Tension vs Strength

After deliberating about it for much too long I am starting a blog to write about my work with the body; healing through movement. My work is based in the Pilates Method and then ten years ago I also went back to school to get my Masters in physical therapy.  Now I work with a wide variety of clients helping them learn about their bodies, alleviate pain, and reacquaint themselves with the joy of movement. Some clients are moving for the first time in many years, some have continued to move but with pain, others are just disappointed with the outcomes of traditional rehabilitative exercise.


Last week I had the privilege to visit a studio run by my friend, Jennifer Anzelmo. Her studio, Transformotion, offers private and group Pilates work, Spin, and several cardio-based exercise classes. Jennifer and I worked together (last year) in the Passing the Torch program run by Balanced Body paying homage to the Pilates Elders. The Pilates Elder that we had the privilege of working with was Mary Bowen. Mary was my original teacher and mentor in Pilates Method which I began studying in the early 1980’s.


So back to Chicago: I offered two workshops on Saturday; the first focused on the upper body and postural influences and in the afternoon I talked about the lower body;  pelvic position, the importance of bony alignment in the legs, and how to keep our feet flexible and strong. Both workshops wrapped up with a brief discussion about what I like to call moving more “economically”; learning how not to give fifty pounds of effort for a five-pound effort movement, and how our habitual patterns of moving are not always in our best interest.


Okay – so now to today’s topic; tension versus strength. For almost every client that I met in Chicago, strength was an issue; either the client was strong but still had a great deal of pain, or the client was in pain and strength was eluding them. Immediately this is what came to my mind:  Strength is different from tension. Tension is stiff, unyielding, unaccommodating, and perhaps most importantly, limited. Strength is the exact opposite; it breathes, it is pliable, it accommodates.  This mandates that we start with re-introducing the breath. As we know, conscious breathing has the potential to reduce soft tissue tension, quiet the mind, and perhaps most importantly help us to move more economically. I like to start with the ribcage helping the client understand the basics of “normal” ribcage movement; sensing how the ribs expand and travel upward on the inhale, and then travel back down and towards each other on the exhale. I was surprised by the general lack of ribcage movement –in fact I always am. Without consciously focusing on the ribs moving during the inhale and exhale, the ribcage becomes more rigid and our breaths become more shallow. So after guiding the new clients to breath more directly into their ribcage on the inhale, I then gently assisted their exhale (manually) encouraging the downward movement of the ribs, helping them to expel air more effectively, and simultaneously lengthening their intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs).  Pleasant expressions on their faces ensued – as well as lots of sighs, yawns, and smiles. Almost like their bodies were trying to acknowledge how important it is to have this pliable, breathing trunk. When you first start working on ribcage mobility you may not have much movement (especially on the descent), but practiced daily you will be amazed at how quickly the ribcage will respond. The ribs will start to descend more freely, you will be more efficient at expelling your breath, and your mind will start to focus and relax. Anatomically its important to know that when the ribs are mobile their attachment at the spine provides needed mobility and support for the vertebrae – almost like a massage for the spine as they gently pivot back and forth. The ribs also provide support for the spine giving it needed traction to keep the vertebrae less compressed.


Next take a few additional minutes and focus your breath into the sternal region. Inhale as you allow the sternum to rise up towards the ceiling, exhale and just let it fall back down. Sometimes I imagine a balloon of sorts behind the sternum and when I inhale I picture it inflating; gently pushing the sternum out and up. On the exhale just allow the “balloon” to deflate. Practice this in different positions – even standing – and feel how this area craves the breath and greatly affects our posture. The other image is to breathe into the sternum and let the breath travel up and out along each clavicle (collar bone) so not only do you feel a lift in the sternum but a sense of breadth across the upper chest. It’s empowering!


So this is where we begin; decreasing tension in the body, discovering areas of tension in the body and then strengthening exercises. Building strength on top of tension is potentially harmful; adding a degree of effort into the body that is unhealthy. This is how people hurt themselves. Also the strength will be limited; you won’t get the full benefit of finding your true much deeper inner core of strength. This is acquired only by “melting” those outer layers of tension away, freeing the muscles and fascia to let go of their grip on the bones and allowing your skeleton to gently realign and prepare for strength work. It’s worth the extra time to introduce the breath! You can practice this in a formal Pilates session but also throughout the day – seated in a car at a traffic light, at the dinner table, reading a book, standing in line, etc. Once a person has a better understanding of their habitual expressions of tension (basically where they hold their stress), then they can learn to lessen it through “conscious breathing” before they strengthen; reaping the benefits of “true” strength.


Okay – that’s today’s topic. I realize that this was ridiculously long but something about it being the first entry just mandated that! Next entry will be about improving arm and shoulder range of motion by increasing awareness and mobility in the trunk.


Be well, and breathe, breathe, breathe!!!

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