Whether it’s your buddy who runs 5Ks, your pal who plays golf or a friend who just had a baby, someone you know has probably raved about the strengthening and toning power of Pilates. The practice’s popularity has grown tremendously in recent years, and people are pulling up a mat in the hopes of gaining improved flexibility and balance, a trimmer midsection and even pain relief.
What Is Pilates?
Developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, the discipline—which combines the meditative elements of Eastern exercise with classic Greek and Roman calisthenics—was created as a way for Pilates to strengthen his body, which had been weakened in childhood by asthma and rickets. To stay in shape and battle stress during World War I, he began teaching camp prisoners his mix of core-strengthening, gymnastics, boxing and yoga moves, which are the fundamentals of modern-day Pilates practice.
Pilates moves focus on the core muscles in your back, abdomen and lower body. Instructors often refer to this area as “the powerhouse” because it’s where most of our everyday movements begin. Exercises are done on a mat or with special equipment, but all of them keep the emphasis on quality over quantity. You’ll do fewer, but more controlled repetitions in Pilates than you do in other kinds of strength training. Through precise movements and rhythmic breathing, the goal is to coordinate your mind with your body.
There are two ways to practice Pilates: mat-based classes and lessons using equipment, such as a Reformer.
- Mat Exercises: In classes, and sometimes private lessons, a Pilates instructor will lead you through different moves that activate your core muscles while strengthening and toning other muscles. You will pay close attention to your breathing and form. To see what it feels like to use your powerhouse, try this classic Pilates mat exercise called the hundred: Lie down on the floor. Keeping your chin down, raise your head and curl your upper spine while extending and lifting your legs and arms a couple of inches off the ground. You’ll then bend your knees to 90 degrees so they’re directly above your hips. As you pulse your arms to the rhythm of your breathing, inhale for five beats and then exhale for five beats. Repeat 10 times, for 100 beats total. Your instructor may guide you through this move, and many others like this, over the course of a mat class.
- Pilates Equipment: The first time you see a Reformer, which is a bed-size elevated platform with a seat that slides back and forth, you may wonder how this contraption makes you fitter. Not to worry—despite its resemblance to one, it is not a torture device. An instructor will help you master the system of springs and pulleys that you’ll push and pull on with your own bodyweight as resistance. For example, you may execute some Pilates mat moves, like the hundred, described above, but while holding onto straps for resistance. Some studios may have other pieces of large equipment, such as wall units, special chairs and machines called the Cadillac and the Chair, that work in the same way as the Reformer.
What Are Some Benefits of Pilates?
In addition to improving your posture by strengthening your core, Pilates also increases flexibility, improves balance and coordination, boosts energy and enhances body awareness, which helps you to move with more ease, comfort and balance throughout your day. Pilates has been recommended for relieving the symptoms of many health conditions, including chronic injury, fibromyalgia, menopause and osteoporosis.
A sister discipline to yoga, Pilates also offers mental health benefits. The smooth, flowing movements combined with a focus on breathing can be very relaxing. Furthermore, a study in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that people who did Pilates for several months reported sounder sleep and improved mood. While Pilates offers all of these pluses, most classes don’t provide an effective cardiovascular workout so make sure that you’re doing other types of aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging or cycling, for a well-rounded fitness regimen.
Who Can Practice Pilates?
Almost anyone, at any age, can do Pilates. Because the controlled exercises emphasize flowing movements, not maximum exertion, there’s little risk of injury.
Over the years, the discipline has become particularly popular among professional athletes, dancers and fitness enthusiasts, as well as within the physical rehabilitation arena. Women recovering from pregnancy and child birth often find that Pilates helps them regain their core strength and improves their energy levels.
If you have a health condition or injury, be sure to check with your doctor before starting a Pilates program. Once you’re cleared to try Pilates, consider beginning with a private lesson to get extra attention.
How to Get Started
Mat and Reformer classes taught by certified instructors are available in gyms, specialty Pilates studios, community centers and rehabilitation facilities. Mat-based fitness classes are often offered for free with a gym membership, while private-mat lessons with an instructor tend to cost about the same amount you would pay for an hour with a personal trainer. If your session includes work on a Reformer, it may be more expensive. Some studios and gyms also offer semi-private mat and Reformer lessons.
You may find it helpful to do at least one private session with an instructor that utilizes a Pilates apparatus before trying mat work. One-on-one attention on a machine will help ensure that you learn the principles and specifics of the techniques of Pilates, which can later be transferred to your mat work and group classes.
Like other group exercise classes, sessions will vary in intensity and style, so talk to the instructor, observe the class and ask friends and family for recommendations to find one that’s right for you.
If you’re comfortable in tight athletic clothing, wear it to class instead of baggy tees and pants—it will be easier for your instructor to see your form and make adjustments. You can also bring your own mat to class, like you would for a yoga session, although most studios provide them. Make sure to introduce yourself to the instructor if you’re just starting out or have any injuries or pain so she can modify moves for you when appropriate.
If you prefer exercising in the privacy of your own home, there are many Pilates DVDs available. Wherever you decide to give it a try, Pilates is a well-rounded workout that will benefit your body and mind.