Updated: May 27, 2020
Pilates can lengthen and strengthen muscles, turn your core from weak to sleek, and even rehab old injuries. Here’s what you need to know about this popular mind-body method.
Why the sudden popularity boost? Because Pilates works. “People always complain that their bottoms are flabby, their waistlines are sagging, their lower abdominals are pooching,”“Pilates targets all of these areas and more.”
Named for its founder, Joseph Pilates, this intense, whole-body workout methodology addresses the three core tenets of fitness: cardiovascular training, strength training and flexibility. While it may not get your heart pumping like the treadmill, it does leave you feeling sweaty, refreshed, inspired — and many say, taller.
Pilates exercises can be performed on a sticky mat or a machine called a reformer (essentially, a padded platform with springs and pulleys). cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit Pilates Method Alliance, estimates that about half of Pilates practitioners use a reformer; the others use a mat.
For safety and efficacy, reformer classes are usually small-group affairs with about six students per instructor. The added attention from the instructor improves your skills and intensifies the workout. Mat work, on the other hand, tends to be less expensive and much more portable. As with yoga, you can roll out your mat in the den, in a hotel room or even on the beach. Some workouts incorporate both reformer and mat exercises.
Pilates draws so many followers because of its myriad physical and mental benefits. Exercises such as the Hundred (one of four classic moves that Siler shares, next page) target the powerhouse: the midsection abdominal muscles that are the basis for just about every action your body takes. The Hundred is different from traditional abdominal crunches, which hit just the upper, superficial abdominal muscles. “We teach that everything initiates from the powerhouse,” says Siler. “We focus on pulling the navel in and up toward the spine and working oppositionally. Plus, you’re lengthening through your joints so there’s never any compression.” The net result: Everyday tasks (such as loading groceries and picking up kids) become easier, and your entire midsection looks leaner and more toned.
Pilates is famed for lengthening and strengthening muscles without building bulk, while also improving posture and alignment. The body is like a car, says Lauri Stricker, a Colorado-based instructor and author of the forthcoming Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete (