It’s definitely been an unusual winter here in the Austin area. Temps in the teens in January, then near 90 in February. And even though the official groundhog saw his shadow on Groundhog Day, which would indicate 6 more weeks of winter, it’s seemed like spring for a quite a while now. Just drive around and you’ll see the blooms everywhere!
The arrival of Spring always makes me pause to ponder the significance of the springs used on our Pilates equipment. The legend is that back in WW I, Joseph Pilates rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance. After the war, he incorporated the springs into the design of the Pilates equipment, including the Pilates Reformer which was patented in 1937. The Pilates Reformer is not like any other piece of exercise equipment that I’m aware of. People who are used to working out with weight machines at the gym sometimes think it’s like a leg press machine, and want to know how much resistance each spring adds. Or they will want to add more springs to feel more work in their legs during Footwork, or arms during Arm Series. I nicely try to explain to them that it just doesn’t work that way. But then if it’s not a weight machine, what do the springs really do?
The springs certainly do provide resistance. Footwork with 4 springs requires more work in your legs and hips than footwork with 2 springs. If you’ve ever forgotten to take off a spring before Pulling Straps, and tried to do those exercises with 2 springs, you will definitely feel the increased resistance of the springs. During Pumping - One Leg on the Pilates Chair, increased spring resistance makes it more difficult to press the pedal down, and also harder to control the eccentric movement as the pedal comes up. However, providing resistance is only the tip of the iceberg.
The springs also provide support. I believe that the purpose of the Pilates equipment – Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, Barrels, etc. – is to train your body to be able to perform the Pilates Mat exercises correctly. The springs enable you to take the work to the mat, where you are unsupported and rely on the muscles and firing patterns that were trained by working with the springs. Genius! In that sense, for many exercises, the springs can be considered “training wheels” of sorts. For example, if you have difficultly holding your legs just off the mat during The Hundred, try it with your feet in the leg springs. The springs provide support for your legs, which allows you to focus on the deep abdominal engagement required to get out of your hip flexors and have your abdominals support your legs. Many exercises on the Reformer, such as Side Splits, Long Back Stretch, and Tendon Stretch, are more difficult if you use lighter springs, because it requires you to use more of your body to stabilize the moving carriage. Likewise, Going Up Front and Pull-ups on the Chair are easier to perform with heavier springs. I heard one Pilates instructor confessing that at trade shows, she loves to demonstrate Pull-ups on the chair with a heavy spring, then have an unsuspecting person try it on a lighter spring, so that they’ll appreciate the difficulty of the exercise! Maybe not fair play, but a demonstration of the principle. By providing appropriate support, the springs are enabling your body to learn the appropriate muscle firing patterns to successfully perform the exercises.
By closing the kinetic chain in certain exercises, the springs provide information and sensory feedback. It’s much easier to feel the reach out of the legs, hips, and side of the waist in Side Kick Series, for example, when using a leg spring, than when just performing the exercise alone. The springs on the Reformer provide feedback on how engaged you are in your core or powerhouse. If the carriage is banging closed because the springs are taking over, that demonstrates that you’ve lost your deep abdominal connection. If you’re fully engaged, you’ll feel in control of the springs and be able to gently tap the carriage closed each time. During Leg Springs on the Tower or Cadillac, you can clearly feel and see if one leg is overpowering the other, which helps you learn to work both sides of your body evenly. And I call the ending Beats in the Leg Springs Series a “tell”, because if the springs are wobbling crazily as you quickly beat your heels together, it means that the core connection needs to be stronger.
And finally, the springs work with your spine. A spring is stronger when it’s uncoiled than when closed. It has more potential energy when it’s stretched. In a similar way, Pilates is training you to lengthen and elongate your spine, avoiding the compaction that comes with gravity, and allowing the energy to flow freely throughout your body. Focus on feeling your spine stretch like the springs. Imagine tiny springs in the achilles relating to a spring in your sacrum/tailbone. Your ribs can uncoil and be like springs on either side of your spine. Just like the springs, your body is stronger when it releases and unwinds.
I’m hoping the gorgeous spring weather and the bounty of wildflowers is putting a spring in your step and that your Pilates practice will continue to give you spring-like movement!