Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti ab crunch type classes per sé – they are a lot of fun and, unlike Pilates, highly cardio.
In fact, attending an ab crunch class and shining
Go for the burn”, “no pain, no gain”, “what’s better than seven?.. ANOTHER SEVEN!”, “keep pumping ‘til you puke” ....
So, What **IS** Pilates?....
Warning: Personal Trainers / Ab-Crunch Class Teachers - I have some VERY strong opinions and will most likely cause offence to those with closed minds. I make no apology and welcome the flaming.
Pilates is suitable and highly effective for spinal rehab, pregnant, dancers and, shock/horror.... high level athletes. Designed in the 1940’s, it has stood the test of time and yet, despite being designed by the most macho of blokes (Google “Joseph Pilates”...) seems to be often perceived as something either ‘girlie’ or for the elderly.
The raw core control, inner strength and balance Pilates gives is off the scale. As a somewhat extreme example, have a look at these videos .... me, summer 2014 in Adelaide, aged 50, Pilates ON a wet (read slippery) fit ball, ON a surfboard, IN the sea. (OK, it was a calm day and, OK, the out-takes, on the same page, are many and varied but let’s not kill it when I’m on a roll)
But enough of me.
Adopting a less is more approach, Pilates helps identify/isolate/work the deeper ab muscles - the ones that actually connect to lower rear rib cage and protect the lower spine. It uses slow and controlled movements.
Contrast this with staccato/jerky ab crunches which are notorious for causing lower back pain as well as causing tummy bulk by tending to recruit the superficial outer layer – the showy ‘six pack’ or Rectus Abdominis (RA).
Two factors seemingly overlooked by the ab crunch brigade are:
Ab-crunch classes and the like (whether by design or sheer ignorance) play to this to the detriment of working the muscles that actually protect the back – they deeper muscles tend to miss out!
So, what ARE these “deeper layers”? They include Transverse Abs or TA and Obliques and both connect to the rear lower ribcage and assist protecting lower back. They are also the muscles for a flat lower stomach, the ones that assist in child birth and in closing the gap post partum.
Pilates tends to target these deeper layers more effectively via several methods:
Pilates also focuses more on the stability associated with an exercise, rather than the movement itself. This tends to give more control, which assists working the entire length of a given muscle, which leads to tone rather than bulk.
Although Pilates isn’t terribly cardio based, it is an ideal compliment to other activities that are.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti ab crunch type classes per sé – they are a lot of fun and, unlike Pilates, highly cardio. However, as a trained Pilates instructor, I honestly find them ridiculously easy and, confess to the evil joy of ‘flying the Pilates flag’ by doing even their ‘ultra hard options’ with complete and childlike ease. Attending such a class and shining is something I have recommended to other Pilates Teachers as a way to attract new clients.... but I digress.
These ab crunch classes are easy because they involve minimal deep abdominal control and a LOT of bouncing up and down, using momentum to assist the move. Therein lies the problem. Because of the jerky nature of the ab crunch type mentality, it can also be dangerous for the lower back.
Not only that, they tend lead to BULK. It’s not rocket science. Look at the ‘gym grunts’ – you’ve all seen them.. the guys swing their backs in an effort to bicep curl ludicrously heavy weights (because, as we all know, women ADORE massive biceps above all else). Despite the weight, are their arms toned or, frankly, fat and bloated?.. Correct. Why might that be? They only work the middle section of the muscle – the outer sides are not actually being worked because the movement relies on motion and momentum. Some of the professional trainers get away with it and don't look flabby due to the hours they spend - but unless you can dedicate insane amounts of time to this..... (never mind what happens when you stop.... eeewwww....). Now look at a Pilates or Yoga instructor tackle the same move… much lighter weights, elbows in, posture adjusted/core engaged to protect lower back, exhaling with the move (not breath holding), significantly slower move that works the entire LENGTH of the muscle and…. Oh bugger me, look at that… just a tad more toned. Who’d have thought?
One of the neat aspects of mat Pilates is the ability to do it at home, with minimal outlay. Having attended a few classes to get tutored in a few moves, it’s great to practise at on your own. It’s probably a good idea to attend a class every so often just to check you haven’t fallen into bad habits – eg back raised off mat, hunched shoulders, holding breath, actual position and choreography of the move. That said, many attending my lunchtime CBD classes say they find attending gives them motivation (and is, apparently, significantly cheaper than shopping!)
On the subject of classes, it is important that a teacher actually WATCHES / CORRECTS you. In large gym based classes (eg 30 plus), if the teacher is merely demonstrating on a stage, frankly, you might just as well buy a DVD and take pot luck at home.
A good Pilates class should have you feeling longer, worked but NOT fatigued. Just because you don’t have ten tons of lactic acid burning away under your T shirt/track suit trousers does NOT mean you slacked. Often the reverse applies – work SMARTER not HARDER.
“Go for the burn”, “no pain, no gain”, “what’s better than seven?.. ANOTHER SEVEN!”, “keep pumping ‘til you puke” all make about as much sense as unilaterally opting to double a prescribed medicine in order to get better twice a fast. Der!
A litmus tests of the effectiveness of a class would be a sense (especially the next day) of the lower abdominals feeling more worked than the upper ones and, you should definitely NOT have any pain/soreness in your lower back.
I am often asked about the difference between Pilates and Yoga, with a common perception they are similar.
In my opinion, similarities include significant amounts of concentration required to the many aspects of cueing, breath and control. Contrast that to ab crunch classes where dangerous, ineffective, jerky moves are mindlessly trotted out in the hundreds to loud doof doof music, no doubt intended to distract the mind from the sheer boredom and pain this approach engenders. Differences, as I see them, would include Pilates tends to focus more on core strength/balance whereas Yoga seems more about stretching. Sweeping generalisation here but in all my straw polls, it seems Pilates/Yoga teachers aresignificantly leaner, more toned and have better posture than their ab-crunch/grunt brethren.
Despite being VERY safe, there are some contra-indications and some of them are actually not that obvious or common sense. See these two links for more info
So, a rant by a guy who’s totally ‘up himself and has some personal beef with Personal Trainers’ or a balanced opinion by a person who passionately believes in the effectiveness in the Pilates approach to movement? I’ll let you decide.
But just in case I’ve left you in any doubt where I am coming from, when I see some of the folly that passes for ‘core tuition’ in ab-crunch classes and meeted out by PT’s in one on one sessions, I want to just f***ing scream.
I bite my tongue. Woosa, woo-oo-sa... breathe.... OK, I’m good.
You can’t save the world.