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Pilates
What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
Health Benefits
How To Choose a Practitioner
Cautions


What Is It?

Pilates (pronounced Puh-LAH-teez) is a unique method of body conditioning that integrates muscle control, proper breathing, flexibility, strength training, and body awareness. It was developed over 60 years by German-born exercise enthusiast Joseph H. Pilates (1880-1967). In 1912 Pilates left Germany for England to train as a boxer. While there, World War I broke out, and he was interned as an "enemy alien." During his internment he served as a nurse and developed a number of devices, some with pulley attachments, to help rehabilitate injured and bedridden soldiers. These inventions were the inspiration for the spring-based pieces of equipment with adjustable cables, pulleys, bars and padded straps that are found in most Pilates studios today.

After emigrating to the United States in the early 1920s, Pilates opened a fitness studio in New York City in 1926, sharing an address with the New York City Ballet. Eventually George Balanchine and Martha Graham became devotees, recommending that their dancers use Pilates' exercise system to heal, reshape, align, and condition their bodies. A long list of screen actors--Gary Cooper and Katherine Hepburn among them--and professional athletes also became advocates, working with Pilates over the years in the U.S. and in Europe.

Today Pilates is not only embraced by dancers, actors, and athletes, but also by people recovering from injury and those who simply want a change from the adrenaline-charged environment of many traditional fitness programs. Pilates classes are quiet and calm, and, because they demand intense concentration, are reputed to be as mentally refreshing as they are physically challenging. Along with floor-based exercises performed on mats (mat classes), Pilates training also typically includes working on five key pieces of unique apparatus-the Universal Reformer, Cadillac, Barrel, Ped-o-Pull, and Chair-although other equipment is available.

Those who regularly do Pilates claim that it produces a markedly sleek physique. Muscles are lengthened and stretched, in contrast to the bulked-up effect that can result from workouts that emphasize multiple repetitions of a few exercises. Unlike weight "stacks," which force a set amount of weight to be lifted, the springs and the floor exercises of Pilates allow gradual, progressive resistance, which more closely resembles the way the body is used in real life. Joseph Pilates believed that because muscles do not naturally move alone, they should not be isolated in exercise.

How Does It Work?

The Pilates method features a series of up to 500 exercises--controlled movements that are performed very slowly and with intense concentration, but with very few repetitions (usually 10 or fewer). The primary goal is to strengthen and stabilize what Pilates called the "powerhouse of the anatomy"--the "core muscles" of the abdomen, lower back, and buttocks, which enable the rest of the body to move freely. Pilates believed that working the deepest layer of abdominal muscles builds a "girdle of strength" for the spine and that a stronger, more stable spine results in improved posture, stance, walking gait, and balance. The arms and legs are also worked in Pilates training, but toning these muscles is the aim, rather than simply increasing their diameter.

Pilates is taught in closely supervised sessions so instructors can carefully observe your movements for proper body alignment and precise rhythm. How you control your breathing through each movement is also monitored. Each routine considers the body as a single, integrated unit. Because you work with multiple muscle groups simultaneously, you gradually become aware of which muscles will enable you to move in a balanced way. Once this awareness is internalized, Pilates devotees say that they move differently all day long.

What You Can Expect

Because it takes time to learn the basics of Pilates, starting out with one-on-one instruction with a certified teacher is generally recommended. Although some studios offer only mat classes, using the Pilates apparatus is a good way to learn the method in its purest form.

A typical session lasts 45 minutes to an hour and your workout will be tailored to your individual needs. No special clothing other than comfortable attire is required. At your first session the instructor will introduce you to the apparatus and give you an idea of your body's strengths and weaknesses. Together you will formulate some goals.

The first (and most widely known) piece of equipment you are likely to encounter is the Universal Reformer, which resembles a single-bed frame with a sliding, padded carriage. It also features adjustable springs that regulate tension and resistance, and cables, pulleys, bars, and straps that allow you to push or pull with your hands or feet.

With the guidance of your instructor, you'll start off with simple movements, and gradually progress to the more advanced exercises. You'll begin lying down, with your back on the carriage, your shoulders in front of two supports, and your feet placed on a foot bar or plate. From this position you'll do a series of abdominal or leg strengthening movements.

Next, you'll move to "bridging," or very slightly raising your pelvis, which increases the demand on your muscles. As you gain strength, you'll begin to work on your hands and knees, all the while very slowly and smoothly sliding the carriage back and forth. The degree of resistance and adjustments to the springs and cables will be frequently adjusted by your instructor. After some time on the Reformer the instructor will introduce you to the other machines mentioned above and may also suggest some mat work. As you improve, the time spent on each exercise will get faster, not longer. In Pilates it is always the quality of your movements that is crucial.

It takes most novices about six weeks of twice-weekly sessions for the subtleties of the movements to become second nature. Once you have thoroughly learned the techniques by working on the machines, you may be able to achieve the same results working on mats, either in supervised group classes or on your own.

Health Benefits

Beneficial for people of all ages, Pilates training increases strength and flexibility, stimulates circulation, enhances joint range of motion, and promotes proper musculoskeletal alignment. In addition, it increases body awareness and improves coordination. Not surprisingly, many M.D.s, orthopedists, chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, and sports medicine specialists refer their patients and clients to Pilates instructors for rehabilitation after joint injury or surgery.

Many dancers and athletes use Pilates to prevent injury and improve performance. It has been found to be particularly valuable in preventing and treating repetitive motion injuries and tendinitis in baseball players, golfers, and tennis players.

Pilates can also be effective in relieving chronic back and neck pain, and may be useful for those suffering from the pain of arthritis. In addition, it can improve abdominal-muscle strength and posture during pregnancy and after childbirth. Furthermore, because Pilates engages the mind as well as the body, it is a known stress reliever.

How To Choose a Practitioner

Many exercise instructors and physical therapists incorporate principles of the Pilates method into their programs. In recent years there has been a proliferation of systems based on the Pilates method, in addition to the approach espoused by the graduates of Joseph Pilates' original studio (The Pilates Studio in New York). These systems may be called a variety of names, including Power Pilates, Stott Pilates, Balanced Body Pilates, Physical Mind Pilates, and Yogalates.

There are currently no national standards set for Pilates teacher training, certification, or professional development. A national nonprofit organization, the Pilates Method Alliance, is working with Pilates advocates to create a National Certfication Exam for the Pilates method. In the meantime, you should find out what type of training your proposed Pilates instructor has. Is it entry level training, such as weekend workshops? Or has the instructor had a longer career in teaching the method? Look for a studio or facility with a senior fitness professional who supervises services and/or trains the staff. And be sure to get references from prior students.

The Pilates Method Alliance website at www.pilatesmethodalliance.org features a database of Pilates professionals and institutions, as well as consumer information that can help you make informed choices on Pilates practitioners.

Cautions

 If you have an injury or underlying medical condition, check with your doctor before beginning a Pilates program.

 If you are pregnant and new to Pilates, consult your obstetrician.

 If you have "loose joints," it is important to alert your instructor to prevent overstretching them.


Date Published: 04/19/2005
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