I started Pilates in my 20s following a car accident which left me with severe chronic neck pain which lasted years. After seeing several specialists and pain management consultants and a lot of lying inside MRI machines, I found Pilates and instantly fell in love with how it made me feel. In fact it was the only thing which removed my pain completely and also toned me up (I dropped 2 dress sizes) and gave me mental clarity like no other workout. I decided to train as an instructor and now 15 years later I own two Pilates studios in Bristol, England and our wonderful online community MoveBetterTV where we bring movement into your homes in our unique way.
What I love most about being an instructor is that you never know everything about the body. There is always more being discovered and therefore more to learn. I find it fascinating and have spent thousands training with some of the best movement and anatomy experts in the land to really understand how our bodies work and how to get the most of them while keeping them pain free. A lot of what I learned really went against everything that was being said to me in most movement classes, everything I read online and really goes against the grain of the fitness industry in general.
I don’t ‘engage' my core (or my glutes)
This is a HUGE one for me. Let me explain: Our body is the most amazingly complex system that does all this ‘stuff’ without you ever consciously thinking about it. In fact this subconscious thinking is the key here. When you walk, you don’t tell each and every muscle to engage and release. You just walk. So why then do we think that the only way to get our abdominals muscles working is to engage them? Our brains literally don't have this conscious connection in this way. We don’t know exactly which part of your core to engage, or by how much. So when you “engage your core” (this goes for ANY muscle in the body) you literally stiffen it, shorten it and actually start training hypertension into your core. When in fact what you want are muscles which know exactly when to engage, when to release, when to be short, when do be long. And to do this you have to ALLOW your muscles to do their job by putting yourself into the correct position. When you’re in the correct position your core will do its thing, your glutes will fire. I hear so many people telling me that they’ve been told they’ve got weak glutes and do lots of glute exercises only to find they still don’t fire when they run. Because the issue is not that they don’t engage or are weak and need strengthening. The AREN’T engaging because your movement pattern is out.
So let me sum this up: Put your bones in the right place and your muscles will do their thing, in exactly the way they were designed. You just need to allow them to.
Actively engaging leads to stiffness, shortness and this puts a huge amount of pressure on the lower back. Pulling in your core when walking around does not reduce your back pain. It is probably causing it.
Seriously don’t do it. But yes do get a strong core! Just in a functional way.
I don’t push myself to breaking point
I was recently chatting to our wonderful manager Dani (she’s also a totally awesome PT) about a client of hers who had talked about how her pain was holding her back in her trianing and made her feel like a failure and it brought me right back to a time when I had felt exactly the and I literally nearly cried thinking about it.
Before I was an instructor I used to do a lot of boot camp type classes. You know the type you’re supposed to be when you want to tone up, loose weight and get fit. The type which push you to your limits so you can see what you’re capable of. But the thing is I had severe nerve pain originating from my neck which ran all the way through my left shoulder and down onto my arm.
I would keep pushing in class, my arm would be screaming at me to stop and I would literally hear “push through the pain” shouted at me. I would end up in tears feeling like an utter failure at my inability to push through whatever I was supposed to push through.
But I wasn’t a failure. My body was literally shouting at me. It knew, for whatever reason, that what I was doing was not right for me in that moment.
It’s important to recognise if you’re just being lazy and need a bit of a (gentle) push OR if your body is telling you it’s unhappy. And there could be a lot of reasons why it’s unhappy but that’s a topic for another day. I'm currently doing Our 10-Day Challenge and woah it's pushing me for sure: cardiovascularly, muscularly YES. But pain? Absolutely not - well apart from the sore muscles the next day which ease off with a bit of stretching.
I stopped thinking it needed to be hard to be any good
Carrying on from number 2, through Pilates I learned to train ease into my body. To find efficiency in my body.
The Pilates classes I attended felt more like massages then workouts but somehow I noticed that I got stronger and leaner than I had ever done from working out 4 times a week AND my pain literally disappeared. I mean it actually went. I cannot stress how many specialists I had seen and was left believing that this was my lot.
What I learned is that pain is never something you should just live with but that you need to really create efficiency in your body before you can push it to its limits. So that pushing becomes a challenge not just something which is “hard”. Because if it’s “hard” it’s probably because you can’t do it. And if you can’t do it, what are you training into your body?
Think of your body like a car. We service a car so it runs smoothly and can therefore manage journeys with ease. If the suspension was a bit out your car would wear out quicker. Your body is exactly the same. You need to service it with efficient movement training so it learns to run smoothly then when you had extra load, speed your movement up, challenge with a lack of support, you’re doing it on a machine which is running smoothly. Which won’t wear out. Which won’t scream at you.