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Pilates Revealed
By Amy Giaquinto
Oct 20, 2004, 22:10



The newest buzz-word in many fitness clubs is Pilates and if youíre not sure what Pilates is, youíre not alone. Pilates, pronounced puh-LAH-teez, is an exercise class consisting of a series of very controlled movements and breathing that focus on core stability, which is defined as increasing the strength of your abdominal, oblique, and lower back muscles.

If youíre looking to try and get a feel for what a Pilates class entails, you can very loosely compare it to Yoga. Picture laying on a thin mat just like you would in a Yoga class and focusing on proper body alignment and breathing. The similarities end there, though, as Pilates takes you through a series of controlled movements while Yoga requires that you hold certain positions for a period of time. The breathing pattern is also different in Pilates.

As for the actual movements that you do in a Pilates class, you may recognize some of them from other exercise classes that you have participated in. However, there is one fundamental difference, youíre so focused on engaging your core muscles, on your body alignment, and on your breathing that suddenly these exercises, exercises that you used to do with ease, become intense body sculpting and energizing movements. Thatís why Pilates uses low repetitions, usually no more than ten reps per exercise. I spoke with a Pilates instructor who said, ďItís such a good workout because you canít focus on other people or on making out your grocery list. Youíre so focused on your body that nothing else matters. Thatís why itís so invigorating.Ē

Take it from someone who is new to Pilates. It really is amazing. I went to my first mat Pilates class with stiff and aching muscles wondering if I was going to be able to participate in the class. Once the class started and we began going through the different exercises, I found that, thanks to the no impact, joint friendly exercises, my achiness disappeared. By the time the class was over, I was felt wonderful, loose, and energized. I was not alone. I listened as other students in the class kept saying over and over again to one another, ďI feel so invigorated. I feel so energized.Ē This is a change to how most of us feel after a tough workout.

The history of Pilates is very interesting. Pilates was developed by a physical trainer by the name of Joseph H. Pilates back in the 1920ís. He used it to successfully strengthen his own weak and frail body before he applied his principles on immobile wounded World War I soldiers. He used springs attached to hospital beds to help the soldiers perform assisted movements until they had become strong enough to perform them on their own. What Pilates soon discovered was that the soldiers were walking out of his program stronger, more flexible, and more coordinated than ever before.

With this realization, Joseph Pilates brought his system to New York in 1926. It wasnít until the 1940s that Pilates became popular with dancers. Since then, many athletes including gymnasts, Olympians, football players, golf players and more have begun to discover how Pilates can help them reach new heights in their careers. Only recently has the craze hit the general public. Now Hollywood celebrities and general fitness enthusiasts are beginning to see how Pilates can make ďlonger, leaner, firmer, strongerĒ muscles.

The best part about Pilates is that itís very versatile. Since Pilates was originally designed to get immobilized soldiers back onto the battlefield, it also has great applications in physical therapy, post rehabilitation training, and for seniors, who often have weak abdominal, oblique and back muscles which all contribute to an increased risk of falling, muscle and joint pain, and poor posture. All American Pilatesí President Joe Santisi told me that most of his original clients were seniors who had lost their daily functionality or who were afraid of falling every time they stepped off of a curb. Pilates equipment has given many seniors a new lease on life as they become stronger and more able to enjoy their everyday activities. Pilates can also be custom tailored for sports-specific training for any type of athlete.

Now, there are two basic types of Pilates classes. Classes that use Pilates equipment and classes that are performed on a mat. In one type of class, Pilates movements are performed on a specifically designed piece of equipment, that use springs and cables to create resistance. The workoutís intensity can easily be modified by the simple change of a spring. At a fitness conference, I tried the Pilates Reformer, which has several different springs that each offer a different amount of resistance. The Reformer was very easy to use and provided an intense, yet relaxing workout that can easily be modified so that everyone, from the weakest and most frail individuals to the most elite athletes, can use it. Using Pilates equipment is wonderful because itís so gentle on your joints, the movements are very fluid, itís a great way to build strength and increase flexibility, and itís a fun and relaxing way to exercise. People of all ages and ability levels can benefit from using Pilates equipment as long as theyíre working with a Pilates Certified instructor.

Unfortunately, for most gyms, Pilates equipment is too costly to purchase and it simply takes up too much space, but thankfully Joseph Pilates also developed a mat routine consisting of 37 different exercises. The problem is that these exercises were developed for elite athletes and, according to All American Pilatesí Joe Santisi , ďIn order to do these exercises, you must be in very good shape.Ē In other words, the average American exerciser isnít going to be able to do these movements safely. So as time went on, various instructors have modified the original mat exercises by still keeping Joseph Pilatesí principals in mind, so that the anyone can participate in a mat Pilates class safely. These modified exercises serve as a stepping stones to help people build up enough core strength to eventually be able to do the more advanced Pilates exercises.

In addition to the two types of classes, there are two different teaching styles: classic and contemporary. The big difference between these two styles is that the classical training is designed more for an elite athlete who is looking to bring take their sport to the next level. The breathing in classic Pilates is different than in contemporary Pilates. According to Joe Santisi, ďIn classic Pilates, you inhale on exertion.Ē In most exercise classes, weíre taught to exhale on exertion. By inhaling on the exertion phase of a movement, the body becomes unstable and if you donít have the core strength to stabilize yourself, you could get hurt. Thatís why the more accepted form of Pilates is the contemporary style. In contemporary Pilates, the Pilates that you will be most likely to encounter in a fitness class, you breathe out upon exertion, helping to stabilize your body through the Pilates movements. This also forces you to contract your core muscles and gives you a wonderful workout. Before you join a class or work with a trainer, ask if they teach contemporary or classic Pilates. Most of what you will encounter will be the contemporary style, but itís always good to ask.
With so many Pilates classes popping up, how do you find the right class for you? In a perfect world, you would be working one on one with a trainer who would evaluate your posture and test your body for muscle imbalances prior to your workout. But this isnít a perfect world and many people donít have the money to spend $50 and up for a session like this, which is why the class setting has become so popular. Just be sure to attend a class with a Pilates Certified instructor. This way, you will get a true Pilates workout. Also, start in a beginnerís class so that you are able to safely learn how to perform each exercise and how to focus on breathing properly throughout the class. Look for a class with an instructor that not only shows you what to do, but also makes his/her way around the class correcting improper form. Youíll never achieve the all of the benefits of Pilates if youíre not doing it right. This is why Pilates videos arenít the best idea for a beginner. Wait until you have become proficient with Pilates before you decide to invest in a video.

Like many fitness experts, Joe Santisi expects that within the next five years, Pilates will explode and revolutionize the fitness industry. As a matter of fact, All American Pilates is demonstrating a new, standing, version of Pilates that will be done in a step class and it will add aerobic aspect to Pilates. You will be able to check out what they have come up with at the ACSMís annual Health and Fitness Summit and Exposition April 9-12, 2003 in Reno, Nevada.

So whether youíre young or old, an athlete or a couch potato, Pilates provides a joint friendly and energizing way to achieve your fitness goals while helping you to improve your body awareness and your posture. The instructor of my Pilates class put it best when she said, ďIn 10 sessions youíll feel better. In 20 sessions, youíll look better. In 30 sessions, youíll have an entirely new body.Ē