Basic Principles – My Game Changer

The Stott Pilates 5 Basic Principles can be a pain in the neck (both literally and figuratively) whether or not you are familiar with it.  Many of us, especially when preparing for our first Stott Pilates exam will memorize and rehearse this segment, making sure that we don’t miss out on any points or keywords we are suppose to say.  I always see a checklist with these important points and green ticks checking out the boxes (with accompanying ‘ting’ sound) whenever someone mentions them and gets them right (most of the time, it’s correct word for word, in the order we were taught!) during the 5BP practice or Stott Pilates practical exam.

If we don’t observe the 5BP and work on placing our body in an alignment that can prevent us from getting injured and move better, we can develop wrongful movement patterns which could lead to pain and many other serious conditions. Well, may not be in the neck, but it can occur anywhere else in our body. E.g. one of the Principles talk about placing the head and cervical spine (neck) in a good alignment – our head and neck follows the spine – so depending on what movement you are executing, you want to stack your head above the cervical spine and allow it to follow the path of your spine. Like in a Ab Prep (abs crunch), you want to set the head position to allow it to follow the ride of your spine, and not leave the head behind your spine or crunch up from the neck and pull the spine along. By not observing the Principle here, not only are we not maximising our time and effort in working the abdominals (which should be the primary mover here), we put our neck in a stressful and overdrive position.  With each repetition, eventually, we learn and develop a harmful movement pattern, every movement that requires the abdominal muscles to shorten, the smaller muscles around our neck will be taking over instead.  This will lead to neck pain and other more serious complications.

5BP is like a mirror that exposes our weakness.

In situations where we don’t understand why there is a need for the 5BP, I likened it to the 10 Commandments in the Old Teststment. It’s like a mirror that exposes our weakness. A set of law, except that here it is a set of guidelines for optimal biomechanical alignment.  Like the 10 Commandments, it cannot be bent, it is there to bring to our awareness of how hard it is to use our own effort to keep the law to be that perfect person and to highlight to us how prone we are, despite the very best of us, in breaking the law.  The 5BP serves as a reminder for us to keep to our alignment and it points out to us how prone it is and how far we have deviated from the ideal alignment at static or during movement. And it also exposes our weakness, our weakest link.  Don’t forget that we are only as strong as our weakest link.

Treat it like a benchmark, aim for it, but hey, it’s really okay if you miss the mark. Really!

I often hear “Pilates instructors are very strict on body alignment”, “if you are not setup properly, you do not execute the move”.  There are some truths in this. As instructors, we do want the best for our clients, but some of us take the Principles to the extreme and forget that it is a human being we are dealing with here.  We set them up and want them to move exactly like how the pictures we have in our manual.  We forgot that everyone come to us with different posture, movement patterns and dysfunctions and have different needs.  And we forgot that they are 3D being who should not be treated like a 2D picture in our manual.  So often we prescribe a mould, to fit the body into.  This is where we have taken the Principles to a T and start to restrict movement or force a movement the body is not ready for. The 5BP in this case, is being abused, sadly, so is that client!

I suspect the reason for no proper application due to a lack of understanding of the goal of working with the 5BP, failing to understand how it applies differently to every body and different movement.  Also, we treat the person as an object of practice and fail to regard this person as a human being, a client with real needs.  I have been there, we can be very familiar with the Principles and exercises but they are basically recited or regurgitated from the textbook, lock, stock and barrel, because we feel we have to.   Even the cues are lifted from the manual, copy and paste, regardless of who the client is.  The 5BP is used as a benchmark we want everybody we teach to meet.  But hey, I really don’t think it is possible for most of us, I prefer to respect the person we are teaching and slowly work towards their ideal alignment than to force the body to fit into it.  It is crazy to put our body in tension even before we start to move.  How will the brain register that tension? How will our body react to it?  Would it be possible that we unknowingly triggered a flight or fight response for that client?  Are we putting them in stress? If that is the case, aren’t we harming that person more than helping them to reap the benefits of moving?

What the 5BP means to you defines your practice as an instructor, much like how your belief and personality defines your style of teaching.

