Pilates Explained

  • What is Pilates?

    “A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortions.”

    —Joseph Pilates

    Pilates has become a popular with over 10 million participants and growing. It consists of over 500 controlled exercises performed either on the “Mat” or on specialized equipment like the “Reformer”. It was created by Joseph Pilates (see biography). He called his method “Contrology”. He wrote a book by that name which is worth reading if you are interested in the work. Pilates called it “Contrology” because he strongly believed that the mind controlled the body. This mind-body connection is one of the keys to the work.

    Another aspect of Pilates is its focus on “the Core” muscles to balance the body and provide strong support to the spine. Pilates called the core the “Powerhouse” and the two have become interchangeable. However, they are not the same: the powerhouse includes the core. The powerhouse starts from the bottom of your ribs to the pelvic floor. It includes the abdominal muscles, the high and low back muscles, the pelvic floor, the muscles around the hips and the gluteal muscles (the buttocks). They work together to supply a solid corset around your trunk. They are stabilizers, they create large movements and they give those muscles dynamic strength.

    The “Core” is the deepest stabilizer of the lower trunk. There are shoulder muscles which stabilize the upper trunk. The core consists of the pelvic floor, the transversus abdominus, the multifidi and the psoas. They unconsciously initiate movement and being aware of and controlling them is one the first steps in my Pilates practice.

    Finally, there are six Principles of the work: Concentration, Control, Centering, Flow, Precision and Breathing.

    1. Concentration: Pilates demands intense focus: "You have to concentrate on what you're doing all the time, and you must concentrate on your entire body for smooth movements." This is not easy but the way that exercises are done is more important than the exercises themselves.

    2. Centering: For clients to control their bodies, they must have a starting place: the center or Powerhouse. The center is the focal point of the Pilates. All movement in Pilates should begin from the powerhouse and flow outward to the limbs to strengthen the rest of the body.

    3. Control: "Contrology" was Joseph Pilates' preferred name for his method and it is based on the idea of muscle control. "Nothing about the Pilates Method is haphazard. The reason you need to concentrate so thoroughly is so you can be in control of every aspect of every movement."

    4. Precision: Precision is essential to correct Pilates: "Concentrate on the correct movements each time you exercise, lest you do them improperly and thus lose all the vital benefits of their value". The goal is for this precision to eventually become second nature, and carry over into everyday life as grace and economy of movement.

    5. Flow: Pilates aims for elegant and efficient movements, creating flow through appropriate transitions. Once precision has been achieved, the exercises are intended to flow within and into each other in order to build strength and stamina. In other words, the Pilates technique asserts that physical energy exerted from the center should coordinate movements of the extremities: Pilates is flowing movement outward from a strong core.

    6. Breathing: Breathing is important in the Pilates method. In Return to Life, Pilates devotes a section of his introduction specifically to breathing as a "bodily house-cleaning with blood circulation". He saw considerable value in increasing the intake of oxygen and the circulation of this oxygenated blood to every part of the body. This he saw as cleansing and invigorating. Key to this is proper full inhalation and complete exhalation. "Pilates saw forced exhalation as the key to full inhalation." He advised people to squeeze out the lungs, as they would wring a wet towel dry. In Pilates exercises, the client breathes out with the effort and in on the return. In order to keep the lower abdominals close to the spine Pilates breathing is described as a posterior lateral breathing, meaning that the client breathes deep into the back and sides of his or her rib cage. When practitioners exhale, they are instructed to note the engagement of their deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles and maintain this engagement as they inhale. Pilates attempts to coordinate this breathing practice with every movement. “Above all, learn to breathe correctly.”

  • Biography of Pilates

    Joseph Pilates was born in 1880 in Germany as a sickly child. He was determined to overcome his afflictions and took up the rigorous regimens of the Greek and Romans. He also practiced yoga and meditation.

    By fourteen he had become an avid skin diver, skier and gymnast. He also became a boxer, circus performer and a trainer of self-defense for detectives. This training was the foundation of his later work.

