Or: The Tip of the Fabulous Pilates Iceberg
While planning for my upcoming workshop on Pilates for Singers (La la la la Sign Up Heeere!), I came across a 2019 study focused on the positive role of Pilates on vocal production in singing students.
Researchers found that “in a relatively short time, simple Pilates exercises – performed regularly – had a significant impact on vocal quality.”
I read this study and found that it focuses on how certain types of Pilates exercise improve posture and body mechanics. “This is awesome!” I thought. “But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
To me, Pilates is not just a series of exercises. It’s also a way of practicing embodiment and self-trust, which is especially important for singers.
Anyway, I considered calling this blog post “The Tip of the Fabulous Pilates Iceberg,” but then I was like, no, that’s ridiculous, but then THE COMEDY GODS SENT ME AN ICEBERG AND I COULD NOT NAME THIS BLOG POST ANYTHING ELSE.
Have you seen this wonderful SNL skit featuring my new favorite singer, a.k.a. Bowen Yang as The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic?
If you have not watched it yet, please do so before you proceed. It is 4 minutes and 35 seconds of pure silly joy, which I’m hoping will make up for some of the perhaps-not-so-thrilling biomechanics discussion that follows. Also, as I always say, laughter is abdominal work.
BAhahahahahaha ok stop laughing, we need to READ SOME SCIENCE now.
So, after learning a series of exercises with a qualified Pilates teacher, study participants practiced the exercises on their own at least three times a week for two months. They also practiced together during two additional Pilates group lessons.
Here’s the general Pilates routine the journal article describes, along with my thoughts on the “Pilates why” behind each type of exercise:
(1) Exercises to ‘‘unlock’’ the diaphragm
A contracted diaphragm loses its ability to fully expand, reducing respiratory function and determining postural changes (Schneider et al., 1997). Moreover, as a result, synergic muscles (scalenes and sternocleidomastoids) contract more with excessive strain on the cervical spine (Anderson, Brent, & Spector, 2000).
In other words: If you spend most of your life in a rounded forward position (greetings to those of us who stare at a glowing screen for day-job purposes), the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and chest become adaptively stiff.
This will affect your ability to organize your spine into a neutral position. When you collapse forward, your diaphragm becomes compressed. When you can’t take big, rhythmic breaths with your diaphragm, you compensate by taking shorter, shallower breaths into your neck and chest. These smaller muscles then become overused.
In addition, breathing with the muscles in your neck and chest (a.k.a. “accessory muscles”) can trick your body into thinking you’re in a fight-or-flight state, which triggers the release of stress hormones and inhibits your ability to relax. The whole thing causes sort of a schlumpy-schlumpy shallow breathing cycle. (“Schlumpy-schumpy” is a highly technical Pilates term that you will hear me use often 🙂 )
Pilates is a great way to free up range of motion to decompress the diaphragm. It also helps strengthen your shoulders and upper back, so you can maintain more neutral posture in daily life.
(2) Exercises to ‘‘release’’ the deep muscles that insert on the pelvis
The aim of these exercises is to find the right neutral inclination of the pelvis and maintain the spine’s physiological curves (Anderson et al., 2000).
Neutral position of the pelvis is a topic as big and complex as Bowen’s glorious Iceberg Headpiece. But I suspect their main point here refers to releasing the psoas — a much-discussed muscle in the movement community — that is responsible for flexing your trunk to your hips, moving your hips to your spine, twisting your upper body, and stabilizing your spine.
When you sit for prolonged periods, your psoas shortens. This pulls your torso forward. When you stand up, you can’t fully extend your hips. To compensate, the natural curve in your low back becomes overextended. This can impede your ability to ground yourself and breathe into your back.
Improving hip mobility and pelvic stability are key elements of a Pilates practice.
(3) Exercises to activate the rib cage muscles
Rib cage muscle activation increases the ability of the chest to expand, thereby increasing lung capacity (Arboleda Wilson & Frederick, 2008).
The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration, but other muscles also help your ribcage expand. One of my favorite things about Pilates is that we rarely hold a position or stretch for very long — we are always breathing and moving, so you get to activate your rib cage muscles in multiple planes of movement. My teaching also focuses on breath to initiate and explore movement, especially movement of the ribcage and upper back.
(4) Exercises to ‘‘unlock’’ and stabilize the shoulder blades
To reduce chest tightness, the subjects had to work on unlocking the upper chest muscles (deltoid, pectorals, sternocleidomastoid, supraspinatus and subscapularis) the scapula and the back muscles (infraspinatus, trapezius, rhomboid, levator scapulae). Then, they and had to work on the scapular stabilization to support the shoulder and release the muscles of the upper limb, without contracting the neck muscles and the trapezius that would impair breathing (Anderson et al., 2000).
Remember the schlumpy-schlumpy we talked about earlier? That forward-flexed position also can cause internal rotation of the shoulders and weaken the muscles that stabilize your shoulders. If your shoulders aren’t stable, then the weight of your arms can transfer to your neck and upper trapezius (you know those muscles at the base of your neck that always seem to feel hard as rocks … or ICE, if I may say?)
In Pilates, we work on holding the arms from the back — you might even hear me call these your “barms” — to help create a stable, mobile shoulder girdle.
(5) Exercises to stabilize and mobilize the spine, activating the multifidus muscles
Stabilizing the spine is essential, as otherwise it arches upwards during inhalation, thus inhibiting posterior expansion of the ribcage (McMillan, Proteau, & Lebe, 1998).
Multifidus is a muscle that lives underneath the long muscles running parallel to the spine. It’s actually a bunch of small, individual muscles (collectively called multifidi) that run the length of the spine. These little muscles are key for spinal stabilization, and lots of Pilates exercises strengthen the multifidi.
Perhaps more importantly, Pilates helps you practice the mind-body connection and the motor control you need to actually access your multifidi. This is important because it’s hard to strengthen a muscle when your brain hasn’t mapped the area yet.
But that’s another topic for another blog post … another layer of the shimmering, fabulous Pilates iceberg. We’ll discuss all the fabulous layers at Pilates for Singers, and I’d love to see you there!
PS: Please make sure to download The Iceberg’s album before we meet again. It’s the least you can do, people!