Stretching is a point of contention in the fitness world. Nobody seems to agree on exactly how to stretch, what to stretch, and when to stretch. When I started in fitness and pilates in the late eighties, stretching before exercise was considered paramount in injury prevention, while the latest research is showing the exact opposite — stretching before exercise may actually increase your chance of injury and decrease your muscle strength.
Joseph Pilates believed that the body needed a balance of stretch and strength to work properly. Muscles need to be the correct length to function properly — not too long or too short. And the sequencing of exercises within Pilates works to achieve this balance within the workout itself, especially on the Pilates apparatus such the Reformer. Unless I am working with a client in pain or with an illness or injury, I have found little need to add more stretching to Pilates. I have suffered pain related to hyper-mobility (too much flexibility) in my knees, lower back, and shoulders that only went away when I stopped the extra stretching and focused on strength and balance. Now, as you can see below, I am pain free and moving well.
That said, there are still plenty of people in the world who need specific stretching and the Pilates equipment can offer an ideal platform for this work. So when Australian Pilates instructor Anthony Lett invited me to review his latest book, Innovations In Pilates: Therapeutic Muscle Stretching on the Pilates Reformer — A Comprehensive Guide, I said yes.
The book begins with an introduction to Pilates followed by an introduction to Therapeutic Muscle Stretching (TMS) and the Reformer. Then comes a series of sections where Lett takes the body part by part, giving a brief anatomy background and then reformer stretches for that area. You may download the table of contents along with an extract from Lett’s Pilates Book Page.
It is clear from the introduction that Lett does not view classical Pilates as a complete system. “While Joseph was indeed interested in flexibility as a quality, his techniques were not optimal to produce this outcome,” and further, “This work is an attempt to contribute to this missing element, to extend and grow the Pilates’ method even further so that it is effective in providing all of the outcomes that Joseph himself hoped that practising his techniques would ensure.” I, along with many, disagree. Joseph Pilates developed a complete system of conditioning and flexibility is a built-in, not missing, component of his work.
Lett also makes a very divisive distinction between Fitness and Clinical Pilates, going so far as to claim, “In the case of Fitness Pilates, the dynamic nature of the exercises themselves actually prevents the development of flexibility.” What?! Dynamic stretching has been shown time and time again to be superior to static stretching as the nervous system has a built in inhibition to static stretching.
Moving on to the actual stretches, I found the instructions to be a bit confusing. First off, most springs on U.S. made reformers are coded to be Light, Medium, or Heavy and Lett uses weight equivalents in kgs of tension which will require additional research for most readers. Second, many of the stretches are actually Pilates exercises presented under a different name. Anyone who has done even one session on a reformer knows the running exercise, here called “Lying-down Calf Stretch.” Russian Splits (an advanced exercise, by the way) is called “Reverse Bent-Leg Hamstring Stretch”. Scooter, or Eve’s Lunge, is now “Standing Bent-leg Hip Flexor Stretch” which looks suspiciously like the “Standing Bent-Leg Hamstring Stretch”.
In the end I am confused about the intended audience for this book. Many of the “stretches” here are actual variations of intermediate/advanced Pilates reformer exercises that could hurt someone who isn’t ready for that kind of movement. In addition, most of the exercises require stability and flexibility in other areas than the “target” muscle, so some basic Pilates skill building is necessary to even start with this book. As a Pilates teacher, I feel that this book demeans what I know to be true about classical Pilates exercise. As a fitness professional, I disagree with the premise that dynamic flexibility is ineffective (I see it working in all manner of fitness modalities including Pilates, kettlebells, suspension training, and all manner of functional exercise). And as a client I would find the book confusing for home use, especially since the reformer looks so different and the spring weights are so different from what I know.
I recommend finding a good Pilates studio and a good Pilates teacher to help guide you through the sequences of exercises that Joseph Pilates created and then decide for yourself if you need more stretching. My bet is that after a few weeks you will feel better and more balanced without the additional work.