Our daily lives shape our bodies, from our work, to our play, to what we eat. As a result of our daily patterns, we change our functioning bodies into ones that are strained, tight, and stuck. When we jump into a Pilates exercise program without addressing our tight areas first, we limit our development and we stay stuck in our body’s holding patterns. In order for us as practitioners and students to get the most out of our Pilates routine we must first address what causes these areas to remain stuck, keeping us from true length, contraction and relaxation.
Exercise science has been predominantly focused on muscles, but they are affected by connective tissues, which change how they function. In most exercise, there is very little focus on the important effect the connective tissue has on the muscles, bones and joints. There is a fibrous connective tissue membrane called fascia that goes through out the body surrounding muscles, bones, blood vessels and nerves. We could not move without it. Fascia has a rich nerve supply and therefore can be a focus of pain. It can also adhere to other muscles and connective tissue, causing binding and restricted movement as well as overstretch resulting in destabilization of a joint.
Our bones, muscles and tendons are all encapsulated in fascial sheaths that hold our bodies in position. The fascia is affected by our daily repetitive life. From sitting at a computer all day or being fundamentally sedentary, our fascia changes state to a harder substance. It can shorten and tighten muscles, making joints and bones more rigid to the point of pain and distress. If the fascia changes from inflammation or dehydration, the position of our bones, muscles and tendons may change as well. One result of this change can be repetitive wear and tear, which can lead to injury or arthritic conditions.
Muscles work synergistically throughout the body. As one muscle contracts, the opposite muscle is inhibited from contracting. To relax or lengthen one the other must be able to fully contract. So, if your quad and back muscles are tight, you won’t be able to fully contraction from your abdominals. It is then necessary to do release work to get the full relaxation of the muscle so the opposite can function properly.
Release work on the fascia helps bring blood to the articular system to nourish, loosen and strengthen the tendons and ligaments, while also expelling old toxins. According to Gregory Kolt, in his book PT and Sports and Exercise, the best movements to get blood into the connective tissues are those that involve compression, torsion, and friction. There are several ways to do release work on the fascia; foam rolling, ball work, range of motion, and massage.
The first most important tool of release is breath, because when we aren’t breathing, all of our patterns are restricted. This perpetuates the holding patterns that are present, creating further developmental issues. When we can learn to connect with our breath, we find that it is the first step into body conscious release.
Foam & Ball Rolling
The foam and ball rolling both use the elements of position, compression, friction, and movement to create release. Positioning of the body on a myofascial meridian (a connected string of fascial structures) with compression allows the tissue to soften. Adding small movements to the positioning and compression helps bring more circulation and blood into the area, further warming and softening the tissue. The more fluid our connective tissues are, the less prone we are to injury and the more we are capable of full articular function. Both of these methods need to be taught by and or supervised by certified trainers to avoid injury.
There are many ways to get circular motion into the joints; Qigong, Tai Chi, and dance are a few options. The circular flowing movements of these exercises strengthen the tissues around the joints, bringing nourishing blood in and toxins out. These movements encourage stronger, more pliant connective tissues with greater overall mobility.
As instructors, we are already trying to stretch the tight areas and strengthen the weak areas; this brings us to an even deeper level. Because the fascia is affected by postural habits, trauma, scar tissue and lack of movement, all of our clients can benefit from fascia release.
I incorporate release work into almost every one of my clients’ personal training session. For example, I use release work religiously on a middle-aged man who drives an hour to work and then sits all day at a desk. By the end of the day, his hamstrings are pulling so tight, he can barely bend over. He also has tight anterior and lateral leg muscles, spinal erector muscles and, his front arm line is closed from sitting at a computer. His tight legs and back prevent his abdominals from full function making moves like Roll Back or Rowing Back very difficult.
We have incorporated release work into his training for about two years. As a result, he knows his own routine and has gained a great deal of body awareness by doing it every session, knowing day to day that tightness and agility change in the body. He comes in early and does his specific release program on his own to prepare for the session instead of needing pre-workout stretches. Without this release work before his session, he has difficulty sitting up in moves like Push Through, Rowing, and anything seated on the chair. This was a typical routine for him to start his session with.
Quadriceps: Prone, supported on elbows with foam roller beneath parallel legs, fold and unfold arms to pull the body back and forth across quad muscles staying off the knee-caps. For external Rotation, widen and externally rotate legs to get inner quads.
TFL & ITB: Lie on your hip, top leg crossed in front, support upper body with bottom hand or elbow, drop top hip forward and back to get in the TFL. Then draw yourself further down the leg trying to get to the edge of the knee without going on the knee joint.
Hamstrings: Seated on top of foam roller with legs spread a little bit, bring arms behind you to the floor, engage your core then draw body back, coming out on to the hamstrings using arms as support.
Spinal Erectors: Lying perpendicular with foam roller in mid-back, supporting the head with hands, lift buttocks off the floor, using legs to draw the body up to the shoulders (staying off the neck) and down to the lower thoracic.
Then we go into a series lying lengthwise from head to tailbone on the foam roller to relax the spinal muscles as well as open the chest. We follow up with gentle core activation to warm up before getting on the equipment.
Breathing/Imprinting: Supine, knees bent, feel ribcage and sacrum widen with each breath, let all the muscles along the spine relax
Elbow Circles: Hands placed on shoulders, draw 6- 10 circles in each direction, trying to soften between the shoulder blades and the front arm line
Full Arm Circles: Ribcage Arms/ Angel Arms adding chest lift while retuning the arms to the side of the body on exhalation. (Great as a Roll Up prep)
Alternating Toe Taps: Bring legs to Table Top position, core activated, keeping neutral pelvis alternate tapping toe to floor and bringing it back to Table Top.
Double Leg Extension: Legs in Table Top, on exhalation, engage core and extend legs to a 45 degree angle, advance by adding a chest lift at the same time as leg extension, keeping arms down by your side
Bridge: Supine, knees bent, legs parallel, articulate spine starting at the coccyx until weight is supported on feet and shoulder blades soften sternum and roll down one vertebra at a time.
Then gently allow body to slide off the foam roller trying not to get up or have too much muscles activity. The experience is wonderful and everyone’s experience is a little different depending on their own tight and closed areas.
There are other great methods for getting these deep release results; like the Ballet Stretch Series on the Cadillac or using the leg straps on the Reformer to assist in stretching hamstrings, ITB, piriformis, and adductor muscles. But these methods also eat up a lot of your clients’ session. Some of our clients graduate out of needing the release work in every session, their bodies becoming more balanced through releasing and then strengthening. But some, like this gentleman, whose daily body circumstance puts him back in the same position for half of the day, every day, might always need it.
Julia Kemp has been a certified Pilates instructor since 2003 teaching both mat and apparatus in Louisiana and Hawaii. She recently left Louisiana to be near her family in Hawaii, taking with her all that she learned. All of her Pilates practice now involves release work. She finds that it is the quickest way to dramatic results of release, allowing muscle groups to better function together. She is currently on the hunt for like-minded teachers to collaborate with on the Big Island.