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Why I Love Pilates

Out of all of the fitness certifications I have received and all the classes I taught through my 30 years in the fitness industry, Pilates is my favorite! This is saying a lot because I taught a few thousand classes of all kinds (not kidding!) including Boot Camp, Body Pump, Cardio Interval, Insanity, Cycling, Step, Boxing and so many others. I was also running, mountain biking, weightlifting, hiking, and traveling a lot in those early years of adding in Mat Pilates classes. I truly believe that adding Pilates to my fitness regimen was a great compliment to those classes (and my other interests outside of the gym) and why I believe I did not suffer major overuse injuries. Oh, and there were two pregnancies within that time and I taught through both of them which maintained my core strength and stability while minimizing back issues during and after pregnancy and childbirth. 

Gayle performing an advanced side plank

According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of Pilates is “an exercise regimen that is typically performed on a floor mat or with the use of specialized apparatus and aims to improve flexibility and stability by strengthening the muscles and especially the torso-stabilizing muscles of the abdomen and lower back”.

Once I became a full-time trainer, I quickly discovered that so many physical therapy exercises that clients were advised to do were similar to (or the same as) exercises I taught in Pilates class. All of these years later, I always incorporate some Pilates into every session with every client in hopes they don’t get injured and won’t need physical therapy. (I like to call it prehab). Joseph Pilates said, “You will feel better in ten sessions, look better in twenty sessions, and have a completely new body in thirty sessions”. I don’t know if that is true for everyone but it certainly helps!

Aging gracefully thanks to his Method

“Change happens through movement and movement heals.”

Joseph Pilates died in 1967, only a few years before I was born, but his legacy lives on. There are only a few of his disciples still alive today but a multitude of instructors and studios all over the world that follow his principles. He was born in 1883 and as a child, he had asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever but dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength thanks to his father who introduced him to gymnastics, bodybuilding, martial arts, and boxing. By the age of 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts, overcoming his earlier weakness. A few years later during World War I, the British authorities interned Pilates in Lancaster Castle, where he taught wrestling and self-defense, intending to make the soldiers stronger than they were before. Pilates studied yoga and the movements of animals and said that the intuitive movements of cats, in particular, inspired many aspects of his fitness regimen. 

Examples of Pilates Exercises Done By The Inventor

Joseph Pilates called his exercise philosophy "Contrology'' because of the encouragement of the use of the mind to control muscles and the focusing of attention on core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and provide support for the spine. His first book, written in 1934 and updated in 1945, was called Return To Life Through Contrology He said, “Pilates is the complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit”. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine, and strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles. Some of the early use of his exercise methods included rehabilitation of seriously injured veterans, which is why it is no wonder that these exercises are seen in physical therapy today.

The Six Principles of Pilates are:

  • Centering

  • Concentration

  • Control

  • Precision

  • Flow

  • Breath

To me, these principles all relate to each other and are achieved through the mind-body connection. The core is considered the “powerhouse” or control center of the body and is the first thing you physically engage before beginning each exercise and something that you mentally check into while implementing each part of the movements. While stabilizing the core, the limbs of the body work through range of motion with control, making the body more stable, flexible, and mobile.

The one component of Pilates I love is the focus on length and posture. It is no surprise that when he moved to America in 1925 and opened a studio in New York City that the dancing community and socialites became interested in learning his method to maintain grace, flow, and the maintenance of good posture. For those of us who are not dancers, we spend so much of our days internally rotated from driving and computers, bending at the neck to look at phones, and sitting for hours every day-followed by an exercise session that potentially contracts and shortens muscles. All of these things create poor posture over time and can potentially cause muscle imbalances and injury.

Pilates, seen teaching people in New York

The Pilates Method is focused on lengthening the muscles and connective tissue in the body and creating movement through the joints. A great example is the leg series which helps mobilize the hips that have been shorted all day. This series moves the legs and hips in different directions while stabilizing the core, and strengthening the smaller muscles of the body.

Gayle performing the Side Leg Series

Each exercise in Pilates incorporates the breath which aids in the flow of the movement. For instance, in many of the exercises exhaling is used to pull the belly further into the spine and draw the limbs into the midline while inhaling is done during the lengthening phase. When discussing the breath, Pilates said, “Above all, learn how to breathe correctly” and “Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.”

Pilates also has many exercises that stabilize and strengthen the back of the body as well as encourage spine mobility which helps keep the body properly aligned. For example, bridges and back extensions are a large part of the Pilates program but are often ignored in fitness classes and in the weight room but ones often seen in physical therapy to correct imbalances. When Joseph Pilates was asked about spine health he said, “A man is as young as his spinal column” and “If your spine is stiff at 30, you are old. If it is flexible at 60, you are young.”

Gayle performing the Back Series and Roll-Over

Unlike traditional exercise you see in group fitness classes, Pilates classes are different:

  • The quality of each movement is considered more important than the quantity - it is typical that few repetitions are done (4-6 is average) but that they are done precisely

  • The primary focus is on what is not moving. Stabilizing and core engagement always come first

  • Any movement must be controlled enough and within a range of motion to stabilize the non-moving parts

  • The breath is a primary focus through all movements

 For instance, let’s look at the exercise we all know - The Bridge:

  • The hips should remain squared

  • The core engaged

  • The height of the bridge unchanging no matter what else is moving

  • The breath is used to lift the body and pull the bellybutton to the spine

There are so many progressions to this one bridge exercise so there is always room to explore your own body and to advance as the core gets stronger and the body becomes more mobile and flexible.

Gayle performing Bridge Series

I am certified in Mat Pilates which is what this blog is focused on but I have always been intrigued by the equipment and have recently begun to explore classes to learn the intricacies of this modality. Joseph Pilates had 26 patents for the equipment he created similar to the Reformers, Cadillacs, Chairs, and Barrels seen in studios today. I am discovering that the machines are different from doing Pilates on a mat but that the foundation is the same. I love the addition of the equipment to enhance the length, precision, and control and highly recommend exploring these yourselves.

Gayle showing off on the Reformer

If you are looking to begin a Pilates program, here is a quote by Joseph Pilates: “Every moment of our life can be the beginning of great things.” I suggest finding a beginner class that goes through the fundamental movements. Most studios offer introductory machine classes or you can take my annual winter Pilates Foundations Course and share my love of Pilates! The series will show you the fundamentals so you can explore other mat or equipment classes in the area. If you are unsure of the level of the class you are taking, talking with the instructor before class to let them know you are a beginner can help them pay closer attention to you and show more modifications.

Ready to try it, or get back into your Pilates practice? Sign up for Gayle's 5 Week Series on Mastering the Fundamentals of Pilates starting January 20th!

“Not only is health a normal condition, but it is our duty

to not only to attain it but to maintain it.”

-Joseph Pilates

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