Every Pilates exercise involves utilizing the joints as a lever and pulley system. All movement of the body happens as we contract and release different muscles in the proper order to achieve a desired action. If our muscles don’t understand their proper firing patterns, the body will compensate and create a way to just “get it done,” regardless of safety or efficiency.
When we repeat movement patterns, the brain says, “This is the way I’m expected to direct traffic to accomplish this task. When I do this in the future, I will use the same muscles that I’m using now.” Whether the muscles recruited are right or wrong, this is the pattern the brain will use to cue us for action.
If you have efficient use of the body, the brain cues movement that promotes the maintenance of good health through exercise. If the body has bad habits ingrained in the system, continuing to repeat inefficient muscle action will, over time, place additional stress on the joints and injury may occur. So how do we teach the brain to move our bodies safely and efficiently?
Brain Training – Motor Learning Skills(1)
To develop good motor learning skills the brain and body have to learn how to work together as a team. The motor learning process follows a pattern using the following four-stages to process information and change movement habits.
- Unconscious Incompetence – We have no idea that we are doing anything wrong.
- Conscious Incompetence – We know that we’re doing something incorrectly, but can’t figure out how to fix it.
- Conscious Competence – We have to “think” to “make” changes. With focus and conscious effort we can complete tasks, and correct poor habits with new movement patterns.
- Unconscious Competence – A new habit and coordinated brain-body connection has been made. Our body effortlessly performs tasks safely and efficiently without having to think intently to do things right.
Thanks to the brilliance of Joe & Clara Pilates, our goal teaching Pilates is to help our clients work through these steps of the motor learning process to replace unsafe or inefficient movement habits with healthier, safer ways to move. The result: “Complete coordination of mind-body-and spirit; a sound mind in a sturdy body; and the ability to live life with zest and pleasure.”(2) Or in two words – GREAT HEALTH.
How to Assess Good vs. Bad Movement Habits?
Identifying poor habits is sometimes quite obvious, other times it may take an experienced eye, or asking the right questions to “see” and correct body alignment for more efficient muscle use.
When you observe clients, before they even begin their workout, look for the following:
- Deviations from proper standing posture and sitting posture
- Deviations in normal gait and movement
Ask yourself (and your client…) the following questions:
- Does anything look (or feel) out of balance?
- Is breathing mechanically efficient?
- Are core muscles active for body support?
- Are the hips placed in the socket correctly and do they move efficiently?
- Are both the pelvis and ribs sitting in a good position?
- Is the spine able to maintain natural “functional” placement, or is there flexion, extension, a lateral shift, or rotation that is taking it out of balance?
- How is foot & ankle placement, and action?
- How is knee alignment in relation to the hips, ankles, and feet?
- Do the arms hang naturally?
- Is there efficient mechanics and swing of the arms from the shoulders?
The answers your clients provide, and what you “see” when you observe them move, should help with the assessment of any disconnects or misalignments that are creating poor movement patterns. Design the workout program to focus first on the one thing you believe would make the most difference. Once your client has successfully accomplished improvements, adjust their workout program to tackle the next piece of the puzzle. In doing this, you will always have a new challenge waiting in the wings, and the progress clients achieve will keep them motivated to stick with the program.
Starting Down the Road of Improved Body-Awareness
If clients don’t notice things that are wrong, you’re in stage one – Unconscious Incompetence. As a teacher, you’re focus needs to be helping them become more body aware. Rather than cueing, “Shift your weight so you’re standing more on your left foot.” Ask leading questions, like, “Can you feel the difference between where the weight is on your right foot vs. your left?” Or “Which leg feels like it’s doing more work?” Teach them how to begin self-assessment during their workouts to improve their mind-body connection.
If they say to you, “I know that my position isn’t quite right, but I’m not sure what to do.” They’ve arrived at the second stage – Conscious Incompetence. You’re well set up for an educational session to help them identify improvements in position and finding the right muscles to support the work. Then you can point out all the exercises that are already in their program to improve this particular task and reasons why making this change is important for their body. If you don’t have several things built into their program to address their individual needs, now is a great time to add something new! This will provide your clients with the motivation to pay more attention to what they’re doing and become confident in making corrections so they can move into the next level of brain training.
This is when they say to you, “Gee doing this right sure takes a lot of thought. I feel like I’m doing it right, but I really have to pay attention to what I’m doing!” At this point, you can breathe a sigh of relief. As a teacher, you have done a great job educating and encouraging your student. Your job just got a little easier because the brain-body connection is gaining strength and confidence. It’s the repetition of consciously reinforcing these new motor pathways that will instill lasting new habits. If at this point, you decide to scrap the workout program that they’ve been doing and replace it with something totally new, you’ve just distracted the brain from the focus of reinforcing new habits. Not a recommended idea!
To transition to stage four, maintain consistency with your client’s workout program so the brain can re-program memory patterns to a subconscious level. Once the body can move freely and easily with little or no conscious thought, you can be confident that stage four has been achieved.
Self-Talk & Positive Reinforcement
Remember in the beginning, the brain said, “We always do it this way, so this will be how I’ll tell you to move.” (The Old Habit) Now the brain is accepting new information, and is thinking, “Okay, the old way wasn’t so great, here’s a new and better way.” (New Movement Pattern) In stage three the brain says, “I know this is the new way you want to do this task, and if I really pay attention, I can be sure that you do it right.”
Now which is stronger, the Old Habit or the New Movement Pattern?
A+ if you answered correctly, the old habit.
The only way to get to stage four (Unconscious Competence) is to repeat the same new and better movement pattern, over, and over, and over again until the brain has completely accepted that this is THE ONLY WAY to do the task. Repetition is not boring, it is essential! (Remember, as a teacher, we might cue the same thing a thousand times a week, but each client, on average, will only hear it one to three times.) Repeat and reinforce, repeat and reinforce, repeat and reinforce…
“Will I Ever Be Able to Move and Not Have to Think So Hard?”
A great question, that really needs a good answer for our clients to stick with their Pilates program. The answer is, YES! It comes with time, practice, and repetition. Sometimes the brain gets it quick. Sometimes it might take weeks, months, or even years of re-training. Think about it… How many months (or years) did your body do it the Old way? How many times has it had a chance to reinforce the New way? Once you’ve achieved Unconscious Competence for efficient movement skills, continually repeating the action will keep new habits as the accepted only way to do the work. You won’t have to pay quite so much attention because the body will naturally execute tasks correctly and make any minor self-corrections as needed. Ta-Da! A great mind-body connection has been achieved.
Work, Release, and Efficient Movement for Whole-Body Health
Be confident in your ability to create sound, safe Pilates programs that reinforce good movement patterns and benefit whole-body health by asking good questions, noticing the body’s strengths & weakness, identifying posture & alignment habits, and determining which stage of development clients are in on the motor learning curve. Be patient and encouraging. Sometimes old habits are comfortable and a challenge to let go. Never give up. It’s never too late, and we are never too old to learn new habits, change, and grow. The brain just needs the right information to cue the body to execute movement and muscle firing patterns in a new way! Encourage your clients to enjoy the journey as the brain and body learns to work, release, and trust new ways to sit, stand, and move.
(1)Pilates Method Alliance, Deborah Lessen-editor, The PMA Pilates Certification Exam Study Guide (Miami: Pilates Method Alliance, Inc., 2005), 52-53.
(2) Joseph H. Pilates, Return to Life Through Contrology ( Miami: Pilates Method Alliance, Inc., 2003, Original Copyright 1945 by Joseph H. Pilates), 18, 24, 15.