Pilates, Moving from Injury Back to Peak performance

Julia Rosenthal PT, DPT

Julia Pilates

As an avid high intensity exerciser, I am always looking to push myself in my workouts. When pain gets in the way of my progress, it can be extremely frustrating. For years, I have been struggling with chronic hip and sacroiliac joint (low back) pain. These symptoms intensified about two and a half years ago when I fractured a lumbar vertebra weight lifting. Recovery was hard, and during that time I was told by doctors, friends, and family that I could not or should not return to the things I loved: lifting heavy weights and running outside. I was devastated. I tried swimming, biking, the crazy looking stair treadmill at the gym, and while I was able to get some exercise in, I still felt like I had lost one of the things that brought me the most joy.

Months after my injury, I finally started listening to my body and my physical therapist friends rather than the limiting and negative advice I had gotten. I started returning to weight lifting and running and began trying not to judge myself for the strength I had lost. The more I did, the better I felt. I was scared, but I felt liberated at the same time. But despite making some initial progress, I started to hit a wall. I couldn’t deadlift as much as I could before, I couldn’t lift as much overhead, and I was too afraid to run on concrete or to get in a squat rack, which was where I had hurt myself all those months ago. I started to feel that hip and sacroiliac (SIJ) pain again after every workout, and I knew I had to change something about what I was doing.

Enter: Pilates. Pilates and weight lifting are both forms of resistance training, but there are key differences between them that make Pilates an effective form of cross training for a weightlifter. When you do any singular form of exercise, your body is learning how to complete a task one way. Introducing a different form of exercises gives you variability, and teaches your body to work under lots of different conditions using different muscle groups. The more options our bodies have for how to complete a task (like a deadlift), the stronger we become.

Here at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy, I had the opportunity to work with Kierstin Elliot,a certified Pilates instructor with a wealth of experience working with clients who struggle with orthopedic issues, including pelvic floor dysfunction. “In Pilates,” Kierstin explained, “subtle nuances matter and you have to be a stickler for form and alignment.” Weightlifting athletes, on the other hand, generally focus more on larger, more powerful movements. Because of these differences, Pilates can make a big difference when it comes to increasing strength and decreasing injury in people who typically exercise with high resistance. In the months that I spent working one on one with Kierstin, I achieved personal bests in my squat and my deadlift and could feel that I was much more steady in any single leg weight lifting activity.

If you like to lift weights and you want to see your performance improve, here are 5 specific ways that Pilates can up your weight lifting game:

  1. Eccentric Strengthening
    1. While weight lifting certainly helps to develop core strength, Pilates does so using lighter weights and more eccentric contractions. Eccentric contractions require muscles to work and lengthen at the same time. Typically, weightlifting and other forms of exercise will strengthen the core in a concentric way, meaning the muscles are asked to shorten and tighten in order to build strength. While both are effective, the best option is a combination – variability is key. Eccentric contractions are also a great way to increase mobility.
  2. Increasing Mobility in the Spine and Extremities
    1. The demands on the spine are very different in weight lifting versus Pilates. Lifting heavier weights requires you to maintain a certain amount of stiffness in the spine to protect it against a heavier load. While that is an important skill (think about how hard it can be to lift a heavy suitcase, stroller, car seat, etc.), it is also important to be able to manage resistance at times when our back can’t be in a “neutral” position, like when you’re putting a baby in a crib or digging things out of your storage unit. Pilates exercises are done at lower resistance and in various different spinal positions: flexion, extension, side-bending, and rotation. This allows you to learn to move well under tension in lots of different positions.
    2. Pilates is also a great way to increase your hip and shoulder mobility, both of which are important for weight lifting. Squatting, deadlifting, and overhead movements were the things I was having the hardest time progressing back to, and these all require good shoulder and hip mobility. Pilates exercises are often done with the trunk supported, and with resistance applied to the limbs by springs. This means that there are more eccentric contractions involved (working and lengthening at the same time), which can be a great way to improve strength and mobility at the same time.
  3. Increasing Stability
    1. Weightlifting focuses on powerful movements. These types of movements will require increased work from our larger “global” muscles which tend to be longer and move lots of joints at the same time. While strengthening these muscles is important, using Pilates to strengthen the smaller “stabilizing” muscles is a great way to enhance the strength of the global musculature. When we do a big, powerful movement, we need the smaller stabilizing muscles to automatically fire too – this enhances our overall strength, improves our balance, and makes us less prone to injury.
  4. Increasing Endurance
    1. Training for increased endurance means training at a lower weight and performing more repetitions. In weightlifting, the goal is to work at a higher percentage of your 1 rep maximum, meaning the greatest amount of weight that you would be able to lift once. In Pilates, on the other hand, lighter resistance is used for more repetitions.
  5. Increasing Body Awareness
    1. Proprioception is the sense that allows us to know where our bodies are in space. Exercises that are done in a closed chain – meaning one of your body parts is in contact with a fixed surface – enhance this sense. Because reformer Pilates includes spring tension with your feet or hands in contact with a surface, almost all exercises are done in a closed chain. This can be a really great way to ease into a movement after an injury. The support of a closed chain exercise allows you to tailor the movement to your current level as you progress back towards more traditional open chain (no contact with a surface) weightlifting movements.

