement patterns which aren’t as efficient as they could be. This can lead to injuries or just feeling more achy after a long tournament which means they don’t go into their next tournament feeling on top form.
I worked with a number of players over the summer, and am continuing with my work with them this Autumn and here are the benefits I’ve seen from their work in the Pilates studio.
Ease of Movement
We want movement to feel easy and smooth. Bringing the mind into the body, and the body into the mind, is a huge part of this experience. Often we are so driven by our head that we fail to notice what the body is feeling, what it is sensing. Being asked to describe a feeling, to notice a feeling, to be given time to check in with yourself pre-and-post session is a huge part of this journey to learn and sense how we 'feel'.
Often we stay in the head asking ourselves things like, “what muscle is this working”, “what should I be engaging” - this isn’t the point. When we move, whether it’s to play top level sport or walking down the street we don’t tell our bodies to “engage this glute to move this leg” we just have the aim of walking to get somewhere. This is even more prevalent in any sport or high intensity activity - you’re so focused on your game, or your run that you will fail to check in with your posture, your movement or the strategy to move more easily.
Posture is not something we can consciously control. We need it to just be there. Our bodies really do want to be efficient but sometimes they need a little re-calibrating to realise that movement can be easy. In order for the nervous system to recalibrate, it needs to have time to sense the patterns it’s learned so that it can start to pick up these new patterns and next time it’s asked to walk down the street, walk up the stairs or play the biggest game of its life it just finds the efficiency.
Improved Squat & Lunge Patterns
Squats are a bit of a buzz word in terms of functional movement and really something we should all be looking to improve. A deep squat is an incredibly efficient rest position for our bodies - just look at a toddler and you’ll see this is how they bend down and stay in one place - it’s the easiest way for their joints to rest. But a lifetime of sitting and staying away from these patterns means that for most people squats and lunges feel really tricky which results in the body compensating to achieve the aim.
And when it comes to Squash, where when you spend a good chunk of your game lunging to reach those low shots they matter even more. And here is where we spend time focusing on the pelvis. Where is it, how it moves, where do muscles connect and how do we use movement to create space and efficiency.
One of the common patterns I’ve worked with is strain in the groin, the hamstrings and general aches in the pelvis after long tournaments. The aim is to feel comfortable in a lunge and this requires a great deal of hip extension and hip flexion and the ability to be in the centre of yourself with plenty of spring. The ability for the body to bounce in and out of movement patterns is a key aim for not only reaching those tricky shots, but also for saving muscle energy by utilising our fascial system to its full potential. For the fascia to be able to rebound and bounce we need to have good alignment and we need to practice loading and springing into the fascial systems.
When to Push & When to Rest
It goes without saying that to be world class, or to simply beat your friend or improve your level of playing you need to push your body to see what it’s capable of. But at the same time you have to really learn your own personal limits. If your body is screaming at you to rest and you keep going you will burn out, or get injured. If your body isn’t performing at a training session you have to ask yourself what are you training into your body? Part of the work in Pilates is to start to notice your body and to learn to listen to your body so that you feel much more comfortable recognising when it sends you signs about what it wants. This is an incredibly important part of the journey in terms of ensuring you have longevity.
Stability, Mobility & Being Centred
In order to help the feet stay more connected to the ground you need to look at the feet but also at the diagonal slings - a system which connects the foot to the opposite shoulder. We have one running diagonally across the front side and one across the back - these are the posterior and anterior slings. The ability to get the slings working really effectively helps to improve not only the feet but also helps keep us more centred and helps with the bounce we talked about earlier. These slings are our stability system when we’re on one leg which is really important when changing directions in your squash game.
In Pilates we use the props and the equipment such as the reformer to challenge these sling systems and allow them to wake up and communicate more effectively.
Strength in Length
Squash is primarily played in a flexed position meaning that the abdominals can get short and the spine can find being upright and moving into extension difficult. However when you then want to reach a shot at the opposite side of the court the ability for the spine to move into extension and the abdominals to lengthen can prove the difference between winning and losing.
In Pilates we look at helping the spine move in all planes of movement but we also look at strengthening the abdominals - but not via sit ups which shorten the abdominals but rather creating strength in a lengthened position. We do this by playing with the position of of the body and finding ways to load the abdominals in more functional ways.
The Feet, The Feet, The Feet
Every movement starts from the ground up. So it’s of huge importance that the feet can find bounce, stability and can set the rest of the body effective. We use movement and props such as various balls to massage and release the fascial tissue in the feet. We look at conditioning the hip to work on lifting the arches and we work in getting the feet and the rest of the body working in unison.
Balancing The Less Dominant Side
Whenever you play a one sided sport you will have a dominant side and therefore there will in in-balances. You will never even these out, not should you want to - your dominant side is dominant for a reason! But the body likes as much balance as it can find, so with the Pilates work we are looking to creating more strength and more control on the less dominant side. This is a huge factor in preventing injuries and ensuring you have career longevity.
Nic is the owner of Soul Pilates and a former Marketing Director who understands both the pressures of a hectic working life and the need to fit exercise in around other priorities. She is a qualified Polestar Comprehensive Studio Instructor and a Runity Pain-Free Running Coach, with over 12 years Pilates experiences and a background in Personal Training and Reiki.
Nic specialises in restoring functional movement and brings this love for moving well into her group classes and private sessions. Having recovered from neck and ankle surgery, she understands the frustration of wanting to be pain free and getting back to full fitness, and through Pilates she learned to move her body efficiently again and looks to use this same approach with her clients.
Nic teachers classes throughout the week and is available for private sessions on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.