Ask Rael Q & A: 8th issue

by Rael Isacowitz

I want to shape and strengthen my legs, but I can’t bend my knees using resistance because of a sports injury. Any advice?

That is a tough question. It is difficult to give advice without having sufficient information, and I NEVER lose sight of the issue of scope of practice. As a Pilates teacher, I am equipped to teach Pilates and movement – and I do this to the best of my ability. However, I am not trained to diagnose or treat.

To develop strength you must challenge the muscles. This is called the overload principle. To achieve the desired improvement, the relevant body systems (muscles) must be progressively and gradually stressed to the upper limits of their present capacities. Therefore, resistance must be applied. It is possible to develop strength using only isometric contractions – in which the angle of the joint and length of the muscle don’t change – but this alone would not be functional. To walk, run and perform our myriad daily activities, the knees need to bend.

If you are completely immobile, you should be working with a qualified medical practitioner, who could – and should – guide you as to whether you can do Pilates. If you are given the green light, there should then be a dialogue between your medical team and your Pilates teacher.

If you are walking, mobile and weight-bearing, you should be working on range of motion and adding resistance. Mobility is vital; other than in very unique and isolated cases, your medical team is going to want to get the joints mobile and keep them mobile. Achieving normal range and then regaining correct movement patterns is first and foremost. Together with that, resistance should be progressively added.

Two wonderful attributes of Pilates are:

  1. The nature of the equipment, allows one to work with almost no resistance and focus on achieving range of motion and establishing good movement mechanics. Resistance can then be added in very small and comfortable increments. Foot Work (Leg Work) on the Reformer will be particularly beneficial to you.
  2. Due to the diversity of the system, all other areas of the body can be kept in excellent condition while a particular area, in this case your knees, are protected. Often, when a person has an injury, other problems develop due to compensations, which are unrelated to the original injury.

I have always believed that it is of paramount importance to remain mobile and in good shape. During recovery from an injury is no exception, not only for physical reasons, but also for psychological ones. Stay positive – and movement will help keep you on track!


Is it necessary to stretch after a Pilates session? I have had some instructors who always use the last 5-10 minutes to stretch the major muscle groups, and others who skipped the extra stretching.

As you correctly say, some teachers set aside part of a session specifically for stretching, while others do not. The topic of stretching is somewhat controversial; how much is optimal (if at all) and which type of stretching is most effective? My personal opinion is that it depends on the student/client. Some people can benefit from additional stretching and others do not need it.

A certain amount of stretching is “built in” to the Pilates work. By nature, the Pilates repertoire promotes flexibility and large ranges of motion. I almost always integrate a hip flexor/hamstring stretch into the session, plus some stretching for the upper girdle including the region of the chest (pectorals).

The beauty of many of the Pilates stretches, particularly on the apparatus, is that they demand a good balance between strength and flexibility. A good example is the Side Split. It is not enough to be flexible in the hip adductors; that same muscle group needs to be strong enough to support you and control the carriage on the Reformer as it travels away from the footbar and then is brought back in to the stopper. I refer to this as functional flexibility, the maximum range of motion that a person can achieve, while maintaining the integrity of pelvic and spinal alignment.

Note that the spring setting for all stretches should be light, no more than 1 spring. It can be a lighter spring for more work or a heavier spring for more support. However, if additional springs are loaded, it becomes more of a strength exercise than a stretch.

An interesting observation I have made over the years is that flexible people love stretching and will spend time doing it before, during and after a session. Do they need it? Probably not. Those who are tight typically do not enjoy stretching. They find it uncomfortable and will do everything to avoid it. Do they need it? Probably yes!

Integrating a stretching routine into the session for the latter group would potentially benefit them, and I would encourage it. As for the former group, I do not believe they need a stretching routine over and above what the Pilates repertoire already offers. With this group, it would be beneficial to focus on control and strengthening the musculature in the full ranges of motion. Bottom line…keep the mind and body flexible!


This article first appeared in the January/2012 issue of Pilates Style Magazine. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at


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