Pilates: A Workout For Your Nervous System

The nervous system is in charge of amongst many other things our movements and as such has to be adaptable to meet all the challenges that are thrown at us. Pilates is often described as a mind/body exercise regimen as it requires concentration, which is especially important when you are attached to or balancing off of powerful springs that have the ability to throw you off the equipment!

Articles and websites featuring Pilates will promote the many benefits which are often centered on its positive effect on the body. You will see numerous reports of its ability to produce long, lean, non-bulky muscles, normalise joint movements and therefore reduce chronic pain in some areas. There is an oft quoted line from Joseph Pilates:

“In ten sessions, you feel better, twenty sessions you will look better, thirty sessions you have a completely new body.”

In this age of instant gratification and the demand for fast results we can even see visible results in session number one if we shift our focus to the effect Pilates has on our nervous system.

This was really impressed on me recently working with a couple of new clients. One client has hyper-mobile knees. This is where there is enough laxity in the connective tissues of the body, such as muscles, ligaments and joint capsules that a joint can move through what is the average anatomical range. You can see this where the knee starts to bend backwards on weight bearing.


Working with the left springs on the Cadillac I took this client through some work where she reached the leg away to full extension. Initially she was not even aware of going into hyper extension as that is the normal movement pattern and range for her. As we progressed you could then start to see her nervous system figure out when the leg was extended but not hyper-extended. This meant that her movement became more jerky and sometimes she dropped into hyper extension but soon corrected herself. In some ways very similar to a newborn baby animal testing out it’s legs and standing for the first time. It’s all a learning experience and your nervous system is drinking up that information and building patterns of movement. In this case movement that will ultimately result in less strain on her tissues.

The second client was a gentleman in his eighties who though very active complained of having chronic back pain. After working through a few basic exercises I could see that his lower back had very little movement and gave him a couple of simple pre-Pilates exercises to focus there. Initially we tried some supine pelvic tilts but he could not manage those. Then we moved onto cat stretches and eventually had some success.

It was fascinating seeing the movement return to these tissues. Once we had the cat stretches we went back to the pelvic tilts with more success. Though to a certain extent this gentleman was stiff and restricted by muscular imbalances, weak vs tight etc. that would not change that quickly. What did change was he had literally forgotten how to move this bit of his body and we were able to establish that pattern again.

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