Pilates Stretching Exercises – Because stretching is already part of our daily routine in a variety of situations, whether it’s stretching when you wake up, picking up something in the top of the cupboard or in the back seat of the car, changing a light bulb, scratching the middle of your back between other occasions.
Physical inactivity, as well as injuries and pathologies, can decrease the range of motion and consequently joint flexibility, causing compensatory movements of other muscles or joints and limiting functionality, whether daily activities or sports performance.
In these cases, Pilates stretching exercises are applied to promote muscle extensibility, reducing the risk of injury and restoring normal range of motion to the joint, making it supple and healthy.
Many people confuse Pilates as being a method just for muscle stretching. But Pilates is much more than that.
It is a method of physical and mental conditioning that, through its stretching and muscle strengthening exercises, promotes muscle balance, improves postural alignment and flexibility, improves functionality and rehabilitates injuries.
An important part of the program is the stretching exercises in Pilates, and for this reason, it is extremely important to know what happens to our muscles during stretching, its mechanism of action, and the benefits it provides to our body.
Stretching – Concept, and Classification
Stretching is a constant activity in our lives. It can be defined as a therapeutic technique used to increase the extensibility of soft tissues (muscles, tendons and connective tissues), which contributes to the maintenance and increase of flexibility.
Although often used as synonyms, stretching and flexibility are different but closely related components because flexibility is a physical ability developed through the regular practice of stretching.
The elongation can be characterized according to the way it is performed and can be passive, active, static, dynamic, ballistic, isometric or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.
- Passive Stretching: Muscle stretching is maintained at a maximum range of motion for 10 to 30 seconds.
- Active Stretching: Greater range of voluntary movement, using muscle strength antagonist and agonist muscle relaxation.
- Static Stretching: An external force (the Pilates instructor, the elastic band, the circle or even the force of gravity) is applied in the body segment to the limit of the range of motion, with the student being passive, that is, with the relaxed muscles.
- Dynamic Stretching: Controlled oscillations of limbs to reach the limit of range of motion.
- Ballistic Stretching: This technique has not been used much at present due to the high risk of injuries, but it consists of the muscular stretching through repetitive and vigorous movements.
- Isometric Stretching: Combination between passive stretching associated with isometric contraction. That is, it consists of a passive stretching + isometric contraction (maintained for a few seconds) + muscle relaxation. It provides greater gains in flexibility when compared to the passive stretching method.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (FNP): Combination of static and isometric stretching. That is, it consists of static stretching + isometric contraction against a resistance + relaxation + static stretching.
Pilates stretching exercises are indicated in cases of limited range of motion, muscle shortening, contractures, skeletal deformity that can affect body and postural symmetry, muscle tension and muscle imbalances.
And they are contraindicated in cases of joint limitation due to bone blockades, recent fractures, acute inflammatory or infectious processes in adjacent tissues, acute pain and severe hematoma.
Physiology of Stretching
To understand the mechanism of muscle stretching we have to remember the muscle composition and its neural interaction.
The muscle is made up of thousands of muscle fibers, which are cylindrical cells that extend parallel. Within these fibers are the myofibrils which, in turn, are composed of sarcomeres, which are the contractile units of the cell.
The sarcomeres are formed by a set of contractile proteins (filaments of actin, myosin, troponin and tropomyosin), the bonds of which provide the capacity for muscle contraction, relaxation and stretching.
When muscle contraction occurs, mediated by the release of ions and mineral salts, there is an overlap of actin and myosin filaments that establish cross-bridges, generating maximum tension in the muscle. Whereas, when these filaments move away and cross-bridges decrease, muscle stretching occurs.
The elongation is influenced by the plastic and elastic components, the inextensible components and the proprioception mechanism.
All connective tissue has viscoelastic properties that, according to the tension, trigger elastic responses (when the muscle tissue returns to its original extent after release of the stimulus) and plastic responses (when the tissue distends itself, not returning to its original size, causing adaptive remodeling of muscle structure and increasing muscle length).
