Q. Talk to me about the springs: Is there a general way to know what tension to use?
A. From the outset, I want to clarify an important point: In Pilates, sometimes less springs will translate to more load on the muscles and vice versa. For example, when doing the Side Split on the Reformer, one light spring means to a lot of load on the hip adductors (assuming the exercise is executed with the utmost precision and quality). If extra load is added, not only will the load on the hip adductors decrease, at some point, more work will transfer to the hip abductors. To the contrary, when doing Leg Circles on the Reformer, using moderate load (one to two springs), as opposed to a very light load (one light spring), will be easier to control and will mean less load on the stabilizers of the pelvic-lumbar region.
With this in mind, I’ll refer to load as opposed to the number of springs. One guideline that will help you immensely when deciding what load to use: Determine the objective of the exercise. For example, if the Knee Stretch is done with a very light load, stabilizers of the trunk will be challenged and the concept of hip disassociation will be amplified. If this is your goal, work light (one full spring, to one full spring plus a light spring). However, if your goal is to challenge the knee extensors and hip extensors, you’ll need more load (two to three full springs).
Another example of an exercise transitioning from an intermediate to advanced level just by virtue of the number of springs used: the Tendon Stretch on the Reformer or Wunda Chair. Using moderate load (one full spring plus one or two light springs), this exercise becomes intermediate. But when you use a light load (one full spring), it becomes an advanced exercise with far more load on the musculature.
There is another principle that must be mentioned in this discussion—the overload principle. The muscles must be overloaded (resulting in muscle fatigue) for strength changes in the muscle to occur. We can’t ignore this physiological fact. It exceeds the scope of this forum to enter into a discussion regarding muscle strength, but suffice it to say, there must be adequate load on the muscles in order for change to take place. Again, this may mean more springs or less.
To sum it up, I’m not an advocate of “absolute” spring settings, meaning one-spring-setting-fits-all. I prefer to view spring settings as a matter of desired load on the muscles, determining and achieving objectives, and the body makeup of the person you are working with, as opposed to following a specific and set recipe. Thinking along these terms will also encourage a creative thought process, allowing you the freedom to customize the settings to suit your needs.
—Rael Isacowitz, MA, has been practicing Pilates for more than 30 years and is recognized internationally as an expert in the field. In 1989, Rael founded BASI Pilates®, a comprehensive Pilates education organization represented throughout the world.