Earlier this year, after a year off training in other disciplines and in the middle of rehabbing a dislocated shoulder, I started back at crossfit. I’ve found the knowledge from pilates has helped me with my crossfit training a lot. Not to say I don’t have as many "goats" as the next person – I do! But what about pilates can be transferred into your crossfit training? Let’s have a look at just a few of the fundamental principles of pilates and find out.
Breathing comes automatically, but just like anything else, if you haven’t spent any concentrated effort on it, could you be missing out on generating some extra power? Pilates focuses on breathing mostly into the back and sides of the ribs rather than “belly breathing”. Belly breathing is great for massaging your internal organs so it has its place, but it requires relaxation of the belly muscles. Breathing into the ribcage on the other hand, allows you to keep those abdominals a little more switched on so they continue supporting the torso while doing your movements. If time is spent on training the breath in co-ordination with full body movement, it is possible to be able to breath without disrupting your stability, in turn making your movement more efficient.
Pelvic / abdominal stability
Whenever the legs or lower spine moves, the pelvis moves. It’s where the power comes from. So how much thought have you given to the pelvis and its associated muscles and connective tissue? When you are deep in your squat, do you think about your lower back, sticking your butt out, or whether your pelvis is in the most appropriate position? Do you suffer from lower back pain???
Pilates trains you to, when possible, come back to a neutral pelvis on command – your happy place as far as the pelvis, hips and lower back is concerned. Your pelvic floor (PF) muscles (yes, I’m talking to you too guys – if you have a pelvis, you have pelvic floor muscles!), line the base of the pelvis. If you imagine your torso as a cylinder; the top of the cylinder being the diaphragm, wrapping around the sides are your transverse abdominals and at the base, your PF muscles.
When you are sitting or standing, running or jumping, there is immense gravitational pull of all our abdominal contents down onto the PF muscles…sometimes beyond what you have trained for. But there really is no need to pee your pants while doing double-unders. If this is happening, some PF attention is needed. The PF muscles work synergistically with other muscles of the torso to create intra-abdominal pressure, providing excellent support for the lumbar area. Just like any other muscle in the body, they need training too and especially if there has been previous trauma to those muscles (eg childbirth).
Your spine houses, supports and protects your spinal cord. VERY important job! The spine provides tiny channels for nerves to pass through and out to the rest of your body. If you have too much compression in any part of the spine, and that compresses a nerve, you will be interrupting messages to the organ or muscle that nerve travels to.
Pilates focuses on moving the spine with length in all directions, aiming to create maximum space between each vertebra to aid good communication between your central nervous system and the rest of your body. If your spine is stiff and inflexible, you are limiting yourself movement-wise and the likelihood of injuring your spine is increased.
Shoulder awareness, stability and flexibility
This is a huge area for crossfitters. Olympic lifting, press ups, pull ups, kettlebell swings, muscle ups, wall balls…all key parts of crossfit and also all reliant on excellent support from the entire shoulder girdle. Not just the shoulder blades, but also the clavicle. This plus the sternum, ribs, muscles and ligaments, help to be able to move the arm and hand to do whatever it is you’re doing; pushing, pulling, lifting, throwing etc. Once again, if your shoulder blades tend to be locked in place due to sitting at the computer all day, or conversely, are too slack, then you may well be limiting yourself or increasing your chances of doing yourself some mischief in that area. Pilates aims to build greater dynamic stability and awareness of the shoulder girdle.
So can crossfit and pilates be friends? SURE they can. And interestingly, both disciplines have their roots in gymnastics (Joseph Pilates was a circus performer, gymnast and boxer).
A friend of mine once lent me a book called The Talent Code. It’s a fantastic book documenting research revealing that myelin, once considered an inert form of insulation for brain cells, may be the holy grail of acquiring skill. The book follows nine “hotbeds” (places that continuously churn out elite, kick-ass athletes). They found that half the time they were training high intensity in short bursts, but the other half of the time was spent performing painstakingly slow and concentrated movements in the areas where they need the most work…breaking down their movements to the smallest increments of movement and repeating it over and over again. This has proven to grow myelin sheath around axons which in turn cements the movement into your brain so that when you speed it up, it happens very naturally and without much thought. Check out the animation: http://thetalentcode.com/myelin/. I think of pilates as helping manufacture and reinforce positive movement patterns by slowing it down, using imagery and taking time to concentrate on what your doing. With practice and repetition, these improved patterns can cross over into your more dynamic WOD’s making you a more efficient mover.