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Mel Siff’s Take on Pilates

September 11, 2012

Greetings, Bloggers and Readers of the Like.

The following is an excerpt from 2002 that Mel Siff commented on concerning Pilates. At this time, Pilates was gaining momentum in this country and Pilates classes were popping up all over. This is one of the most comprehensive opinions I’ve come across concerning Pilates. Mel’s comments are indicated using “***”:

Here is one of several similar letters which I [Mel] received privately after my
article entitled “Pilates Naked” appeared in the www.dolfzine.com magazine:

“Dr Siff — I enjoyed your discussion of the Pilates method. You are the
first person I found on the Internet who seemed willing to look at their
claims logically.” [from Dr R M G]

No sooner had this letter arrived than I came across a magazine article which
proclaimed that it had been written to help the fitness professional to
really understand what Pilates is and what its benefits are. For a brief
moment, I thought that some genuine validation of their often exaggerated
claims would be forthcoming, but I discovered before reading to the end of
the first column that this was not to be.

————–

What Is Pilates? — Understanding and teaching this popular movement method

By Colleen Glenn & Roberta Morgan

[Personal Fitness Professional Feb 2002: 12]

[Colleen Glenn is a managing partner at Goodbody’s Wellness Center, director
of the GoodBodys Pilates Education Series and vice president of The Pilates
Method Alliance. Roberta Morgan is PR Director with Center Studio in Los
Angeles and is a board member of the PMA.]

Invented in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, Pilates was created by
combining Eastern modes of exercise such as Yoga and Tai Chi with Western
practices such as aerobics and weight training. Even with the boom in Pilates
that has taken place throughout the world over the last 10 years, there are
still many people, even in the world of fitness and/or rehabilitation, who
are not clear on how this method works and why a new trainer must study long
and carefully in order to teach it. >

*** It is amazing that so many folk make it seem as if their fitness or
wellness methods almost require the intelligence and training of a “rocket
scientist”. Even old Joe Pilates himself didn’t have a very good grasp of
movement science, even for those times. Moreover, the glaring lack of
scientific research into the alleged uniqueness of Pilates training means
that there is a great shortage of intellectual matter that has to be studied.
Even the “scientific” or anatomical material that has to be studied
produces such gems that Pilates “produces thinner, less tight muscles” than
weight training — what more needs to be said about education that seems to
be so impoverished?

This means then that the extensive time necessary to even teach one exercise
on the “Reformer” or the “Cadillac” has to be spent on simply practising a
human movement that certainly does not require any skill which even vaguely
compares with a single axel on the ice, an Olympic snatch, a baseball strike
or a back salto in gymnastics or diving. Anyhow, many groups try to create
an aura of mystique or complexity about their special training method because
this makes it more marketable and attractive to the easily-bored fitness
public.

Although the authors state that “there are still many people, even in the
world of fitness and/or rehabilitation, who are not clear on how this method
works”, a quick reading of this article shows that even the experts do not
seem to be very clear about “how” this method works and what science really
exists to validate their claims for uniqueness.

The article continues:

<The Pilates Elders, the original remaining students of Joseph and Clara
Pilates, have stated that, “Pilates is a movement technique as well as a
lifelong learning process of training your body with an expectation toward
health and wellness. ” Joseph Pilates believed that since the mind built the
body, training the physical in this way sharpens mental acumen as well.

Pilates promotes good posture through breathing, proper muscle use and
coordination building core strength and flexibility and the use of
resistance-based equipment developed by Joseph Pilates. The Pilates body is
not one of bulk and restricted movement or of the runner’s sometimes anorexic
appearance. This is a dancer’s body at its agile best – long, lean, toned and
trim. Many people claim Pilates actually adds an inch or more to their
height. Other benefits include:

– Relaxation and stress reduction, encouraging overall health

– Mental and physical control of the body, leading to actual re-training of
neural pathways and physical grace of movement

– Gentle, safe, yet challenging non-impact exercises that build abdominal and
back muscles, which stabilize the spine, protect the lower back and tighten
and strengthen the buttocks

– Improved posture and stability, better coordination and balance
Strengthened bones and improved circulation

– Prevention of body pains and limitations associated with aging. Increased
mental and physical stamina and energy

– Fewer repetitions that are indefinitely (sic) more effective in changing
the body

*** As usual, no references or web resources are cited which support any of
these claims (of course, we will be told that in such magazine articles,
these would be out of place). Instead, we read nonsense on “retraining”
neural pathways (whatever that is supposed to mean in the healthy person),
implications that non-impact exercise is safer and more effective than
impulsive exercise, claims that Pilates PREVENTS body pains, and implications
that the fewer repetitions of Pilates are more effective than higher
repetition training, irrespective of training goals. All other claims are
not unique to Pilates — many other forms of exercise can claim the same
benefits and even more.

