What is pilates and who is it good for?
The Leg Pull
Pilates is a method of exercise where low impact movements are performed in a controlled and precise way. It has been proven to build core strength, align postural symmetry, stabilise the spine, shoulder and pelvis, improve stamina, develop flexibility and joint mobility, and promote a sense of wellbeing by focusing the mind and reducing stress levels.
Virtually everyone can do some form of Pilates, as most exercises can be modified or adapted to suit the individual. It helps rehabilitate from injury and safeguard against the possibility of future injury. There is a level everyone can work at, from the home maker to the retired gardening enthusiast to the elite athlete.
The discipline is growing in popularity all the time as more and more professionals such as doctors and physiotherapists recommend Pilates to their patients and clients and studies continue to prove it’s effectiveness.
The true origins and essence of Pilates is very much based on a holistic approach to life. One that incorporates regular exercise, plenty of fresh air, a wholefood diet and a positive mental outlook.
A true Pilates lifestyle takes into account all the many elements of the body and mind with the goal to reach a state of optimum health and vitality.
The Benefits of Pilates:
You only have to read a few of the entries on the Testimonial page to get an idea of the many benefits practicing Pilates offers, from healed sciatic pain to an improved golf swing, everyone has a story.
On a personal level Pilates has helped me to manage and remain free from the chronic ankle injuries that caused me to retire from playing competitive sports much earlier than I would have chosen.
I never tire from hearing clients tell me of their improvements and sometimes radical changes and transformations to their bodies and their health after practising Pilates.
Here are some of the many benefits you can expect to experience from practicing Pilates -
- Improved flexibility
- Increased joint mobility
- Improved joint stability
- Improved balance
- Improved coordination
- Improved body awareness
- Reduced aches and pains
- Reduction & eradication of back pain
- Greater core & abdominal strength
- Stronger pelvic floor
- A firmer and flatter stomach
- A slimmer waist
- Aligned posture
- Increased muscular strength & tone
- More efficient respiratory system
- Improved stamina
- More efficient lymphatic system
- Reduction of toxins in the body
- More efficient circulatory system
- Boosted immune system
- Lowered stress levels
- Mental relaxation
- Fewer headaches
- Increased bone density
- Overall better health & vitality
- Aids weight loss
- Reduced risk of injuries
- Improved sporting performance
Joseph H. Pilates
The History of Pilates:
Joseph Hurbertus Pilates was born near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1883. He was sickly as a child, suffering from rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever. He was so ill that Doctors told his parents he would die prematurely. He was determined to prove the doctors wrong, so as a teenager he studied many different forms of exercise, including boxing, gymnastics, martial arts and weightlifting to develop his body and improve his health.
He had great success at training his physique and developed such a well defined musculature that not only did he eradicate himself of all his ailments, he acquired work posing for anatomical chart illustrations.
He moved to England and worked as a professional boxer, circus performer and self defence teacher, however during the 1st WW, along with other German nationals, he was incarcerated in an internment camp in Lancaster and later on the Isle of Man.
It was during this period of internment he developed his exercise system further by studying the movement of animals. He also helped to rehabilitate soldiers and other interns from their injuries and ailments with his radical fitness ideas, many reported never experiencing such good health! He would attach springs to the pulleys and traction systems on hospital beds so the patients could still work their muscles even with a limited range of movement. Helping them to recover faster, maintain their muscle tone and remain healthy, free from complications and infections typical of the infirm.
He named the system ‘Contrology’.
After the war he went back to Germany for sometime, then emigrated to America in 1926 were he, along with his wife Clara, founded the studio were they taught and supervised students of their Contrology method until the 1960’s. His techniques became hugely popular with injured dancers and later as injury prevention. Soon the women of New York high society learned about this new style of exercise and following the dancers lead the popularity of the method began to escalate into the known discipline of today.
The book ‘Return to Life through Contrology’ written in 1945 by Joseph Pilates and William J. Miller educates us on the original 34 exercises, however Pilates himself would often teach his exercises differently from one day to the next, as he adapted them to meet the needs of his individual clients. Today there are many different versions of the Pilates method as it has continued to evolve and many hybrids have emerged.
The principles of Contrology that Pilates first developed are to focus the mind to control the muscles, keeping attention on the core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and provide support for the spine. Building strength, flexibility and stamina. Pilates listed the six key principles as breath, concentration, control, centering, precision and flow. These principles are all key elements to any derivative of Pilates exercises.