Thanks for reading! I hope this blog post helped you understand how you can take your training to the next level. If you are interested in experiencing what Pilates can offer or how physical therapy can maximize your athletic potential, please call our midtown (212-354-2622) or downtown office (212-267-0240) today!

 

Check out what Kierstin has to say about Pilates here!

The Benefits of Pilates While Healing Diastasis Recti

Pilates with Kierstin! Standing Side Splits

Pilates with Kierstin! Bridges with Stability Ball

References:

  1. Ahearn EL, Greene A, Lasner A. Some Effects of Supplemental Pilates Training on the Posture, Strength, and Flexibility of Dancers 17 to 22 Years of Age. Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. 2018;22(4):192-202.
  2. Di Lorenzo CE. Pilates: what is it? Should it be used in rehabilitation? Sports health. 2011;3(4):352-361.
  3. Phrompaet S, Paungmali A, Pirunsan U, Sitilertpisan P. Effects of pilates training on lumbo-pelvic stability and flexibility. Asian journal of sports medicine. 2011;2(1):16-22.
  4. Queiroz BC, Cagliari MF, Amorim CF, Sacco IC. Muscle activation during four Pilates core stability exercises in quadruped position. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2010;91(1):86-92.
  5. Valenza MC, Rodriguez-Torres J, Cabrera-Martos I, Diaz-Pelegrina A, Aguilar-Ferrandiz ME, Castellote-Caballero Y. Results of a Pilates exercise program in patients with chronic non-specific low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Clinical rehabilitation. 2017;31(6):753-760.
  6. Why Pilates and Lifting Weights Aren’t Mutually Exclusive – Girls Gone Strong. Girls Gone Strong. https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/strength-training/why-pilates-and-lifting-weights-arent-mutually-exclusive/. Published 2019. Accessed May 26, 2019.

The Benefits of Pilates While Healing Diastasis Recti

Ta facilitation pic

Kierstin Elliot

Almost all postpartum women experience some degree of diastasis recti, or separation of the rectus abdominis or 6 pack muscles. Think about it, your abdomen is stretching continuously for a solid nine months! Something’s got to give. The linea alba (line of connective tissue that splits your rectus abdominus right down the middle) separates as a result of a growing baby. On some women, this separation naturally heals itself within the first year postpartum. In other women, the separation is so severe that they need a little extra attention and care to fuse their rectus abdominis back together again.

Once you’ve given yourself enough time to heal the inflamed tissues from giving birth, usually about 6-8 weeks, then you can start implementing some basic Pilates principles into your routine. Drawing attention to the breath, the transversus abdominus (TA), and the pelvic floor without creating excess pressure throughout your system, will be essential while moving towards healing your diastasis.

Connecting to your breath and your TA should be the first step. Deep three-dimensional inhalation to the back of the ribs and mindful exhalation, tapping into the TA will be crucial. During the exhale you should feel as if your abdomen is hugging or wrapping around your waist like a belt. This is TA activation. Once you’ve established the TA activation, focus on drawing your bottom ribs towards your naval and narrowing your ASIS (hip bones) towards each other. Imagine a drawstring; when you pull the drawstring, the opening of whatever object you’re trying to close, draws together from all sides evenly. That is the effect we are trying to create with the abdomen. Visualize your naval as the center of the opening and your exhalation pulling the drawstring closed.

