The Pilates Method has appeared in the fashion magazines a lot of late, but have any of the articles really described what it actually does?
It just can’t be explained in 10 words or less. The concepts are quite simple but the practice can be extremely subtle, and it is the depth of the work that sets it apart from so many forms of body conditioning.
I have a confession to make. When I first opened my studio I was looking forward to a sporty cliental, rehabilitating injuries, fine tuning performance enhancement, but basically working with fit, funky people.
One of my first clients was a 60 plus grandmother, no athletic background, who wanted to improve her posture and flatten her stomach - not what I had envisioned at all. When she left for holidays, 12 sessions later, I observed her looking at her reflection as she left. She was almost floating, she was standing so tall. The shoulders were relaxed, the stomach was pulled in and she seemed to have gained not just muscle strength, but confidence as well. I never thought I would be that excited about a grandmother’s posture.
A year or so later, I found myself with professional rugby players in the studio. Faced with picture perfect bodies, I thought - what could I possibly do with them? To have these footballers work just that little bit MORE, finding the threshold and getting these beautiful specimens to SHAKE with the effort of lengthening, reaching, working deeper than they thought was possible - now that was exciting.
So which would I consider more important? Both reflected the client achieving a depth of conditioning that had been previously untapped and it proved to me that Pilates can work for a largely varied population.
WHAT IS IT?
Joseph Pilates devised a system of body fitness, which has taken his name. The Pilates (pronounced PIL- AH-TEES) Method is a body conditioning system designed to develop muscular strength, balance, flexibility and efficiency of movement while developing body awareness. It has been succinctly described as Yoga without the mysticism.
A Pilates workout systematically addresses the whole body. A dynamic support structure of the core muscles, (deep abdominal and spinal muscles) gives pelvic stabilisation and provides a built-in central support system. While building strength and coordination, clients learn to maintain correct, efficient alignment and keep muscles flexible through the power of movement.
WHAT MAKES IT DIFFERENT?
The main difference of the Pilates Method is that not just the exercises, but the intent of the exercises. Often the journey through the movement of the body parts holds more importance than the destination. Joseph Pilates originally called his body conditioning "Contrology" and the intent of the work is reflected in the name it was first given
To simply go through the motions as many people do when they hit their weight rooms or aerobic classes is not enough when you partake in a Pilates workout.
It is similar to Yoga in that the awareness of breath is a central part of the flow of the exercise. It relates to Yoga also, in that the mind should be fully engaged with the activity of the body, not just zoning off and letting the legs and arms get on with it.
Clients will sometimes slide into habits of over use or "cheating", where the body finds the easiest way to get through the movement. It is for this reason that the workouts should be conducted on a personal, one on one level, or in small supervised groups.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The Pilates Method is built around various pieces of equipment, the main pieces being the Universal Reformer, the Cadillac and the Chair. These are specifically designed to give resistance while maintaining alignment and length. The tension of straps and number of springs can be adjusted as strength and control increases.
This is one area in which the Method differs from the norm. Whereas most workouts have the continual increase of weight and repetitions as the goal for strength gain, Pilates can sometimes work in reverse.
Rather than applying isometrics on machines and working predominantly with concentric contractions to move the desired weight, the Pilates equipment requires core stabilisation and specific muscle engagement to perform each exercise.
For example, having the feet in straps on the Universal Reformer for the Short Spine Massage gives the client support for the levers as they eccentrically work at varying heights around the body. A more advanced version of this exercise is seen in the matwork, in the Jackknife. The movement is similar to that on the Reformer, without the resistance of springs to assist, so the action is solely controlled by the client’s strength in the powerhouse and legs.
A traditional workout will consist of exercises predominantly on the Reformer and the mat, with the Cadillac, Chair and Barrels supplementing a comprehensive system. If legs needed more work, leg circles on the Reformer could be substituted for a set of exercises on the Cadillac using the springs. If the Hundred (see A PRACTICAL EXERCISE) had already been performed on the mat they would not be repeated in the Reformer sequence. The system works all parts of the body, focussing on injuries or special needs of the client, with the one constant - the abdominals are ALWAYS on!
WHO SHOULD BE DOING IT?
In situations where an injury has already been sustained, Pilates provides a perfect environment for rehabilitation. Working in a non weight bearing position on the Reformer, providing smooth, controlled movement against resistance gives vital blood flow and firing of muscle fibres of atrophied muscles. Since Pilates focuses on the proper initiation of specific muscles, clients work to engage and strengthen the weaker side rather than relying on already strong bulk muscles to overtake the action. The Method thus ensures a consistent rehabilitation program and a faster recovery.
For your athletes who seem to have everything the method increases awareness so you work the muscles with more intent and improve the finer balance and coordination needed to perform the more advanced sequences. While the beginner level finds greater articulation and strength in specific muscles, the more you progress with the work, the more aerobic and gymnastic the exercises become.
