Just move: Is it time to stop fretting about neutral spine and posture?

NOW this title might sound very strange coming from someone who runs a Pilates business. However, you know me, I like to be a little different and I love a challenge. So when, at a recent Pilates convention (yes – they exist and they’re fun thank you JPilates) I sat in on a lecture by physiotherapist Mark Leyland (a physio who refreshingly was more interested in sharing knowledge and debate than asserting his superior knowledge of anatomical language) who share information such as:

  • There is no such thing as neutral spine;
  • There is no evidence to suggest good posture is good for you;
  • Postural alignment alone does little to heal the body; and
  • Having a bad back does not automatically mean you have a weak core

In the midst of a group of experienced and fairly outspoken Pilates instructors (few of us are meek and shy) my ears pricked up! What does this mean?

It challenged me as an instructor. I love to practise with great technique. I love to correct technique to make sure my participants are getting the most out of Pilates. I can spot a lordotic curve at 20 paces. I know which exercises will be challenging for which groups of participants. I can spot a Body Pump addict in the warm up! As an instructor you can get smug and complacent. So it got the old grey matter chugging.

There is no doubt that Pilates is beneficial. That said (and is is where I veer from many Pilates purists) it’s important to keep the body moving and do Pilates as part of a bigger package of movement. Within my classes we move through all planes of movement. We stand up. We free joints  and spines. But how could this information help me to give my participants more?

So here is what I’ve processed so far:

The most important thing for a pain free life is movement. Free, un-impinged movement across all joints. This, for most people, means finding an equilibrium, a place where they can re-balance muscles and find some alignment before progressing onto free-er movement.

My ultimate Pilates method would be in a studio. We’d incorporate big, primal, movement patterns like deadlifts, squats and pull-ups with Pilates. We’d also get your heart rate up.

But before that happens and because it is my mantra: just move! If something has got stuck, you need to find ways to free it. Since, after all, life is not all about being able to do the perfect plank well into your 80’s, it’s about playing and moving , pain free with your family or grandchildren.

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Neck and Shoulders: How to ease the tension

MANY years ago, homo sapiens wandered the earth, creating communities and surviving by hunting and gathering. There were no laptops, desk jobs, PDAs or tablets. The head and shoulders of the average man sat squarely on his shoulders. Today, in an era of technology and sedentariness, the average man’s head sits a little too far forwards of his shoulders and that can cause a lot of issues.

Kyphotic spine lateral view in x-ray

Let’s consider some: persistent headaches; poor ’rounded’ posture; shoulder dysfunction; lower back pain; spine compression; dowager’s hump; and even man boobs (or just saggy lady boobs)!

Clients and participants often ask what we can do in Pilates to ‘work the neck and shoulders.’ The simple truth is, it’s complicated! When you spend up to 40 hours of each week sat in front of a computer, you need to consider incorporating daily training into your life to undo to ill effects of desk posture.

According to Kapandji (Physiology of the Joints, Volume III), for every inch your head moves forwards, it gains 10 pounds in weight, as far as the muscles in your upper back and neck are concerned (these muscles have to work that much harder to keep the chin upright).  This also forces the suboccipital muscles (the muscles that raise the chin) to work on over-drive. It’s this muscle tension and associated pressure on the nerves in the area which may cause headaches at the base of the skull. Pressure on the suboccipital nerves can also mimic sinus (frontal) headaches.

As well as headaches, rounding of the shoulders can make it difficult to breathe effectively, creating short, chest breaths, causing the shoulders to rise and fall. This can increase tension in the neck and shoulders . Plus there’s the associated weakness across the shoulder blades and the opposing tightness across the chest muscles. This can in turn cause shoulders to round and become mis-aligned, leading to pain and injury. And yet another common problem I see is winging through the shoulder blades. If the shoulder girdle does not sit and function as part of your core to maintain good posture, you can end up with over-use injuries like tennis elbow.

SO WHAT TO DO?

Our first course of action is always to stretch and mobilise. Something we spend a lot of time doing in Pilates classes. Consider how the head and shoulders have been pushed forwards, with the shoulders also often raised.

Here are a few mobility exercises to incorporate into your day or exercise routine:

Shoulder shrugs and rolls.

Alternate between lifting and relaxing shoulders as if you were trying to shake something off your shoulders. Then roll shoulders through a full range of motion, forwards and backwards up and down.

Standing chest opener.

Standing about 6 inches in front of a wall, with your bottom, ribs, shoulder blades and head all touching the wall, raise your arms so your elbows are touching the wall at shoulder height and your hands just above your head. Gently draw your chin in (but keep your eyes looking forwards). If you need more stretch slide your arms higher.

All fours spine mobility.

Kneeling on all fours raise one arm. Thread your arm under your body as if you were threading a needle and then open it up to the side as if you were trying to wave to someone.

Good food vs. Bad food. Do you demonise your diet?

I had a great day out with my mum yesterday. We were at the 3 Foot Festival in Chelmsford with my son and niece. We’d taken packed lunches, suitable for a full day out, filled with activities. On the way home mum commented on how well she’d been doing with her food but that today had been a bad day. She said it a few times, how since she’d been back from holiday she’d been good and lost a few pounds but today was a bad day. Why? From what I could make out it was because we’d had cheese rolls for lunch.

Now I’m not going to sit here and extoll the virtues of the humble cheese roll. Bread and cheese are both hugely acid forming to the body and the combination is body fat’s best friend. However, the occasional cheese roll, when you’re out and about and hungry, is not going to sabotage your long term health goals.

My mature cheddar was sandwiched with my mum’s, new season, home made apricot and tamarind chutney, inside a freshly home baked granary roll. I was hungry. It was nice. I was able to thoroughly enjoy it without a spot of guilt. Why? Because I know I eat well 80% of the time and a cheese roll is still kinder to my body than a take away burger or pizza. Today my food options will be replaced by eggs, salmon and plenty of nutritious vegetables. Hey, who knows, I may even whop out the juicer and concoct a green delight with some of my abundant home grown mint.

The point is this. If you demonise food it no longer becomes a pleasure AND you are likely to crave more of it, especially if you’re a type who likes to be subversive. Instead, recognise how some foods are kind to your body, whilst others are for treats and occasional enjoyment only. But do just that: enjoy them! Here’s to cheese rolls and fun days out.