Once you’ve mastered connecting breath to the TA, shift your focus to the pelvic floor. The easiest way to achieve this is by lying on your back with a neutral pelvis with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Visualize the tailbone unfurling and your sits bones widening as you inhale allowing the pelvic floor to gently stretch and relax. On the exhale, as you engage the TA and obliques, feel the pelvic floor tighten slightly and if appropriate (after a pelvic floor check from your PT) find a kegel. The ultimate goal is to be able to contract and release your pelvic floor without any problems. After practicing this breathing exercise every day for about 8-10 reps, you should start to feel stronger throughout your core and find some closure or firmness in the linea alba.

This first step is HUGE. After 2-3 weeks of consistent breath work and core activation, layering more extensive exercises will become safe and accessible. Keep in mind that it is not wise to go from zero to one hundred, but rather continue to build and progress slowly. It may feel tedious, but I can’t stress enough how imperative it is to lay this foundation and rebuild your core after birth. Once you feel you’ve made considerable progress with breath work, add in marches (leg lifts) targeting lower abdominal stabilizers and add in a side lying series to challenge pelvic and core stability while also strengthening glutes. Try a side plank starting on knees and then progressing to feet. Any exercise in quadruped is a safe bet that targets shoulder stability, core, glutes, and hamstrings!

One thing to note is that women with more severe cases of diastasis should avoid abdominal curls, rollups, or flexion of the rectus abdominis until there’s been a considerable amount of progress with the deeper core muscles. If you fall under this category and constantly wonder if you’ll ever close your diastasis, yes! You can! And you will if you dedicate the attention and mindfulness to connecting to your body. Think you’re doing everything right, but still feel like no progress is being made? Feel free to book a session with me at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy! I’d be more than happy to help you out on closing your diastasis and transitioning you back into the wonderful world of pilates 🙂

Pilates with Kierstin! Standing Side Splits

StandingSideSplits

Kierstin Elliot

Exercise: Standing Side Splits

Set Up: Stand with one foot on the carriage and one foot on the platform with weight distributed evenly between both legs. Slightly turn out your legs to help engage outer rotators and glutes. Lighter spring setting will focus on adductors (insides of legs) while a heavier spring setting focuses on abductors (outsides of legs).

Execution: The breath for this exercise changes based on adductor or abductor focus. For adductors- inhale to push carriage away from the platform and exhale to pull carriage back in. For abductors- exhale to push carriage away and inhale to control the carriage back in. Move the carriage out only as far as you can go while maintaining good form, as soon as neutral pelvis shifts to a tilt or a tuck, you’ve gone too far.

Focus: Be sure to keep the integrity of your form throughout the entire exercise. Keep a tall, stacked spine with ribcage over hips, neutral pelvis, and lifted arches. Think of a string lifting you up from the crown of your head. It’s common for the arches of your feet to drop, causing pronation. Keep that pinky toe connected to the machine. This will also keep the knees in correct alignment.

Importance: Great postural exercise. It’s meant to focus on either adductor or abductor strengthening depending on desired resistance. As a whole, it draws attention to weight placement and how that affects your alignment while standing.

Modifications: If you are apprehensive about balance, grab a pole or a long dowel and place that on the floor right in front of you while standing on the machine. If this exercise bothers your knees, keep a slight bend in them the whole time.

Pilates with Kierstin! Bridges with Stability Ball

Kierstin Elliot

Exercise: Bridges with Stability Ball

Set Up: Lie on your back with knees bent, with left foot flat on the mat, and stability ball under the right foot. Arms resting by your sides. Neutral pelvis.

Execution: Inhale to prep. Exhale to lift pelvis off the mat into bridge position while pressing left foot firmly into the mat and right foot firmly into the stability ball. Hold bridge for one breath, then lower with control maintaining a neutral pelvis. Repeat 5-10 times on this side and then switch to the other leg.

Focus: Keep pelvis completely level throughout the entire exercise. Be sure to not overuse or arch the lower back. Ribs should be flush with abdomen and the knees should be reaching over the toes.

Importance: Key muscles targeted in this exercise are the glutes and hamstrings! Pelvic and core stability are also challenged due to the stability ball. If you feel only your hamstrings engaging as you bridge, move heels closer to sits bones. This should help the glutes turn on.

