Oppositional Energy for Balance and Tone
In Pilates, integration means that no one muscle is solely performing just one movement. “All of our muscles are working all of the time” (whether we know it or not), says my mentor Shari Berkowitz who is a Bio-mechanical specialist and Pilates trainer of teachers.
The importance of muscular integration is to find balance and ease of movement through oppositional energy with support of the abdominals, and the spinal erectors (low/ mid-back) producing tensegrity.
What is Tensegrity? The Balance of Tone + Alignment
Tensegrity is the combination of tension (or tone) and alignment, created by a co-contraction of abdominal muscles and spinal erectors. Tensegrity helps to find balance and ease of movement with muscular integration and equilibrium in all planes.
An example is pushing our arms forward into the straps in our front rowing series as we pull our low abs up and in. Our front abdominals and back/spinal extensors work together to create just enough tension to support us in a tall seated position as we move our arms.
How Much Tone Do We Want?
Too much tone will cause gripping and bracing. Not enough tone and clients will collapse, creating stress patterns that are not informed by support. We want to find just enough tone to create length and alignment in our spines for supported movement.
Whether you are on the mat, the carriage of the reformer, the seat of the chair, whatever is touching that piece of equipment is one of the primary foundations for movement. In the teaser we are rooting through our sacrum (tailbone) and pulling our low abdominals up and in as we reach through our legs and arms outwards. In the Parakeet, as pictured above, we are rooting through our shoulder girdle, pulling our low abdominals up and in, engaging our THASS (gluteus maximus) and pushing one foot at a time into the Push Through Bar, reaching outwards.
How to we find or develop Tensegrity?
Some of it is inherent or built-in tension within our bodies in order to move every way we desire. Our soft tissues including fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones must have the right amount of built-in or inherent tension to be able to do what they are required to do. Everything is inter-connected with remarkable elasticity.
We can however, develop tensegrity by finding the balance of tension through the low abdominals which co-contract with the thoracolumbar fascia (low/mid-back) and the spinal erectors according to Shari who calls it “bio-tensegrity”.
Where and What is the thoracolumbar fascia (TLF)?
The thoracolumbar fascia or TLF is the mid back or thoracic spine and low back or lumbar spine identified in the image below.
The white arrow shows the connection of the lower thoracic spine, lumbar spine and sacrum. The entire TLF runs the full length of the spine to the cranium and is three-dimensional into the anterior portion of the lumbar spine.
Soft tissue, and muscles that connect to the TLF affect overall tension. A quality balance of tension (or tensegrity) across the TLF will affect all structures that connect to it and vice versa.
The TLF connects to the following muscles and bones…
- Gluteus maximus (GM) – leg to pelvis/torso connection;
- Latissimus dorsi (LD) – arm to torso connection;
- Trapezius (T) – shoulder girdle to torso connection;
- Psoas (Ps) – leg to spine/torso connection;
- Quadratus lumborum (QL) – ribcage to pelvis connection;
- Transverse abdominis and internal obliques (TrA & OI) – ribcage to pelvis connection
Lumbar Spine (and the entire spine up to the skull);
- Sacrum – is a shield-shaped bony structure located at the base of the lumbar vertebrae forming the posterior pelvic wall strengthening to stabilize the pelvis;
- Illium – top part of the pelvis;
- Iscium – “Sitz” bones- forms the lower back part of the hip bone.
Oppositional Energy – The Low Transversus Abdominals + Thoracolumbar Fascia
The Transversus Abdominals physically connects to the TLF as the transvers abs run horizontally across your pelvis below your navel and wrap into your back, specifically your TLF.
Shari says, “The lower abdominals that connect to the TLF set off a remarkable chain reaction of tension across the TLF that supports the entire body!” That lateral abdominal pull/tension is resisted by the TLF (as all soft tissues resist expansion) creating a stiffness of the lumbar spine. This “stiffness” in the world of biomechanics means support, stability, integrity. So when the lower transversus abdominals co-contract with the TLF, This is a desirable stiffness!
This intrinsic support (stiffness) from the TLF working with the lower deeper abdominals allows all other structures that are connected to the lumbar spine to be efficient in either assisting in stabilization or mobilization of the lumbar spine. That means adjacent muscles can be efficient in their jobs! They can either help stabilize or mobilize finding tensegrity.
The Deep Low Abdominals –Transversus Abdominals
The first action of finding tensegrity: Deepen your lower abdominals and separate your lower back bones, is Shari’s recommendation. “Pull your lower abdominals in and up and lift your lower back bones apart” in all exercises at all times.
Sensing Weight + Oppositional Energy
The springs of the Cadillac, Reformer and Chair provide proprioceptive feedback as to sensing weight and oppositional energy. When we pull or press into the straps with low abdominal engagement, we will feel the oppositional force resulting in the alignment and lengthening of our spines and tensegrity.
Once our spine is aligned and we’ve deepened our lower abdominals, separated our lower backbones and created space in our spines, we can:
- Breathe efficiently;
- Access appropriate tone;
- Be supported 3-dimensionally;
Over time and with practice, you will be able to move with the intention of sensing your weight distribution and align your spine to create enough tone to feel grounded, yet stable enough to experience “supported movement”. Once you have this, you will experience wonderfully integrated movements achieved by working smarter, not harder! No need to grip!