The article again:

<Pilates re-educates and promotes a process that truly enhances the mind/body
connection. Joseph Pilates promised that in 10 sessions of Pilates, you will
feel the difference. In 20, you will see the difference, and in 30, you’ll
have a whole new body. Given patience and persistence, you can improve
breathing capacities, align, stretch and strengthen the spine, improve
posture and tone the entire musculature. It has proven benefits for
conditions such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Everyone from
post-rehabilitation patients to athletes see results.>

*** If ANY form of fitness training with or without weights did not produce
similar changes within those periods, something must be gravely amiss. For
the average gym user, 30 sessions is more than 3 months of training and, if
serious weight training were used for that time, I have little doubt that
most free weight trained subjects would visibly and in terms of physical
performance be superior to most Pilates-trained subjects. Muscle hypertrophy
(without those Pilates-condemned “bulges”), fat loss, strength, power and
even flexibility (if full range loaded exercise is used) invariably would be
greater.

The article once more:

<While some Pilates exercises can be performed on a mat with teacher
guidance, the equipment certainly enhances the experience and results. Most
of the equipment designs utilize spring mechanisms that the client employs
while moving the body, carefully noting its positioning. The spring system
assists and enables the body to achieve greater flexibility and range of
motion in the different planes of movement, thereby enhancing proprioception,
restoring joint mobility and providing an ultimate physical and mental
challenge.>

*** Springs offer resistance which do not load the joints and muscles in
optimal patterns of action, especially since spring resistance increases with
extension, whereas joint torque capabilities decrease after reaching a peak
well before any full movement is completed. Springs do not specially
“enhance proprioception” — I wonder if the authors would clarify what they
mean by proprioception and how one can alter it. I doubt if the Pilates folk
even know how one can combine elastics (or springs) with free weights to
enhance strength and power training, thereby extending the capabilities of
springs on their own. All that they seem to believe is that weights will
make you bulky, short-muscled, stiff and clumsy — now where have we heard
that before?

Do they really believe that spring training provides the “ultimate physical
and mental challenge”? If so, I am astounded, because even combined weights
and band training can be very wearisome if used very extensively in all
training. Maybe Pilates folk are just very easy to please! However, I would
rather not spend money on playing with spring laden machines, when I can do
many hundreds of exercises on a single free weights bar alone for nothing.

The article again (read my article on Pilates on the dolfzine.com site for
more information on these toys):

<The most well-known piece of equipment is the Universal Reformer. Other
visually simple but deceptively effective Pilates equipment includes such
items as Low Chair, Electric Chair, Trapeze Table (which Joseph Pilates
called The Cadillac, seeing it as the ultimate in his designs), Ped70-Pul and
Spine Corrector.

The Low Chair, sometimes called the Wunda Chair, was developed when Joseph
observed Chinese acrobats maneuver on a box. Since he had strong beliefs
about how people should stand, walk, sleep and sit to stay healthy, he wanted
the Low Chair to be in every hotel and home; he believed that modem chairs
compromised internal functioning and posture.

From its origins as a massage and therapeutic table, the Trapeze Table, or
Trap Table got its name from the circus trapeze. Pilates developed the table
to resemble a single four-poster bed with springs, wooden bars and hanging
trapeze-type equipment to challenge even the most physically fit individuals.
Concentration is very important to work the arms, legs, trunk and entire body
against the various spring tensions and positions this equipment affords.

A movement technique requires learning fundamentals to build upon, time to
physically acquire skills and mentally understand them. It is about
repetition, refining and a depth of understanding, something that requires
many hours of practice and apprenticeship. Professionals attending
introductory seminars and short programs do gain invaluable concepts and
preparatory exercises to incorporate in private and/or group settings, but it
is just a start. Teaching the Pilates’ concepts is quite different from
teaching exercises. The latter is surface; the former is unique and profound.>

***On many occasions I have openly requested just some scientific information
to validate the oft-repeated Pilates claims, especially regarding its alleged
uniquenesses, but none has yet been forthcoming, other than complaints about
“Dr Siff always picking on us – why, oh why?” (the usual sidetracking
techniques which try to disguise the likelihood that there is no information
available). If the science is not there to quote, what complexity and depth
can there be that one has to study?

