Brain-Based Pilates

Brain-Based Pilates

A quick Google search defines Pilates as a system of exercises designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture while enhancing mental awareness.  No matter your reason for starting Pilates, it’s likely you continue to train because you like that it makes you feel strong, yet graceful (well, most of the time anyways!).  You may also love the empowered feeling you get from feeling less pain and lower levels of stress, with a sense of well-being and a sense of feeling comfortable “in your own body”.  It’s interesting to consider how effectively Pilates movements can have a profound impact on how we feel internally, and new research supports this.
An article recently featured in The Atlantic discusses how neuroscientists recently discovered that core movements (such as those performed in Pilates) modulate and reduce stress levels in the body via direct (and previously unknown) neurological connections between the cortex (where movements are initiated and controlled) and the adrenal medulla (where neurotransmitters are created that increase heart rate and energy levels when the body is exposed to stress).  
Once they charted the connections, the researchers were astounded at what they saw. The motor areas in the brain connect to the adrenal glands. In the primary motor cortex of the brain, there’s a map of the human body—areas that correspond to the face, arm, and leg area, as well as a region that controls the axial body muscles (known to many people now as “the core”).
The research team didn’t think the primary motor cortex would control the adrenal medulla at all. But there are a whole lot of neurons there that do. And when you look at where those neurons are located, most are in the axial muscle part of that cortex – the part that controls the contraction and stabilization of the “core” muscles.

PictureTroy of Brain Based Fitness teaching a workshop in Functional Neuroscience and Pilates at RedBird.

Does this mean we can use core exercises to alter our stress response? The researchers seem to think that’s a possibility! Randy Bruno, an associate professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, further explained that “these neural pathways might explain our intuitive sense for why there are many different strategies for coping with stress. I like the examples they give in the paper—that maybe this is why yoga and Pilates are so successful. But there are lots of other things where people talk about mental imagery and all sorts of other ways that people deal with stress. I think having so many neural pathways having direct lines to the stress control system, that’s really interesting.”

Neurological systems always function in a loop.  Think of loops as closed circuits – motor commands are sent from the cortex to the body, allowing for movement to occur, and this movement in turn creates sensory information that is sent back to the cortex.  This is most interesting because a specific part of the nervous system called the cerebellum receives all sensory inputs and then forwards the inputs up to the cortex.  The cerebellum literally serves as a go-between, taking in about 40 bits of information from the body, while forwarding only one bit to the cortex.  In this sense the cerebellum serves as an integrator and helps the cortex modify movements based on new information, so that the cortex’s plan is achieved. The cerebellum has five primary jobs:
       1. Insure our movements are accurate
Maintain balance during movement
       3. Coordinate all movements, insuring they are smooth and efficient
       4. Stop all unwanted movements from occurring to insure maximum efficiency 
    5. Coordinate speech, motor learning, visualization, cognitive thought, immune system function, (and possibly even coordination of the stress response?)
While the researchers did address briefly how sensory inputs to the brain also affect the stress response in similar ways as motor outputs, they didn’t discuss the cerebellum’s role in using sensory inputs to improve our movement and postural alignment.
In my practice, Pilates students and practitioners who have a lot of cerebellum findings from our assessment process, tend to have one or more of the following postural imbalances:

  1. Spine – Forward Head Position, Kyphosis (Thoracic) and/or Hyperlordosis (Lumbar), or Scoliosis
  2. Shoulders – Excess Tension or Pain or Chronic Protraction of the Shoulder Blade
  3. Pelvis and Hips – Anterior Tilt, Tight Hip Flexors, Hip ROM and Restriction issues
  4. Foot and Ankle – Excessive Pronation

PictureTroy working with Lee on brain training drills and hip flexor release in a private session at RedBird.

Pilates training is fantastic. It makes you feel strong, flexible, graceful, and empowered due to the effects the training has on your internal state and levels of stress. It’s important to recognize the nervous system’s direct involvement.  Sometimes, chronic postural limitations reduce our ability to progress, and our development of new movement and skills begins to stagnate.  By taking our training a step further to include the nervous system, we may begin to address the root causes of what really holds us back from attaining higher levels of function–and feel better in the process.


  1. Hamblin, James. “Why One Neuroscientist Started Blasting His Core.” The Atlantic. August 08, 2016. Accessed September 20, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/08/cortical-adrenal-orchestra/496679/. 
This article brought to you by RB preferred provider Troy Dodson, owner and founder of Brain Based Fitness. Brain Based Fitness provides a performance-based system that harnesses the power of your nervous system to improve your body, your performance in life and sport and give you a competitive edge via focusing on improving brain function.

Troy will be in Austin Nov 4th to 6th for privates functional neuroscience privates at RedBird. Email troy@troydodson.com to set up a session today.  Plus, attend the RB360 Launch party for a chance to win a private training session with Troy in our raffle! 

(1) Comments
  1. This is a great article as the actual neurology behind Pilates and Yoga is often ignored and both are very good for cerebellar, vestibular and parietal lobe stimulation, rather than just the motor cortex

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