Help clients work symmetrically in their Pilates training

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“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” – HL Mencken

In this article I thought I would address a topic that is close to my heart, one that I have been researching for some time in both myself and my clients. And that guy is working symmetrically. In my experience, most of us have dominant areas that invariably take over the less dominant areas of the body while we exercise. With the dominant use of one part of the body, we inevitably get misaligned, causing the exercise to be performed more or less asymmetrically.

In the past, I would have instructed myself or my clients to ‘straighten’ or ‘level’ in an attempt to fix the imbalance by directly correcting asymmetric performance. In this situation, the client is usually able to respond to my verbal or manual correction and, from an external point of view, things seem to be going better. By taking this direct route, I have come to the conclusion that it may not be the most worthwhile approach in the long run. Personally, my right side is generally dominant and has more strength and coordination than my left side. Throughout my life I have received and still receive corrections to ‘straighten out’ or to try to involve my less dominant side more. As the younger Brett, he would do this, but over time the dominance persisted and even increased. So I found out that this supposedly simple solution has had little positive effect for me.

Therefore, when applying the HL Mencken quote, the simple answer to the complex question of working symmetrically may be wrong. And yet despite this, I want my clients to work to their full potential and that certainly happens with a good alignment.

I would like to take the opportunity here to reaffirm the purpose of this article and all my articles, share ideas and challenge the knowledge and understanding of our education and experience. I do not mean to suggest that I have THE answer; I want this to be a discussion that I hope you feel free to respond to.

Having reiterated that, what can be done with this issue of working symmetrically? I think the first step is to bring this uneven use to the client’s consciousness so that they can actively participate in its change. More recently, I have started taking a more indirect approach to help my clients become more responsive to what they are doing in and out of the studio and, over time, work more symmetrically.

For example, I have a client, Greta, who has a dominant side where the right does all the work and the left is weak and lacks control. During ‘Feet In Straps-One Leg Pull’ on the Reformer, Greta worked like a champion with her right knee in the box, supporting the action from the left side. But on the other hand, Greta had a hard time even staying. His left side could not bear the operation of his right.

After seeing this, the first thing I did was point out the domain on its right side, an easy task since the domain was so sharp. Then we went back to a more basic exercise, Footwork on the Reformer. Here, dominance was not so easy to spot with most of the body supported by the carriage, and yet it was still present. As in ‘Feet on Straps: One Leg Pull’, I helped Greta bring awareness to her stronger right side, encouraging her not to correct it, but to do the exercise in a way that felt true to her body. It may seem counterintuitive to allow a problem to persist, but by doing so I believe you can build awareness and understanding of the patterns that are causing the dominant side to exist in the first place.

Together, Greta and I observed that her right side shortened and curved slightly while doing footwork. This led me to ask her if she noticed favoring her right side in her daily life, but Greta wasn’t sure if she did. But then I was lucky. When adjusting the reformer for the next exercise, Greta stood to the side waiting patiently, and how was she standing? With all his weight on his right foot, with both hands on his right hip and bending his torso and head to the right side, the identical (or at least almost) position that he adopted in Footwork. BINGO! He had caught the culprit in action!

But putting emotion aside, I asked Greta not to change her position. In fact, this request was easier said than done, as I think we’ve all been taught to be on high alert to correct ourselves at the slightest suggestion. But she could do it. Holding the position, we looked at the habitual patterns that he used, which until that moment had gone unnoticed in his day to day life. I asked him to just ‘be’ in this position, even getting him to exaggerate it so I could make a mental note of how he felt. To get out of this pose and have a more neutral alignment, I instructed Greta to begin engaging her deep abs for support while releasing her neck and shoulders, transferring more weight to her left foot and letting her arms pass by her side. This entire sequence of movements was purposely repeated approximately 5 times, continually taking note of the changes that occurred, however subtle.

I encouraged Greta to find moments in her everyday life when she used this holding pattern. I advised him to apply the same approach that we practice when considering the body as a whole. By exploring issues specific to the individual, both the client and I, as an instructor, can find a deeper understanding of the body, working together toward a more balanced and sustainable alignment. I found that Greta was engaged and interested in learning more about her body and receiving the tools to help herself.

But we all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it goes without saying that this exercise in conscience didn’t solve the problem at the time. However, it was a promising start on a path that I consider to be more valuable and correct. This is also the first of many articles that address the topic of dominance in the lineup, although this one is getting quite long now, don’t you think?

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