Joseph Pilates was a huge advocate of promoting a healthy lifestyle, ahead of his time in many ways. He wrote several books on fitness and physical education and strongly promoted many of the lifestyle habits we see popular in the beauty and wellbeing industries of today, such as dry skin brushing. He also encouraged getting regular fresh air on the body and often taught his classes wearing just his swimming trunks!
Joseph Pilates teaching The Teaser
It’s fair to say Joseph H Pilates was a pioneer in the field of health, fitness and wellbeing and his beliefs and methods will no doubt be followed for many years to come.
The Fundamental Principles of Pilates:
Synchronising the breathing technique with the movement in Pilates is the main differentiating factor that sets it apart from most other forms of exercise.
Lateral Breathing is the name given to the technique that Joseph Pilates developed to optimise his exercises and promote maximum health benefits. He described breathing as the first and last thing we do in life and as a movement pattern in its own right which must be rehearsed and mastered.
He emphasised the importance of the full breath in order to gain maximum amounts of oxygen into all the body’s systems, organs and muscles to truly enhance wellbeing.
The breathing patterns are one of the hardest aspects of Pilates to grasp but it is important to learn them and get it right as this will greatly improve the benefits attained from your Pilates experience.
Correct breathing technique is an integral part of all the Pilates exercises as each exercise has its own pattern of breathing to ensure optimum engagement of the stabilising muscles.
The breath is to be taken in ‘inhaled’ through the nose in preparation to move through the exercise and then exhaled slowly through the lips on the effort, while gently engaging the transversus abdominis and pelvic floor, which stabilises the core.
Moving on the exhalation also enables the muscle fibres to relax, preventing tension and injury to the muscle. The gentle contraction through the stabilising muscles of the core creates a vital protection from damage to the vertebrae and discs of the spinal column.
It is crucially important not to hold the breath during Pilates exercises and that by employing the correct lateral breathing technique, particularly as you move through the hardest part of an exercise, will ensure you don’t hold your breath - which can put extra stress on the heart and lead to serious complications.
Pilates is the thinking persons exercise!
All the exercises have a mental and cognitive element to them. Coordinating the limbs, core engagement and breathing throughout a movement is tricky, so you do need to concentrate. Try to keep the focus light though, as you don’t want to cause tension or frustration. If you do find yourself tensing up, it’s best to take a short rest and then start again.
The exercise movement, position of the body and knowing which are the active muscles, is all part of the Pilates system. Becoming aware of your body position in space and focusing on how and where it needs to move is extremely important.
Your body awareness will develop as you learn to ‘feel’ and not just go through the motions of an exercise.
This is often were visualisation and mental imagery is used to good effect to truly engage with the movement pattern.
Joseph Pilates originally named his programme of exercises ‘Contrology’, so it stands to reason that the element of control involved in the performance of the exercises is of the upmost importance.
Absolute muscle control is needed to ensure that the right muscles are used at the right time to create the desired movement.
Only when an exercise can be performed with exquisite control should it be progressed to the next level. Control of the muscles must be continuously emphasised and reinforced.
Joseph Pilates performing The Jack Knife
The abdomen, lower back, hips and buttocks are known as our ‘centre’. Joseph Pilates referred to this region of the body as the “Powerhouse’ where all energy for movement is generated and then spread out to the extremities.
Centuring the core is crucial for protecting the spine once a movement is in flow. Joseph Pilates realised that by pulling the naval back towards the spine it gave support and stability to the rest of the body. This central stability is created by the gentle flexion of the large, deep, flat muscle called the Transversus Abdominis.
At the same time a gentle pulling up of the pelvic floor muscles should be coordinated with the flexion of the TVA (Transverse Abdominis) and breathing.
It should be emphasised that it is only a light hold through these muscles, not a tight squeeze, as too much tension through the abdominals is counter productive and inhibits the breath.
“The benefits of Contrology depend solely on your performing the exercises exactly according to the instructions” J.H.Pilates
The precision element in Pilates is about focusing on quality rather than quantity. It is far better to do one perfect movement than several poorly executed ones. Each move must be carried out by focusing your attention on the relevant area of the body, making sure to breathe fully, inhaling and exhaling at the correct point of the exercise.
With a combination of concentration, control and repetition, physical precision can be achieved.
