Updated: Jul 10
I'll be honest, without a hip and neck injury, I'm not sure if I would have given Pilates its due celebration.
Pilates as an exercise form can often be heady in instruction and rule- and correction-based (depending on the teacher). Invented by a German boxer/circus performer, it can appear almost militaristic in order and form. As the method expanded and evolved over the last century (there are lawsuits finalized and pending over this evolution), a softness and exploration began to exist within the field. An air of Feldenkrais, an exploration of self within an alignment or movement. Have I lost you? What I speak of when I talk of Pilates is a hard sell. People aren't often looking for the esoteric in their exercise. Most of us were sold the breakdown to build-back-stronger model. Even better if the lighting is low and the stats are texted to you. A good workout then brings on a few days of aches.
This mindset brings me to a new(er) term and new research. "DOMS": Strenuous exercise frequently leads to what is now newly coined as “delayed onset muscle soreness” (DOMS). The muscle soreness we are taught then proves that our exercise of the moment "is working." In exercise sciences past, it was/is proposed that exercise's associated pain and stiffness stems from micro-lesions, inflammation, or metabolite accumulation (lactic acids) within the skeletal muscle. Intriguingly, recent research points toward a strong involvement of the connective tissue, not muscle, in second or third-day muscle aches. According to anatomical studies, the deep fascia displays an intimate structural relationship with the underlying skeletal muscle and now appears damaged during excessive loading. Second, histological (study of organic tissue itself) and experimental studies in exercise science suggest a rich supply of algogenic nociceptors (think nerves that offer Wasabi-like-warning pain) whose stimulation evokes more robust pain responses than muscle irritation. The findings support the hypothesis that DOMS originates in the muscle-associated connective tissue rather than in the muscle itself.
"Based on the available literature, strain forces associated with eccentric contraction may cause micro-ruptures and inflammation of the deep fascia. As experimental research clearly demonstrates that fascia is more pain-sensitive than muscle following chemical, thermal, electrical, and mechanical irritation, we propose that delayed onset soft tissue stiffness (DOSS) is a more precise descriptor of the post-exercise phenomenon."
What's especially exciting to me about this finding is that, in my lifetime, fascia has changed from a tissue for medical students to cut away from cadavers like chicken skin before the structural study begins to take now its rightful place in Medical, Sports, and Pain Sciences. My friends in bodywork and Pilates often wondered about it in quiet circles like "woo-woo" body outsiders in the late nineties. If you read the study below, the only letdown in my humble opinion, is the conclusion given by the authors. The takeaway from this NIH research is to supplement collagen and foam roll...Well, bless our hearts! Humans have a hard time subtracting, and we love to add. Yes, add random collagen to the body. We can sell that!
Perhaps there is a better way to train. To condition without facial or structural connective tissue damage.
Joe Pilates understood that careful attention, feedback, and fewer repetitions could offer remarkable results in conditioning with minimal body soreness. Within the original Contrology method, no exercise or set of exercises is repeated more than ten times. Focus and control are needed throughout to honor each exercise. And the exercises one might hate are almost already over when one begins.
I don't think everyone I meet needs Pilates or that it's the only conditioning that one needs to do; walking is pretty perfect, hiking even better, and swimming sublime, but I watch Pilates transform people's relationship with themselves (learning to trust their bodies capabilities, enjoying partnering with their body in a learning experience that has no stats, competition, or end goal; often for the first time in their life). Feeling hopeful and excited about new movement challenges, learning to look at something confusing with optimistic curiosity. And over time, we feel muscles where we never had before. Our back stops hurting!
This is all possible without DOMS! Pilates can be a great place to reintegrate and possibly soothe your fascia if you are a serious lifter or long-distance runner! Add it to your foam rolling. *wink*
Important to note: we are talking about body conditioning in this blog about Pilates. While we can and do increase the load within Pilates training, we work to train; timing, breath, coordination, and proprioception along with full-body conditioning. Loading muscles without knowing how to coordinate a newfound power could lead to injury. Many athletes are turning to Pilates training for just this reason. I'm excited to follow future research about this.
Thanks for reading! The article of interest is linked below.
Wilke J, Behringer M. Is "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness" a False Friend? The Potential Implication of the Fascial Connective Tissue in Post-Exercise Discomfort. Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Aug 31;22(17):9482. doi: 10.3390/ijms22179482. PMID: 34502387; PMCID: PMC8431437.