Stretching exercises also stimulate the renewal of collagen to withstand increased stress and tension. The gain of the range of motion and flexibility occurs through these plastic responses.
The bones, tendons and joint capsule do not have this capacity of deformation with the action of the stretching force, and are called inextensible components.
The proprioception mechanism works through the muscle spindle and the Golgi tendon organ (OTG), which, when stimulated, inform the central nervous system about the stretching state and muscular tension , respectively, allowing adjustments in the level of muscular contraction.
The muscle spindles, because they are located parallel to the muscle fibers, are elongated along with the muscle, triggering myothetic reflexes and motor adjustments.
A vigorous elongation triggers a stretch reflex, which corresponds to increased resistance to movement (contraction of the agonist muscle and muscle inhibition of the antagonist muscle) to prevent tissue from being injured.
For this reason, the elongation must be performed slowly, gradually, rhythmically and close to the maximum range of motion , to better adapt and avoid the stretch reflex of the muscle spindle. If stretching is performed with strong tension, exceeding the flexibility limit of the muscle, the chances of muscle-tendinous injury increase.
Importance and Benefits of Pilates Stretching Exercises
It can not be said that Pilates works only with one kind of stretching.
Many of the stretching exercises in Pilates are dynamic, slow and progressive, to the maximum range of motion. However, at the end of this you can ask the student to hold the position for a few seconds, characterizing the static stretching.
The accessories (circle, ball, elastic) can be used as external force in passive stretches of one limb, during the execution of another exercise.
Isometric stretching forms and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation may also be employed according to the teacher’s instruction to provide greater flexibility gain .
Every form of stretching exercises in Pilates is valid, provided it is done in accordance with the principles of the Method and the goals set by the instructor who, with prior knowledge and creativity, can make the necessary adjustments to the exercises, positioning and apparatus.
The main benefits we can get by practicing the Pilates Method’s stretching exercises include:
- Develop Flexibility
- Restore or Increase Range of Motion
- Increase Mobility of Adjacent Soft Tissues
- Preventing Muscular Shortening
- Preventing and Reducing the Risk of Musculotendinous and Articular Injuries
- Preparing the Body for Physical Activities
- Reduce Fatigue and Post Workout Pain
- Improving Role and Posture
- Activate the Circulatory System and Increase Muscle Blood Irrigation
- Develop Body Consciousness and Motor Coordination
- Pilates Stretching Exercises can combat Physical and Mental Stress by relaxing muscles and release substances such as endorphin and serotonin, hormones related to pleasure and well-being.
List of Pilates Stretching Exercises
BASIC LEVEL – Pilates Stretching Exercises
Objective: Posterior chain elongation.
Beginning Position: Student sitting on MAT, lower limbs with extended knees and upper limbs with shoulders flexed at 90 degrees.
Movement: Student must perform column flexion by holding the position for a few seconds, returning to the starting position.
Objective: Anterior chain elongation, mainly quadriceps and abdominal.
Beginning Position: Student in ventral decubitus in MAT, lower limbs with flexed knees and upper limbs with slightly hyperextensive shoulders, elbows extended and hands holding feet.
Movement: Student must perform extension of the spine, raising the shoulders and knees of the ground, returning to the initial position.
Objective: Posterior chain elongation.
Beginning Position: Student sitting on the Caddilac, lower limbs with extended knees and feet resting on the side bars, and upper limbs with shoulders bent at 90 degrees and hands holding the bar fixed.
Movement: Student must perform column flexion by sliding the bar forward, holding the position for a few seconds, returning to the starting position.
Objective: Lateral chain elongation.
Beginning Position: Student sitting sideways on the Caddilac, lower limbs with flexed knees, and upper limb on the side of the appliance with flexed elbow and hand resting on the fixed bar, and another upper limb with abducted shoulder at 90 degrees.
Movement: Student should perform lateral flexion of the spine, abducting the contralateral shoulder, returning to the initial position.
Objective: Stretching of posterior chain and mobilization of the spine in flexion.
