Flexibility Training: Pilates, Yoga, PNF and a man named Kit

July 17, 2009

By Rebecca Leone

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about flexibility and how brilliant Joe was to install right into the historic Pilates method the very same type of flexibility training that has come to be a staple in athletic training: stretch through strength.

Knowing Joe as most of us do—through his books, films, photographs, marketing materials (his, not ours) and through newspaper, magazine and periodical articles in which he was interviewed and quoted extensively —it’s hard to imagine him sitting still through a long dinner with friends, let alone a yoga class. Fortunately for us, historic Pilates is chock full of exercises that will stretch the heck out of you—if you’re strong enough to do it to yourself.I’m reminded of Aretha Franklin’s riff at the end of one of her more spirited recordings of “Respect,” where she says, “No thank you, I’ll get it myself!”

In Pilates, the Up Stretch on push-through bar is identical to Downward Dog in yoga, only in Pilates, if your back and hamstrings are going to stretch, they’re going to stretch because you are so awesomely strong that you can pull yourself up, up, up in spite of our needy friend, Mr. Gravity, pulling down, down, down on us. Other than a few extras like Fluffy Stretches, Ballet Stretches on the Ladder Barrel, Hip Stretch on Cadillac and the like, there’s really not much in historic Pilates that puts you in a position and leaves you there for time, gravity and your body weight to do the work.

Unlike yoga, Joe’s method is all about stretch through strength. Back in January 2005, when I attended the Sports Medicine Congress at the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships and heard the keynote speaker, Dr. Sands, MD, Ph.D, answer questions about flexibility, he said the athletic training programs he’s in charge of (at that time, 27 of them at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs) used the stretch through strength method of training. At the same time, I was eyeball-deep in my University of Washington Sports Medicine and Human Performance program, and I was learning the same thing about flexibility there, too.

Dr. Sands’ speech helped me understand, in a “oh God, he’s talking directly to me” kind of way that if we’re going to release our own bodies and have pathways for our strength instead of being bound by it, we have to be able to do it ourselves. We can’t rely on trainers, massage therapists, yoga or Pilates teachers to give us what we need every single day for ourselves. Ideally, we have to do it ourselves, on our own, without contraptions, equipment, props, etc.

So what do most folks do when they’re tight? They go to yoga class in the same seeking way that when people have a bad back, they go to Pilates class. Yoga, like Pilates, is an unregulated field so the unsuspecting public, whether in search of a good stretch or a strong back, has no way of knowing if their yoga or Pilates teachers have completed appropriate education. That’s a bit scary, and both industries have the lawsuits to prove it.

My own lack of flexibility had red-lined toward the end of last year, so at my first opportunity, I carved out some time to try to do something about flexibility code red . I was actually thinking about going to yoga school when I discovered a better solution, for me anyway. I discovered Kit Laughlin.

Kit Laughlin is a stretching guru, the master of the contract-release stretching discipline, and not only is his method easy to do on your own, he’s come up with ways to get at every single set of muscles in the body. It’s perfectly consistent with safe spinal mechanics, and it’s a gorgeous complement to well-taught Pilates. And I want to make sure you realize one more thing about Kit’s work that clearly separates it from the type of flexibility built by a yoga practice: Because of the muscle contraction, you’re building strength in your Brand-new ranges of motion. How great is that? Strong built into flexible, just like in Joe’s work.

More about my man Kit.

Kit unloads the spine to stretch it; he doesn’t work a muscle in the contracted position in order to stretch the opposing muscles (the Pilates corollary there is Pull Straps stretching the chest), and after a five-day workshop with him, plus a half-day class added in on top, I’m hooked.

And as a surprising and delightful bonus for me personally as an educator in working with Kit, he not only uses many of the same educational slides that I do, he explains safe spinal mechanics the same way I do, and he also shares my opinions on chiropractic and yoga. And talk about uptake! I was able to use every single bit of what he taught me right away and ever since. Simpatico!

I love Kit Laughlin and I think you will, too.

But wait, there’s more!

Check out the photos on his website, and you’ll see that this is way more results-oriented than any other mainstream form of flexibility training. Those nine-week results are positively thrilling!

But before I go any more Kit-crazy, let’s learn a bit about the contract-release method of flexibility training upon which he built his method. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching came out of the PT world in the middle of the 20th century, and it’s a form of flexibility training that involves a contraction held for some number of seconds, then a full release of the muscle being stretched, then the gentle migration to a greater range of motion. It’s well documented that PNF interrupts the stretch reflex, the nasty grip that makes our muscles even shorter when we stretch too aggressively or with improper technique. The great thing about PNF stretching is that the results are dramatic and rapid.

If you’re a hoops fan, this is the type of stretching you’ll see many trainers performing on the players before the game during warm-ups. It’s commonly used in virtually all athletic training, and because so many of us are doing more strength training without adding the requisite flexibility training to offset the binding results, it’s made its way into the mainstream fitness world.

Note to teachers: PNF stretching is not in the professional scope of practice for Pilates teachers unless you have separate training that puts it there. I happen to, but if you don’t, it’s easy to put it in. Look around the web for stretch teacher-training workshops in your area, and you’ll be able to do a 2–7 day course to get stretch legally in your scope.

If you haven’t taken some stretch training and don’t want to, you’ll be delighted to know that OPTP makes a Stretch Out Strap ™ (SOS™) that puts PNF stretching safely in the hands of your own clients—you don’t have to touch them, and, thus, you’ll stay technically within your professional scope—and there are books and videos that help clients understand how to do PNF stretching for themselves. The only problem I was having with PNF stretching as a solution to my own tightness dilemma is that the SOS™ didn’t get at enough of my muscle groups. (And then there’s my seemingly petty complaint that when you’re doing PNF on yourself using the SOS™, you’re really ending in a net zero—you use the strength of your upper body to stretch your lower body when, really, I just want to be stretchy all over, all at the same time.)

As much as I love the good folks at OPTP and the SOS™, it wasn’t the fix for me. Kit was the fix for me, and here’s why.

In Kit’s 5-day workshop back in May, not only did I shatter the buildup of tightness I’ll been amassing for decades of hard use of my strong muscles, but I’ve maintained the ranges of motion I established in those 5 days with him in May, as he promised I would by repeating his protocol only twice a week.

And get this. While Kit was taking my tight hip flexors very personally and helping me release them with his strong and authoritative touch, he kept asking, “What do you feel, what do you feel?” and I surprised myself by actually being able to speak. While he was “assisting” me, I was sweating 40 weight, I was working harder in stillness than I ever have in movement and I was completely unaware of my brain formulating a response. I said that I felt like glass was shattering inside me; big panes of glass, shattering and falling; inside me. That’s what it felt like.

Kit said it was not uncommon for strong, tight people to feel that exact way, as if glass is shattering. He said the sensation is caused by (have you guessed?) the fascial plane breaking up and that as long as I’m maintaining my new expansive ranges of motion, it will never build up again.

To give you a specific, before going to Kit’s workshop I could sit Cross-legged for less than 10 seconds, and even then, my knees were practically under my arms and my hips were so tight they were barking at me just trying to grab my legs and fold them under me to get into the position in the first place. I used that position and time as a “before” to help me measure the results of Kit’s work in my body. Guess what? When I left his course, I could sit cross-legged for 7 minutes. Comfortably. Get a load of me!

I’ll be with Kit again in November down on Grand Cayman, where he’s teaching a workshop on how to teach his contract-release method of stretching to groups in a class setting . . . why don’t you meet me there? For more info, visit www.kitlaughlin.com.