I used to wonder why do we need the 5BP and why must it be these 5BP and not anything else.  Are there any exercise systems that follow a set of principles like these?  I even question their order at one point! I ‘knew’ then the 5BP are biomechanical Principles, when observed, will help bring to our awareness of our body alignment so that we can achieve a safe and efficient exercise. My interpretation back then was ‘oh we need to observe the 5BP so that the exercise can be safe and we don’t get hurt’.  I know the ‘what’, but I don’t know the ‘how’ and the ‘why’.

One day during practice, there was a lightbulb moment when these words came out of my mouth ‘every movement has a ripple effect’. Baam! Just like that, things started to piece together for me…not all at once but slowly and eventually.  I started to get the revelation of how these 5BP relates back to the spinal column and to each other and the bigger picture of  understanding how applying them results in a balance of stability and mobility without compromising the efficiency of the body.

For example, when we move our arms, it affect the shoulder joints and shoulder blades, which is connected to the back of our rib cage by muscles, and our rib cage is connected to our spinal column and sternum.  Moving upwards, our head is connected to our cervical spine, moving downwards, the pelvis is connected to the sacral part of the spine.  Then, our legs articulate with the acetebulum which is part of the pelvis. And adding to this ripple effect is the breath.  What inhaling and exhaling does to the rib cage, intra-abdominal pressure and spine.  Can you imagine how one arm movement can have impact on our entire body, the alignment of the spine, head and even legs.

Working to stabilise the spinal column using the 5BP can mediate the ripple effects our arms can have on other parts of the body like our neck, pelvis and even legs.  Hence,  we want to think about using the 5BP to give us a good gauge of our alignment and work the whole body for sufficient stabilisation yet to produce enough power to create the desired movement to transfer, load or absorb a particular force on one or many parts of the body – all these done together with efficiency. Which is why we often hear ‘All the principles work together’.

Once I start to see the bigger picture, my belief changes, my teaching changes. The way I work my client changes.

Efficiency is key if you want the 5BP to work for your good.

Many times we have people bracing their core or holding their breath to try to keep as ‘stabilised’ as possible, especially when we hear cues like ‘move this part of the body without moving that part’.  We overdo and overstabilise thinking that is good practice.  It’s where most of us missed the point.  There is no efficiency in the movement.  Our body is created to be efficient.  I always tell my clients not to use 100% energy to create a 20% amount of work.  For example, we teach client how to imprint in supine by shortening the obliques to bring both the rib cage and pelvis closer together, creating a slightly flexed lumbar spine and lift their legs up to tabletop position without losing that imprint – the whole essence here which I feel is often overlook, is to use enough energy from the abs and not allow the back to give way.  Imagine there is a energy marker that shows you the percentage of force you are using.  If you bring one leg to tabletop, you may be using only 5% of the abs, but if you bring the other leg up as well, the energy marker might register 30%.  And when you reach one leg out to the diagonal, that marker increases.  The whole idea about imprint is that we want to keep the pelvis stabilized and not go into an anterior tilt so that the spine doesn’t arch and go out of alignment.  So we are using the abs rather than the back to hold the load of our legs in that position.   Many people think that imprint is a standard and high amount of energy, flattening or jamming the lower back down to the mat.  Efficiency comes in when we consider the load changes and match it with the force we are applying.  One rule of the thumb I use is: let the body respond for the first time – it could be a shake or a wriggle, then quickly apply sufficient strength or energy to make it not shake or wriggle, and try using that same or slightly less energy for the next repetition.  We just want to catch that shake or wobble.  In that way, our brain gets to learn from that initial ‘failure’ and establish a preferred method or pathway.

In short, as a guide, I consider the following before applying or adapting every Principle to an individual:

  • context – position, explosive, flowing, balancing, functionality
  • person to person – posture, range of motion, strength and endurance of the working muscles, awareness, emotion and readiness
  • load – constant or changing, gravity, lever, direct or indirect path, pace
  • essence of movement –  isolation, integration, functional, rehabilitative

My understanding of the 5BP evolved since that lightbulb moment and till today, it is still evolving with the more courses I attend, the more clients I teach and the more I practice and integrate new information to it.  To me, the 5BP is the foundation to not only the Pilates repertoire, but to movement in general, whether it is a HIIT class, personal training, doing workout like weight lifting, spinning, or everyday movement like walking, sitting at the desk. With this foundation, it brings about a greater awareness of how smart and efficient our body is, how not to overstress a particular part of the body and find efficiency in movement.  We start to respect our body and move better.


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