Pilates at the core

By Jo Finzi

Everyone can reap the benefits of Pilates. It’s a stretching and balancing regime that strengthens the core muscles and improves your posture - and it’s one of the safest forms of exercise around.

The technique was devised in the 1920s by Joseph Pilates, with the idea of improving health through a better way of moving. He came up with the idea while he was interned in England during the First World War (he was German).

The method involves slow and controlled movements on mats, and also uses special spring and pulley machines. Joseph Pilates’ original methods of movement and breathing have been developed and honed over the years, and there are now several different forms of Pilates - but they all concentrate on core stability and flexibility.

UAEasy.com pictureFran Michelman of The Pilates Foundation in UK says “You learn the perfect balance between strength and flexibility, and awareness of your whole body”.

There’s no doubt that Pilates can bring many benefits including improved muscle tone, better flexibility and posture, a more healthy and comfortable pregancy and an ability to recover faster from injury.

The key to it is moving correctly in a controlled and balanced fashion. It teaches you how to move each joint correctly to strengthen it and avoid injury. It also highlights how to move one area while keeping other areas still. This is where development of core strength and stability comes in.

A very positive side effect of all this it that when you’re moving correctly, you’re also toning your muscles and keeping yourself taut and trim, which is why fans include fitness gurus and celebrities like Madonna - but anyone can do it, and achieve amazing results.

Because there’s no bouncing, jarring, or stress to your body, Pilates offers the ideal form of exercise for people who are normally wary of exercise classes, because of joint pain or muscle weakness. It gives support to the spine, and creates more space between each vertebra, increasing height and improving mobility.

In your 40s, your balance starts to deteriorate as your muscles weaken and your nerve receptors lose sensitivity. Pilates reverses this aging process by stabilising your core and working the small, deep muscles needed to keep your body steady and your spine supple and strong.

To start Pilates, you don’t need any heavy, expensive equipment, and you can do it anywhere or anytime. Some of the routines take less than ten minutes, so it’s perfect for anyone who finds there’s not enough time in the day for exercise. You’ll also begin to see and feel results in as few as ten sessions.

Apart from the benefits to your body Pilates is also good for the mind. The smooth, steady movements quieten busy brains and soothe the nervous system. As you lengthen and strengthen your muscles, your circualtion improves and tension drifts away, leaving you feeling calm, balanced, and rejuvenated.

Things it won’t do:

* Pilates is NOT a cardiovascular (aerobic) workout. Your heart rate may elevate somewhat during Pilates, but generally will not reach an aerobic level.

* Pilates is NOT a substitute for strength training. Pilates does focus on the core muscles, but does not build muscle mass the way traditional strength training (using progressively increasing resistance levels) does.

* Pilates is NOT a major calorie burner. Studies show that, on average, participants in a 50-minute Pilates mat workout burn between 175 calories (beginners) and 250 calories (advanced).

Therefore, Pilates should be an additional component to a well-rounded fitness programme that includes cardio, strength training and flexibility. Pilates alone cannot be all of these things for you. It’s in a league all its own.

Try this at home

This simple example will help you better understand one way that Pilates offers benefits that other exercises can’t.

Sit upright in your chair in a comfortable position. Place one or both palms on your abdomen. Now cough a few times. You should have felt your abdominal muscles tighten. Now, keeping your hands there, take a deep inhale through the nose. On your exhale, open your lips slightly and push all of that air out of your mouth as forcefully and slowly as possible, making your exhale audible (like a “whoooooo” or “seeeeeeee” sound).

You should have felt the same muscles tighten as when you coughed. These are your deep, transverse abdominis muscles, which act as your body’s corset. When these muscles strengthen, your belly pulls in tighter and flatter. The deep, audible breathing that people do during Pilates (which you just tried a moment ago) helps hone in on the transverse abs in a way that no other exercise can. Pilates focuses on these deep muscles in each and every move you make, which is just one reason why they are so effective at strengthening the core.

When done correctly and with proper focus you’ll get results, but Pilates is not easy - no matter how fit you are. If you tried Pilates once or twice but weren’t impressed, you probably weren’t doing it correctly. And that’s not your fault if your instructor (in class or on video) didn’t explain it properly. When performing every single Pilates exercise you should also:

1. Breathe correctly. Joseph Pilates used to say, “Even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly.” Use deep breathing (described above) to target and tone your deep transverse abs. Your inhale should expand the ribcage (diaphragm) but not the belly, which should be tight and flat as if you are wearing a corset. This helps you keep your core muscles engaged.

2. Concentrate on pulling your shoulders away from your ears and retracting your shoulder blades toward the centre of your spine.

3. Properly align the spine. Your head and neck should follow the natural line of your spine at all times.

4. Focus on every movement as if it comes from the centre of the body (your core).

5. Practice control. Don’t use momentum to help you move. Movements should be done in a slow and controlled manner at all times.

6. Keep your body grounded and stable. If you’re really focusing on the core, your body should be square on the mat and you should not rock or slide in any direction during exercises that involve lying, sitting, or kneeling. (This is one of the most common mistakes seen in class.)

7. Work in an appropriate range of motion. Fitness enthusiasts tend to try the hardest options, even when they haven’t truly mastered the basics with proper form. Similarly, wanting to work harder, many people will work in larger ranges of motion, but aren’t able to stay grounded (point 6 above) when doing so. Only work to a level that allows you to maintain all of the points above.

The great thing about Pilates is that it offers something for everyone at any fitness level.

If you’ve tried it before and been disappointed, consider revisiting Pilates by taking a class in your area or trying a fitness DVD. When you do, incorporate the points above and you will feel and see the difference.

As Joseph Pilates himself said, “You will feel better in ten sessions, look better in 20 sessions, and have a completely new body in 30 sessions.”

For further information go to http://www.pilates.com, or check our pages for details of Pilates classes near you.

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