Modifications: If you find adding the stability ball too challenging, don’t continue using it with faulty form. Try marching slowly in a bridge position- hold the right leg up for 5 counts, then slowly transfer to left leg lifting for five counts. Keep alternating legs being sure the pelvis stays level and glutes and hamstrings are engaged. If you find you pelvis dropping on one side as you do this, then do fewer repetitions to start.

Pilates with Kierstin! Kneeling Side Twist

Kierstin Elliot

Exercise: Kneeling Side Twist

Set Up: Kneel on the reformer facing either right or left side of the room with a strap held in both hands. Hands should be directly in front of the sternum, and arms rounded as if holding a big beach ball. Shoulders relaxed, lats slightly engaged, lower abs lifting up and glutes engaged for stability.

Execution: Inhale to prep. Exhale to twist from waist towards foot bar while maintaining fixed upper body posture. Inhale to return back to starting position. Imagine wringing out your waist.

Focus: Obliques and TA, spinal rotation, and pelvic stability. Be sure to keep the pelvis still while twisting from your waist. Your range of motion should only be about a quarter of a pie. Initiate movement with the ribcage, not the arms.

Importance: Core strengthening, spinal mobility, pelvic stability, and overall coordination.

Modifications: If dealing with bad knees, perform the exercise while sitting on the long box. This can also be done standing on the floor with a theraband attached to a doorknob, or standing with free weights.

 

Pilates with Kierstin! Slingshot Lunges on the Reformer

Just in time for your New Year’s Resolutions, here’s another awesome exercise from Kierstin Elliot, Pilates Teacher at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy!

Goal: Strengthen the glutes and balance 

Exercise: Slingshot Lunges on the Reformer

Set Up: Standing on the floor with right foot near foot bar and left foot against the shoulder rest. Keep left knee straight and tilt upper body forward creating one long diagonal line from head to back toes. Use one blue spring as resistance. Belly button and chin are tucked in with neck lengthened and shoulders rounded back.

Execution: Inhale to send pelvis back into lunge bending the front knee 90 degrees while reaching arms forward and keeping the pelvis level and squared off to the front. Keep shoulders away from ears. Exhale to straighten the front knee, lower arms to sides, and return to your starting position.

Focus: Be sure to keep proper alignment throughout the spine. Lumbar spine should be elongated and supported throughout the entire exercise. Maintain core connection by dropping bottom ribs towards the top of your hips bones. Hips should also be level and squared off to the front- make sure there’s no pelvic rotation during lunges.

Importance: One of the best exercises for strengthening your glutes! This exercise also enhances your ability to stabilize the pelvis and lower back while connecting to the core for improved balance.

Modifications: Limit the range of motion in standard position, or drop back knee to the carriage. Dropping the back knee may draw more focus to the quad, making the exercise feel more like a stretch, however, the focus should still be held on standing glute. For an added challenge, grab a set of 3 pound free weights for your arms for added core control.

Pilates Move of The Month with Kierstin! Lat Pull and Triceps

Kierstin Elliot

kierstinbbpt_sm

Goal: To IMPROVE Posture!

Exercise: Lat Pulls and Triceps

Set up: Lie facedown on the box with naval pulled up towards the spine, chin tucked in with neck lengthened (as if you are holding a tangerine under your chin), glutes engaged, and legs extended. Pull yourself to back bars of the reformer and hold onto the poles with both hands. Use one blue spring for resistance.

Execution: Inhale to lengthen elbows, exhale to bend elbows.

Focus: The main muscle group targeted here are the lats. Think about pulling down from the armpits while the elbows bend and extend. This action will help stabilize the shoulders, keeping them out of the ears. Also, focus on releasing the upper traps and lengthening the back of the neck. The more work we can get from underneath the shoulder blades, rather than above, the better!

Importance: Improves posture! Strong back extensors lead to better posture, especially in this day in age where phones and computers are constantly pulling our shoulders forward and weakening our backs. Incorporate a few lat pulls into your routine and feel taller almost instantly!

Modifications: To make it easier, drop tension to one yellow spring. To make it harder, place a squishy ball between ankles and add hamstring curls or pulses between lat pull sets!

Here I am, demonstrating the lat pull!