Proclaiming that “teaching the Pilates’ concepts is quite different from
teaching exercises” is yet another gross exaggeration, unless they mean that
it is even simpler to teach Pilates exercises. Further, it is massively
misleading to add that teaching exercises is “surface”. Have they really
tried to teach the physical and mental skills necessary to master any complex
skills in any coordinated sport or even the more demanding weights exercises
such as the snatch?

The article continues:

<Pilates could not come of age in a better time. In 10 years, over 76 million
people in the US will be middle-aged or elderly. Older populations require
low-impact programs laced with variety that also address physical
limitations. Emphasis needs to be placed on health, function, quality as well
as prevention. Pilates addresses the needs of the current aging exercise
populations. As a result, Pilates is one of the fastest growing forms of
exercise today. As a professional, the question is not if you need to learn
Pilates but rather when and how.>

*** Once again, they proliferate the belief that low-impact exercises
necessarily are superior and safer (for people of all ages), even though
research shows that moderate levels of impact or more heavily resisted
exercise seem to play a very important role in increasing the degree of bone
mineralisation and halting the progress of skeletal deterioration. Bone
scans, for example, show that lifters who have used weights for several years
have significantly greater bone density than members of the general public –
I would be interested to see a comparison of the bone scans of lifters and
Pilates practitioners of comparable experience.

Although many older folk who have spent rather sedentary lives may be quite
frail, it is incorrect to assume that ALL older folk should avoid more
demanding forms of exercise. As a professional, it is more of a question if
you know enough about strength and fitness training in general, than if you
know a great deal about how to teach only a single limited form of training.

Sure, there can be a very useful role for Pilates, but it is not universally
superior to all other forms of exercise. To suggest that it can serve as a
total replacement for other systems of training or that it is definitely
superior in most ways to weights and other forms of overall training is
irresponsible and misleading, unless, of course, your aim is to attract more
business the way of Pilates!

The article went on:

<Formed last year, the Pilates, Method Alliance (PMA) is as international
non-profit organization of teachers, teacher trainers, studios, manufacturers
and facilities dedicated to preserving the legacy of Joseph and Clara
Pilates. The PMA states that, “The Pilates Method is an exercise process that
creates an internal physical transformation and integration of mind and body.
In order to be a teacher, one must experience it (the transformation) first,
understanding that it’s never complete but & constant evolution of learning.”>

*** Once again, we are exposed to this so-called “New Age” mind-body
integration mantra, as if this is unique to Pilates. Even though some sports
will not specifically pay attention to making deliberate efforts to integrate
the use of the mind into their physical training, this integration usually
happens quite naturally without effort by simply taking part in the sport
seriously. It is inconceivable to lift heavy weights, run long distances,
swim for hours, sprint a 100m in less than 11 seconds, sink a golf put from
15 metres, do a somersault on a skateboard……without mind-body
integration, so that claim is redundant. In fact, it is virtually impossible
to take part in any physical activity (and yes, that includes sex!) WITHOUT
mind-body interaction.

The article once more:

<The PMA recommends that anyone who would like to teach the Pilates method of
exercise attend a comprehensive training program and maintain a commitment to
education. Here are some questions to help you find a training program that
is right for you.

1. Are there any requirements for entry into the program? Most comprehensive
Pilates programs require prior Pilates exercise experience, knowledge of
anatomy and/or an entrance exam for a prerequisite.

2. Does the training program offer instruction on a pieces or just a specific
piece of equipment with a limited repertoire of exercises?

3. Does the program meet weekly or monthly? How long does it take to complete?

4. Are lecture, observation, apprenticeship and practice hours involved?

Pilates is a time-proven and enormously effective movement technique that
greatly enhances the mind, body and spirit.>

*** Now we note that Pilates also integrates the SPIRIT into the whole human
equation! — maybe if they returned to a soapbox at that famous street
intersection in San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, or on the grass at Woodstock,
a few more people might buy that line, but, even in the hugely gullible
fitness and health world, that really is stretching one’s luck a bit far.

Do they really believe and KNOW that indulging in physical games on Pilates
devices is magically going to enhance what happens in the spiritual realms?
Maybe this little-known Pilates prayer has something to do with it:

Our integrated father-mother which art in Pilates heaven,
Hallowed be thy games
Thy playground come,
Thy exercises will be done on the mat as it is in the Cadillac heaven
Give us this day our daily flat muscles
And forgive us our trespasses for using free weights
As we forgive them that trespass on our machines
And lead us not into temptation to use heavy weights or ballistic bounces
For thine is the Pilates kingdom
The commercial power and the physical glory
For ever and ever
Aum!

————-

Mel Siff

 


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