Beginning Position: Student sitting on the Reformer, lower limbs with flexed knees and feet resting on the front bar, and upper limbs with hands beside the feet and holding the front bar.
Movement: Student should perform knee extension and spine flexion, without loosening the hands of the front bar, returning to the initial position.
Objective: Mobilization of the spine and shoulder joint, stretching paravertebral, pectoralis and spine stabilizers.
Beginning Position: Student kneeling over the Reformer, lower limbs with flexed knees and feet on shoulder rests, and upper limbs with elbows extended and hands resting on the front bar.
Movement: Student should perform spinal flexion, maintaining hip and knee flexion at 90º, returning to the initial position slowly, mobilizing the vertebral column by vertebra.
7) Side Body Twist (Chair)
Objective: Lateral chain elongation and column mobilization.
Beginning Position: Student kneeling next to Chair, upper limbs with elbows extended and hands at side of body, hand on side of appliance should be supported on pedal.
Movement: Student should perform lateral flexion of the spine, pushing the pedal down and abducting the shoulder contralateral to the apparatus, and then returning to the initial position.
Objective: Posterior chain elongation and column mobilization.
Beginning Position: Student standing in front of Chair, spine and hip flexed and upper limbs with flexed shoulders, elbows extended and hands resting on pedals.
Movement: Student must perform total hip and spine flexion by pressing the pedals down, returning to the initial position slowly.
Objective: Stretching of hamstrings and posterior chain.
Starting Position: Student standing facing Barrel, a lower limb with flexed hip, extended knee and foot resting on Barrel; upper limbs with shoulders bent at 90 degrees and elbows extended.
Movement: Student should perform spinal and hip flexion, bringing the hands toward the foot supported on the Barrel, returning slowly to the position.
INTERMEDIATE LEVEL – Pilates Stretching Exercises
Objective: Strengthening of Power House and abdominals, mobilization of the spine and elongation of posterior chain.
Beginning Position: Student in dorsal decubitus in MAT, upper limbs with flexed shoulders.
Movement: Student must perform complete flexion of the spine and hip, extending the shoulders and tilting them towards the feet, returning to the initial position.
* Variation: Hold a ball with your hands.
Objective: Stretching of the posterior and paravertebral musculature, mobilization of the spine and strengthening of the abdominal muscles.
Initial Position: Student in dorsal decubitus in MAT, lower limbs with hip flexed at 90º and knees extended and upper limbs with elbows extended and supported at the side of body.
Movement: Student should perform hip flexion and elevation of MAT, associating spinal flexion by keeping the knees extended and supporting the feet in the MAT, above the head, slowly returning to the initial position.
Objective: Mobilization of spine and elongation of anterior and posterior chain.
Starting Position: Student standing on the Caddilac, feet resting on the sidebars, and upper limbs with flexed elbows and hands holding the sidebars.
Movement: Student should perform spine extension extending elbows, followed by hip flexion and spine associated with shoulder flexion, returning to initial position.
Objective: Stretching of hamstrings and paravertebral, and strengthening of abs.
Beginning Position: Student on the dorsal decubitus, lower limbs with flexed knees and feet resting on the fixed bar, and upper limbs with hands resting on the fixed bar next to the feet.
Movement: Student must perform knee extension and trunk lift, without loosening the bar. Return to starting position.
Objective: Strengthening of the abdomen, elongation of the posterior chain and mobilization of the spine.
Beginning Position: Student standing on the Reformer, with feet resting on the cart, spine and hip flexed. Instruct the student to keep their hands on the front bar with semi-flexed shoulders.
Movement: Student must perform spine extension and elbow flexion, lowering the body and pushing forward the stroller with the feet, returning to the initial position.
6) Front Splits (Reformer)
Objective: Strengthening gluteus maximus, quadriceps elongation, stretching of hamstrings.
Beginning Position: Stand with your knees slightly bent, place one foot on the shoulder rest and with your hands, grasp the foot bar. Push the cart back. Return to starting position.
Movement: Student must perform hip and knee extension, returning to the starting position.
