24 Apr 2013

Your Inner Springs

I like words. If you have ever attended a seminar with me, you know that I especially like acronyms and acrostic wordplay (and the occasional attempt at a pun). Words become even more interesting when they are noun and verb in one, preferably with entirely different meanings. Like ‘spring’, for example.

The trite saying “Spring has sprung” manages to represent two different meanings of the same word: for one, the prosperous and fertile time of the year, but also the quality of a sudden, swift rising. Obviously, the word spring has even more meaning to anyone in the business of practicing and teaching movement. The spring in your step… springing up… not to mention the steel spring, the Pilates teacher’s favorite means of resistance.

Sandow DumbbellLong before Pilates, the metal spring was a very commonly used exercise tool. The physical culture appliances of Eugene Sandow, for example, such as the “Chest Pull Expander” or his grip-strength-improving dumbbells (pictured left) used steel springs as well. But today, the only place in the fitness realm where springs are still used in this way  would be the fully equipped Pilates studio.

There is something undeniably vintage about the look and feel of a metal spring, something that the modern consumer may not find as sleek as a rubber chord or cable. Additionally, the somewhat unpredictable quality of how springs behave under kinematic tension may require more concentration on the practitioner’s part than what they signed up for. Needless to say, these  qualities of the spring are exactly what makes it such a unique vehicle to explore and learn movement.

For as long as I have been teaching Pilates I told my students that we use the metal springs to find our own, inner springs. While we certainly do not have metal coils inside of us, the springs simplistically represent the quality of how our muscles engage both concentrically (shortening) and eccentrically (lengthening). Unlike weights, the effort it takes to engage them always increases or decreases according to how far we move – organically, making the metal spring a kinetic extension to our own bodies as opposed to an inanimate object outside of us.

In bodyweight exercises, we strive for a perfect orchestration of working opposing muscles simultaneously, creating suspension in movement. Call it two-way-stretch, call it opposition, or call it inner spring – the metal spring is possibly the best teaching tool to embody this concept and to help us accomplish suspension. It teaches us about the control and quality of our movement, and I argue it may do a better job at it than any verbal instruction ever could.

Just like our muscles have a resting tone, the springs have an initial tension that then increases as the spring is being extended against its own resistance, or “stiffness”. This initial tension varies greatly between different springs and depends on its length, thickness, and finish. Some springs will provide an initial tension that remains far lower on the first couple of inches of extension, giving more responsibility to “push and pull” to the practitioner: these springs serve as a great teaching tool to observe whether the practitioner is truly practicing control, or simply “taking a ride” on the apparatus. Generally, once the spring is open, we attempt to delay its closing by continuously resisting it, finding space in our own bodies first, and by emphasizing the eccentric portion of our own muscular effort.

Another quality of muscular effort the spring so perfectly represents is the coil-recoil action: winding up maximum energy for powerful and propulsive movement, followed by complete relaxation.

“You have to learn how to tense your muscles if you really want to know how to relax” , said physical culture pioneer Joseph Pilates in 1963.

The counteracting qualities of the metal springs show what makes them such a unique tool to complement our movements: resistance and support go hand in hand. This energy can extend itself well beyond the physical. It’s a balance we can only hope to accomplish intellectually and spiritually, too – but at least in regards to movement, the real benefit of working with springs shows in their absence: confident, coordinated, and controlled bodies – in training and in life.