Joseph Pilates was a short, stocky, strong muscled man. He felt it was important to keep his strong muscles flexible. Consequently, in teaching Pilates we’ve been encouraged to use words like lift, reach, lengthen, decompress, and stretch. However, often as Pilates teachers, we actually see people who are the opposite of this – they don’t need to stretch at all, but rather to make their flexible muscles strong. Constantly lengthening and reaching only pulls many people apart and puts tension and unnecessary stress into their muscles. These clients actually often need to contract or shorten their muscles, instead of lengthening them. That’s how they would truly build integrated strength.
Human movement is created by muscle contraction, so the mental concept of thinking “lengthen”, “reach”, “stretch” while you move is somewhat of a misconception. Muscles literally can’t do any of these things; they can only contract, hold a contraction, or release the contraction relative to another muscle contracting or a force such as gravity. In other words, they can contract in three ways – they can contract and shorten in length (concentric), contract while maintaining their length (isometric), and finally, release from a contraction (eccentric). So all movements, including all Pilates exercises, are actually an amazing, complicated combination of these types of contractions.