Pilates is a great form of exercise that people from all walks of life and of all skills levels can take part in, and it not only helps to keep you fit, it also helps prevent injuries and help recovery following them.
However, as with all forms of exercise, technique is crucial. Technique can mean the difference between doing yourself more harm than good, or the difference between strengthening a muscle that will help relieve pain and instead targeting a muscle that’s already working too hard and has become sore and achy.
In this post, we’ll be covering some of the more common mistakes we see from our Pilates participants. We will be discussing the above under three broad headings, “Using the Wrong Muscles”, “Letting your Joints Move too Much or too Little”, and “Breathing”.
Using the Wrong Muscles
When it comes to Pilates, it probably seems like we’re all quite a nit- picky when it comes to watching your exercise technique and making little corrections here and there. When we get trained in teaching and instructing Pilates exercises, we’re taught in incredible detail on the angles of different joints and the placement of our bodies, in order to emphasise working one muscle over another. Knees too far back when doing the clam? Well, you’ll just be strengthening the muscles at the front of your hip rather than the ones in your bottom. And nobody wants that.
Tensing your neck and shoulders whilst completing your hundreds? That will lead to a whole range of different, unintended “benefits”, from achy necks to sore shoulders. So yes, we can be a bit nit- picky, but it’s in your best interests, and it does help to maximise the benefits that you can expect to feel from your Pilates. If we think back to Joseph’s key principles, precision springs to mind when talking about targeting specific muscles.
“You will gain more strength from a few energetic, concentrated efforts than from a thousand listless, sluggish movements.” – Joseph Pilates.
Letting your Joints Move too Much, or too Little
Like with many things in life, for this section we will be taking our guiding inspiration from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. She very quickly realised that in life, sometimes you can have too much of one thing, sometimes too little and that when you find the right balance, it feels great. For her it was the temperature of the porridge that she was stealing, for us in Pilates, it is the joint movement that we’re talking about.
Take, for example, the shoulder bridge. The shoulder bridge is a great exercise that, amongst other things, is great for improving the flexibility of the joints in your spine. When done properly, that is. If you push too far at the top point, you’ll end up arching your back, making your joints move too much (porridge too hot). This can lead to joint pain in your lower back, which isn’t very nice, and you probably won’t fancy moving your back too much afterwards (leading to more pain and stiffness).
On the other hand, if you brace your back too much and don’t allow your joints to move enough (porridge too cold), you will end up overworking muscles that should be nice and relaxed during this exercise, again leading to pain and discomfort. This relates quite closely to another one of Joseph’s key principles, control.
“The Pilates Method teaches you to be in control of your body and not at its mercy.”– Joseph Pilates.
“Above all, learn how to breathe correctly.”– Joseph Pilates.
Breathing itself was one of Joesph Pilates’ eight key principles of his devised exercise methods. Correct breathing technique whilst exercising is usually a new concept to people starting out in the world of Pilates, and it’s often one of the trickiest bits to master. As a rule of thumb for any new starter, as long as you are breathing at all during your exercises, you’re doing well.
Holding your breath is often a side effect of concentrating hard and working hard, but it can lead to exactly that, namely working and concentrating too hard. This can then lead to our two first most common mistakes that we see, discussed above. Banks are braced, and six- pack abdominal muscles get used in favour of the deeper, stabilising muscles which we are trying to target. And as for the lovely sense of relaxation and well- being that should accompany your Pilates workout? That will be out the window too.
More advanced Pilates users will be taught when and how to breathe in and out during different exercises, but newbies shouldn’t overly concern themselves about this just yet. There should be enough on your plate to deal with anyway, leading us nicely onto our last point.
There’s obviously quite a lot for you to be thinking about when doing any given exercise at any given time.“Okay, so my knees and feet are hip distance apart, I need to think about tipping my bucket of water backwards, forwards, then find my middle point. Okay, so far so good, and now I need to lift my arms up whilst keeping my shoulders nice and relaxed- wait, what? How am I meant to do that? And was I meant to breathe in or out at that point? Help!”
We’ve all had an internal monologue similar to that at one point or another, and with proper guidance and practice, it all does become second nature. As mentioned, though, proper guidance is vital. If you’re struggling to properly complete an exercise, your instructor should spot this (you might not even realise you’re doing it wrong), and help you correct your technique. If you know you’re struggling, and you have limbs flailing and sweat pouring off your forehead, and your instructor is carrying on with the class like nothing is wrong, it might be time to get the heck out of dodge and try a different class with a different instructor.
A good instructor will come round, check that you’re happy with what you’re doing, and they should even be getting hands on to feel which muscles are doing what as you exercise. This is really important to help ensure that you don’t do yourself any harm and that you get the maximum benefits from your sessions.