Like any form of exercise however, the potential to cause more harm than good is always a risk when technique is poor. It is therefore important never to progress prematurely or rush through a movement.
Flow or fluidity of movement in Pilates is something that will be acquired as you practice.
Movement of the limbs should flow out from a strong centre with graceful, smooth and controlled deportment without jerking or haste.
Non of the movements in Pilates should be performed quickly. Slow movement does not mean they are easy, on the contrary, it is often harder to maintain control when a movement is done slowly.
A slow movement allows an opportunity to check alignment and also eliminates the chance to cheat by creating momentum. These are important aspects when first learning.
It is only when proficiency and precision can be demonstrated, that the speed of an exercise be increased or indeed the complexity of the movement be progressed to the next level.
The movements in Pilates are flowing, natural moves without awkward twists and is never meant to cause force or strain, this makes Pilates one of the safest forms of exercise.
Prone Leg Pull
Other principles that assist the Practice of Pilates:
It may seem contrary to how we normally approach exercise activity, since it is customary to get ‘hyped up’ before an aerobics class or a run but getting into a relaxed Physical state before performing Pilates is highly beneficial. The starting point for all participants should be to focus on the body to recognise and release areas of tension before you get to the exercises themselves. Tension in the body can cause the wrong muscles to fire up during an exercise and inhibit the flow of your movement. This makes the move less efficient and you more tired.
On a mental level, try not to bring the stress of the day into your session. Give yourself time to settle and prepare without rushing, especially if you are attending a class. Not only will it impact on your own practice if you arrive late or in a hurried way but may also disrupt others from their focus of relaxation. If you are embarking on a home practice try to have a few moments of calm, away from the hustle and bustle of family life and chores before beginning your exercises.
This type of relaxation is not to be confused with the Eastern practice of meditation, which is sometimes incorporated into Pilates classes that are a fusion with Yoga.
However it could be seen as a type of meditation as you focus on your body and the movement you are preparing to perform, this creates mental relaxation and leads to stress relief.
Once we are relaxed we need to think about our posture and the alignment of our body. This should continue throughout our practice with constant self evaluations of how we are positioning the body. Whether we begin our session from a standing position or laying on the floor, we can do a mental checklist from our heads to our toes to align our body correctly.
At the beginning of a Pilates class your teacher will take you through this checklist, prompting you to realign the head, shoulders, spine, pelvis, knees and feet.
The importance of this is so that with good alignment, imbalances of the body can be corrected and prevent new ones from developing. If we have the bones in the right place then the right muscles will be activated, so that they will support the joints and not stress them. I call this joint preservation.
Reverse Leg Pull & The Roll Down
With many of the exercises in Pilates it’s not just the strength of your abdominals or core muscles that enable you to perform a particular exercise. Coordination is needed in Pilates as you bring together the lateral breathing, core engagement and then the movement itself.
This may seem difficult at first but like learning how to drive a car or play a musical instrument, with practice and over time it becomes second nature.
We develop what is called ‘muscle memory’ when we repeat a physical command or movement over and over again. This is why its crucial to make sure our technique is precise, that way the brain remembers the sequences correctly, gradually changing the way our bodies move and hold themselves at all times.
Brain synapses are increased by developing muscle memory
Pilates is not cardiovascular exercise, however it will assist in improving your cardiovascular health as you learn to breathe more efficiently and effectively. Regular Pilates practice will increase your stamina, enabling you to work harder through the movements. Also as you work on the stability of your movements, this too will increase your endurance as your muscles get stronger.
This takes time of course and no exercise should be progressed prematurely.
It is recommended that you incorporate some form of cardiovascular exercise into your fitness schedule such as brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling etc. Not only is this essential to health but aerobic exercise and Pilates will assist each other interchangeably in promoting your cardiovascular health.
This section is not so much a principle as a word of encouragement, as like the above section on stamina, Pilates is not regarded as a weight loss exercise, however it most certainly will aid weight loss as you grow and develop your muscle tone. The more toned muscle you have in your body the more calories you will burn - even while you sleep!
I have also witnessed with certain clients that their enthusiasm to perform their Pilates exercises well and attain the most benefit from their practice, has motivated them to lose weight by controlling their diet and increasing their cardiovascular output with great effect.
So the need to lose weight and the desire to perfect the practice of Pilates can again work interchangeably with other methods of weight management and exercise for an all round healthier existence.