7) Horse Back (Chair)
Objective: Mobilization of the spine, gracilis elongation, hip adductors and posterior chain.
Beginning Position: Student sitting in the Chair, abducted lower limbs and extended knees, flexed spine and upper limbs with elbows extended and hands resting on the pedal.
Movement: Student must perform full column flexion by pressing the pedals down, returning to the initial position slowly, mobilizing vertebra by vertebra.
8) Swan Front (Chair)
Objective: Anterior chain muscle stretching and paravertebral strengthening.
Initial Position: Student lying flat on the Chair, lower limbs with extended knees and upper limbs with flexed shoulders, elbows extended and hands resting on the pedals.
Movement: Student must perform spine extension by raising the pedals and keeping the elbows extended.
9) Stretches Back (Barrel)
Objective: Stretching of quadriceps and iliopsoas.
Beginning Position: Student standing, one lower limb extended and one lower limb flexed and with the instep resting on Barrel, upper limbs supported on the forward bar.
Movement: Student must perform knee flexion and extension of the spine, returning to the initial position.
LEVEL ADVANCED – Pilates Stretching Exercises
1) Rolling Back – Ball Variation (Caddilac)
Objective: Stretching of the anterior chair muscle, quadriceps and spinal mobilization in extension
Starting position: Student kneeling in the ball on the Caddilac, upper limbs with shoulders and elbows flexed, holding the top bars of the Caddilac.
Movement: Student should extend the hip and knees, sliding the ball back, and allowing elbow extension and shoulder flexion, slowly returning to the starting position.
Objective: Strengthen the muscles large dorsal, rhomboid, infra-spinous, biceps brachii, deltoid and mobilize the spine in extension.
Starting position: Holding the horizontal rods, leave your feet on the trapeze handle. Perform a hyperextension of the spine and hip. Return to starting position.
Movement: Student must perform the column extension, returning to the initial position.
3) Long Stretch – Elephant (Reformer)
Objective: Mobilization of spine, elongation of posterior chain, and strengthening of Abdominal and Power House.
Starting Position: Student standing on Reformer, heels on shoulders, upper limbs with hands resting on front bar.
Movement: Student must perform hip extension until reaching support position, keeping knees and elbows extended, returning to initial position.
4) Hamstring Stretch – Variation (Chair)
Objective: Anterior chain elongation and contralateral hamstring and gluteal strengthening.
Beginning Position: Student standing behind Chair, flexed column and upper limbs with flexed shoulders, elbows extended and hands resting on pedals.
Movement: Student must perform full column bending by pressing the pedal down while extending one of the hips, returning to the starting position. Alternate movement with the contralateral lower limb.
5) Tendon Stretch (Chair)
Objective: Abdomen strengthening and posterior chain stretching
Starting Position: Student sitting on the Chair with ospés resting on the pedals, and upper limbs with elbows extended and hands resting on the seat of the Chair.
Movement: Student should perform knee extension, spine flexion and hip lift, raising the pedals, slowly returning to the starting position.
Stretching is a simple action that can bring innumerable benefits to our body, so too the stretching exercises in Pilates.
Although the terms stretching and flexibility are usually confused because they are directly related, they have different meanings. Stretching is the technique used to achieve levels of flexibility while flexibility is directly related to range of motion.
The Pilates Method is composed of a series of stretching exercises in the soil and in devices that aim at muscle balance, increase flexibility and rehabilitate injuries of both healthy individuals and athletes.
But the benefits provided by Pilates stretching exercises will only be achieved if performed properly, following the principles established by Joseph – through slow, progressive, fluid, and precise movements.
They must be executed with control and concentration, always associating the activation of the powerhouse with the respiratory mechanics – so that the instructor must be always alert to avoid rapid and sudden movements, compensatory movements in other musculatures, and amplitudes of extreme movements that trigger the reflex of stretching of the muscle spindle, thus avoiding possible injuries.
With so many benefits, the main gain from regular Pilates stretching exercises is quality of life, making it easier to perform daily and work tasks, making life healthier.
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