What to Do When Pilates Isn’t Working

Often when speaking to potential new participants for my Pilates classes, I will often hear the line “My GP/Osteopath/Physiotherapist recommended I take up Pilates to help improve my back pain”. These days it is great that Pilates has a good reputation of improving participant’s lower back pain symptoms (as well as a lot of other benefits).

But what happens when Pilates doesn’t get the results that we expect?

What happens when Pilates doesn’t help our back pain, and even in some cases makes it worse?

Another line I hear a lot of the time, more so in my therapy sessions is “I have done Pilates a few times before but it didn’t help”. I also use to hear this quite regularly when I was working in a health club environment.

So why is it Pilates is not giving some of us the results that we desire?

Here are just a few potential reasons:

Is the bar too high?

If we have heard lots of success stories from friends and family about how successful Pilates has been for them or been recommended Pilates by our healthcare, we can be hopeful that Pilates will correct and resolve all our aches & pains we have been going through. However it doesn’t work like this. Remember that everyone will be different and whilst we may have similar symptoms to others, the underlying causes maybe completely different. It is also worth noting that Pilates is not a form of corrective therapy. It is an exercise system rather than an exercise class, and a lot of people have found that by completing a Pilates classes, their symptoms have improved as by product of learning the correct Pilates method. Another reason worth remembering is that people react differently to everything. For example from working in Pilates and Therapy setting for a few years, I have found some people react really well to deep tissue massage but some people react better to a MET (muscle energy technique) instead for example. My advice would be to find out what the underlying issue could potentially be and also find out what works best for you and decide on a course of action from there.

What’s happening on the inside

Let’s say for example someone attends a Pilates class in the hope of improving their lower back pain symptoms. As a Bodymaster method¬© practitioner, my initial thought is what’s causing the lower back pain? In the past I have seen rotations in the Pelvis, Rotations in the sacrum, A difference in leg length as being potential causes of ones back pain symptoms. Sometimes it has even been further up the body which has caused one’s lower back pain (thoracic mobility and even shoulder alignment). In a one to one therapy session, I would have the opportunity to carry out a full screening to identify any potential underlying issues. However in a small group class environment we don’t have this luxury. Now sometimes Pilates can successfully help reduce the symptoms of lower back pain and give the participant the opportunity to manage their symptoms. However if you are finding back pain (or other symptoms) are continuing despite starting Pilates, it may be a good idea to have further investigation to see which potential issues could by resulting in lower back pain symptoms, and then create a programme to try to correct the underlying issues. Ones these underlying issues have been correcting you may find your Pilates class then can become a lot more beneficial.

Method of Pilates

With the wide choices and variety of Pilates on offer these days, we are now seeing a big difference in what is delivered in classes. In my opinion, the most important element of a good Pilates class is the method rather than the choice of exercises. Let me take a moment to explain. To me what makes Pilates most beneficial is the actual method of Pilates rather than the exercises themselves. Don’t get me wrong, choosing the most correct and appropriate exercise is integral to the success of any class, however if they are not performed to the Pilates method then I find the success is very much limited. What do I mean by method? Well I am referring to the Pilates principles. These principles vary from training school to training school, class to class or book to book. Whilst these principles vary, I consider the following principles most important:

  • Alignment
  • Breathing
  • Connections (Also known as centering)
  • Concentration
  • Relaxation
  • Precision

Whilst I would consider these 6 to be the most important, there are others which should not be disregarded as well. I always knew these principles where important to the success of a Pilates class, however it wasn’t until I became a bodymaster method¬© practitioner that I really understood why these principles and the Pilates method were key. I won’t go until the full details of how these principles are beneficial, but you can read my other articles to get this information, in particular the article ‘core stability – why there is so much more to it than planks and sit ups’.

If I’m honest the method/principles of Pilates is the hardest part to get right but in my opinion it is the most beneficial when completed with the exercises. I’m sure we could all pick up a book or watch the latest online video’s for a range of different Pilates exercises, however without adhering the method the success is going to be very limited, in my opinion. I also believe there to be no such thing as a ‘Pilates exercise’ as it is the method rather than move which gives a Pilates class its name.

How big is your class?

One of the main principles listed above and what I consider to be very important ‘precision’. Why? Well to make any exercise effective (and principles for that matter) it has to be done correctly, using the correct targeted muscles and also ensuring which muscles are not intended to be used stay switched off. If an exercise is not done correctly or using the wrong muscles it will more than likely be counterproductive and could result in pain or imbalance.

What’s this got to do with the size of the class? Well getting everything correct in a class can be quite challenging, and participants will need hands on correction from the instructor, however experienced they are. Even in my small group Pilates classes, which I have a maximum of 7 people, it can be a challenge to ensure safe and effective exercise with such a small number (hence the limit of 7 people). I remember attending classes at Leisure Centres such as Virgin Active & Everyone Active, where the classes had an average of between 25-35 people, it was impossible for even the most talented instructors to ensure safety and correctness when delivering a class, because of the sheer volume of people there. One of the main reasons I have people join my classes these days are based on their previous classes being too big and being sure whether they were doing it correctly.

What’s being done in-between classes

Now this is one of biggest things which determine success in my one to one sessions. In a one to one setting I always give the participants a corrective exercise programme to be carried out, usually around twice a day for two weeks minimum. Now from experience when I use to receive any form of therapy, it can be quite challenging initially to carry out the corrective exercise programme, however it is one of the most important sections to achieve optimal results. Looking back all my participant that have carried out the corrective exercise programme in-between sessions (in a one to one setting) they have always received far more effective results, it has also reduced the amount of sessions required to achieve their desired results. Obviously this will be slightly different to classes, as in a class we are unable to carry out a biomechanics screen which can tell us which areas we need to concentrate on setting the corrective exercise programme for, however what I have found beneficial for a lot of participants, is to carry out and practice the Pilates principles in-between classes, such as breathing, alignment & connections. I won’t go into the exact details of why these will be beneficial (I have other blogs on this) but practising these skills in-between can not only help improve results but they will also help you pick up a better understanding of these principles better, therefore making your classes more beneficial and also achieving desired results quicker. Its worth remembering that there are 167 hours between classes each week (if we do one class a week), so it makes sense to practice these principles in-between as.

These are just a few things to consider to achieve the optimal results from our Pilates class. As always there can also be other factors, but these ones I would consider to be most important and effective.

Thanks for reading.

Alex

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