    At the outbreak of World War I he was interned with other Germans in England. This is where his body of work began as what we now know as the “Mat Work”. He taught fellow prisoners these exercises for strength and flexibility, combining fitness with breath control and mental sharpness.

    In the latter part of the war he was working as an orderly in a hospital, helping to rehabilitate patients by strengthening them using equipment made from bedsprings and other equipment. This equipment eventually became known as the “Reformer” and “Magic Circle”.

    After the war he returned to Germany, continuing pioneering his unique approach to fitness. He immigrated to the United States when the German government ordered him to train the new German army. In New York City he opened his Pilates studio along with his wife, Clara.

    He invented his equipment with the help of Clara. He designed a repertoire of over 500 exercises to develop strong, flexible muscles without adding bulk. He emphasized breathing and torso strength to improve posture, reduce stress and injury (exactly what I practice!). His early followers were dancers like George Ballanchine and Martha Graham. He also trained elite athletes.

    He died in 1967, having written the consummate “Return to Life Through Contrology” book, a good primer for his beliefs. He left a strong contingent of students who went on to form their own studios and schools. This is the basis for “Classical” Pilates. Others, like Moira Stott studied the Pilates Method in the New York studio but enhanced the work with modern, scientific knowledge about the body and how it works. She, too, invented modern equipment, equipment that I use today.

    I am not Stott trained but have studied her work extensively. Like her I incorporate pelvic and shoulder stabilization: the foundation of all work. I also concentrate on neutral and imprinted pelvis: critical to building a solid framework.

  • Pilates Core

    There is much debate in the Pilates community about what exactly constitutes the “core” and “powerhouse”. For me the fundamental deep pelvic core consists of the pelvic floor, the transverses abdominus (which acts like a girdle around the lowest part of your abdomen), and the multiidi (the deep muscles of the back).

    A more global definition or the core would include the former and include the rectus abdominus, the obligues, and the erector spinae. The powerhouse muscles work together to form a supportive corset for your lower trunk. They stabilize, create large movements and give movements their strength.

  • Pilates for Men

    “Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.”

    —Joseph Pilates

    Pilates is a terrific form of exercise for men. It was started by a man; it’s been a training vehicle for elite athletes, both male and female for over 50 years (NFL teams, PGA golfers, gymnasts, etc.); and men have figured prominently as instructors and master trainers throughout it’s history.

    Core strength, flexibility, balance, uniform development and efficient movement patterns are all hallmarks of Pilates and are beneficial for men whose workouts often over emphasize a part-by-part approach to muscular development, as in weight lifting.

    By contrast, Pilates emphasizes moving from the center of the body, the powerhouse. By developing core strength in the deep muscles of both the back and shoulders (the stabilizers) Pilates is good for injury prevention and an excellent technique for whole-body fitness as well as a foundation for cross training along with other sports and exercises.
    Men find increasing flexibility through Pilates comfortable. Pilates works toward functional fitness, the ability to have the strength, balance and flexibility allowing men to move through daily life-tasks with grace and ease. With Pilates men won’t find pretzel stretching as in gymnastics or yoga.

    Men are sometimes put off from Pilates because “it’s a woman thing”. However, Pilates works both sexes equally: it is very hard to do correctly and is demanding of your entire mind and body. It is a huge body of work and can take a lifetime to do as perfectly as possible.

    I’ve trained many men and they love it. I strongly urge men to take private lessons so they get their needs addressed. So men, rest assured, you will get a workout!

  • Pilates for Baby Boomers

    “You are only young as your spine is flexible.”

    Pilates is perhaps the best training for Baby Boomers. Maintaining your strength as you age will more likely keep you living more fully and independently. While at times it is weight bearing it is easy on your joints. While walking is great (and you should do it!), Pilates works the entire body in a safe and predictable way.

    • Stay strong and independent

    • Adds core strength, stability and balance for fall safety

    • Improves core and shoulder stabilization for fall safety

    • Fitness increases your mental functioning

    • Improves your posture

    • Prevents osteoporosis

    • No stress on joints

    • Look, feel and function better

    • Gain stamina to maintain your active lifestyle

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