Pilates is a complete method to
build strength, flexibility
and balance

Pilates is an exercise system or “method,” as it is known, for improving flexibility, strength, and body awareness, without building bulk. It is a series of controlled, precision movements on a floor mat or on specially designed spring-resistant exercise apparatus (the Reformer, the Cadillac, Spine Corrector, Ladder Barrel, and the Wunda Chair).

The method is resistance exercise, not cardio, although your heart rate will rise if you are not in shape. But it is closer to weight training than it is to jogging, biking, or other aerobic training and should be considered resistance exercise.

The Origin

Joseph Pilates (1880-1967) had a lifelong interest in body conditioning. Starting out as a frail youngster, he built up his body through exercise and later became a skier, diver, gymnast, boxer, and martial artist.

In England during World War I, he trained and became a nurse and designed exercise apparatus for immobilized patients by attaching springs to hospital beds. This system formed the foundation for his style of conditioning and exercise devices.

He opened his first studio in New York in 1926. Today, in the United States alone, more than five million people practice his method, including many dancers, members of sports teams, and fitness enthusiasts.

Key Workout Elements

Two of the key elements of the method are core strength and spinal alignment. (“Core” is favorite word in fitness circles today. It refers to the spine, abdomen, pelvis, hips, and the muscles that support them). Some of the main core muscles are the erector spinae (in your back along your spine), the traverse abdominis (located deep in your gut), the rectus abdominis (your “six-pack,”), and hip flexors (in your pelvis and upper leg).

During a workout, an instructor reminds you to concentrate deeply on your core muscles, your breathing, and the contraction of your muscles. The quality of your movements is paramount. The objective is a coordination of mind, body, and spirit, something Joseph Pilates called “contrology.”

How effective is Pilates as a workout?

The method has a huge following and in some circles it reaches an almost cult-like status (the same thing is often said about Apple computer owners). This is not meant as criticism. It can be a great workout for strengthening muscles and improving flexibility. It can also be intense training because the movements are slow, controlled, and deliberate.

Some of the claims often found on web sites and in the method literature, however, may be based mostly on anecdotal evidence rather than scientific test results. Some of the frequently heard claims are . . .

  • The method builds longer, leaner muscles (less bulk): Increased flexibility may create a sensation that your muscles feel longer. But for muscles to actually lengthen the bones they attach to would have to lengthen, too. No exercise lengthens bones.
  • Leaner muscles: Muscle doesn’t typically contain lots of fat, and I could not find any studies that suggest that the fat that is there is reduced by doing Pilates.
  • Practitioners claim the method increases core strength and stability. Certainly this seems reasonable. In a report on the method in MedicineNet, the standard crunch exercise was measured against five Pilates abdominal exercises and the testing seemed to conclude that the movements were comparable to and/or higher than the crunch. In scientific testing, the crunch is often the abdominal exercise others are measured against.
  • Claims have been made that it prevents injury. The method has been shown to increase flexibility, which is certainly a plus. Yet flexibility by any method has not been proven to prevent injury.
  • It will improve your sex life. First, I should say that I am certainly not a doctor or sex therapist. But I am not aware of any scientific studies to support this claim. Yet it does seem perfectly reasonable to me to assume there is some truth in it. Two things stand out: 1) Anything that firms and conditions you improves your self-image and makes you more “in touch” with your body. And 2) the focus on movements that strengthen the muscles of the core and genital area should certainly be a positive factor, for both men and women. Many Pilates exercises work similarly to Kegel exercises, which are prescribed by doctors for women to strengthen muscles (often referred to as “Kegel muscles”) for improved sexual function or for incontinence.
  • There is no-impact so it is easy on the joints. True, there is no pounding as there is in some aerobic activities. Even so, people with arthritis or other orthopedic conditions should speak to their doctor to be sure that the ranges of motion exercises are not problematic.
  • It helps with weight loss. No question, exercisers have a better track record of keeping weight off permanently than non-exercisers. Strength building exercises while losing weight are extremely important. Yet the bottom line to weight loss is that you must consume fewer calories than you burn, no matter how much exercise you do. . .

Other claims include . . .

  • It can be tailored to fit everyone from rehab patients to elite athletes.
  • Compliments other forms of exercise.
  • Improves performance sports.
  • Improves balance, coordination, and circulation.

Although some have not been substantiated by scientific studies, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that it is a valid and worthwhile form of resistance exercise.

Instructors

There is no single agency certifying the method instructors (of course, the same applies to other personal fitness trainers).

The Pilates Method Alliance (an international nonprofit professional association) suggests that instructors should be able to . . .

  • Accurately assess a client’s posture and movement patterns.
  • Understand what a student is doing during a session.
  • Have the ability to build an appropriate client specific program.
  • Pace the workout for an effective movement experience.

Most large fitness centers with aerobics programs offer Pilates mat classes. Some may have specialized equipment and machines. And most fairly large cities have independent Pilates studios.

If you are looking for a different and challenging workout to strengthen and also loosen up your muscles, Pilates may be a system you will enjoy. It is taught in classes, or privately, or at home following a DVD or video.


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