When you first encounter some of the advanced exercises you may think they’re not humanly possible, but with a strong grounding, knowing where you are in space and the control that you have to support such fantastic moves, you will surprise yourself. The confidence that comes with this realisation is extremely satisfying, as you watch clients practically dance on the machines with something akin to grace and artistry.
In short I have found that everyone can benefit from the technique of the Pilates Method, whether it be rehabilitation from injuries, deeper conditioning, flexibility and control for the general public or performance enhancement for elite athletes. What is required is the ability to concentrate on the subtlety as well as the power.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
Having strength and control in the centre of the body allows the extremities to move freely. It aligns posture, flattening and strengthening the stomach muscles and keeping the whole body more supple. In doing so, clients will find maximum muscle strength while increasing flexibility through the eccentric contraction of muscles, correct imbalances and break bad postural habits.
Strong, efficient movement, increased flexibility and awareness of alignment are some of the benefits of Pilates. As clients evolve to higher levels of difficulty and gain better strength, balance, fluidity and control, they also understand their bodies and the potential for a deeper, subtle conditioning.
A PRACTICAL EXERCISE
The engagement of the transverse and oblique abdominal to flatten the stomach (while keeping the ribs dropped and shoulders relaxed) while doing simple movements can be an excellent and simple base for any Pilates beginner.
The Traditional Pilates matwork starts with the Hundred. The legs are extended away and the body is in a small "crunch" position. The client breathes in for a count of five and pulls the stomach in deeper as they exhale for five. Repeat this 10 times to get to your "Hundred" and the client will have worked their abdominals, their lungs and hopefully not their neck and shoulders! However, getting the correct technique of the curl up can make for a more efficient learning curve in a beginner client.
The curl up should be smooth and clean. Exhale to pull the stomach flat, then KEEP it flat as the curl up progresses. Breath at the top of the movement (it’s easy to forget!) and watch the deep abdominals scoop in BEFORE the roll down. It’s easy for the Upper Trapezius to engage and strain the line of the shoulders. Also watch for the tailbone pulling up, if the Gluteus and Hamstrings kick in the pelvis will tuck under. These details indicate the amount of energy wasted from incorrect use.
The simplest action, focusing on specific muscle initiation is what you’re looking for.
The Roll Up (Traditional) is done with legs extended on the mat. It is basically a long, smooth sit up, keeping the deep abdominals scooped in throughout, and stretching long over the legs. This can also be modified for a beginner.
To start, have the client sitting with their knees bent up towards the chest, hands holding under the knees. Pulling the stomach in, they roll back until the elbows extend, maintaining navel to spine. Keeping this deep curve, the head pulls forward and they stack back up to the sits bones, smoothly articulating through the vertebrae, not coming up in a block. In this way the body begins to stretch as it’s working, lengthening through the movements and gaining strength through the eccentric contraction instead of bulking up.
Leg circles are positioned with one leg stretched to the ceiling and the other extended under the body. The attention is focused on pelvic stabilisation, lengthening through both legs and maintaining the position of the lower back into the mat. Keep the circles small (just out to the shoulder, across the midline of the body - keeping the pelvis secure) and just five in each direction. Keep the circling leg in a bent position to start to shorten the lever if the client is too unstable through the hips in the beginning
Any work prone should start with a deep engagement of the transverse and oblique muscles to get these low abdominals lifting off the floor to provide support for the lower back. For all Pilates exercises the neck is kept long to avoid crunching into the joints.
Side lie work is for those with a good "base". It requires stabilisation so the client doesn’t roll back in the pelvis by engaging the powerhouse rather than holding the position with the upper traps. Side kicks swings the leg up towards the head (making sure the torso maintains its position and the pelvis doesn’t tuck to get the leg high), then reaches down and behind the body. Keep this swing back small, rather think of lengthening out through the foot on a long diagonal and pulling up under the ribs to maintain a long lower spine and flat stomach. The foot should be at hip height throughout, and remind them to breathe at some point during the exercise!
WHERE DO I FIND IT?
The Pilates Method has become increasingly popular in the last few years with studios operating in all major cities around the world. Every studio is different, so research the ones you have access to and decide which will suit you best. Some have a New York style (Traditional, aerobic, strength orientated), others are clinical body re-patterning studios, focused on gentle, gradual rehabilitation techniques that are based on the Pilates technique.
The Pilates Method obviously requires many hours of training, hands on expertise and a personal dedication. To ensure the studio will suit your needs, observe a session. It is easier to explain the method when you have the machines and bodies to demonstrate your point!
This is a modality that all health practitioners should investigate. Not only for the information you can pass onto their clients in regards to fitness or rehabilitation, but for your own well being and maintenance.
Whether the goal is to increase strength, release overt tension in areas of chronic over use, or to find more flexibility, Pilates covers it all. Enjoy.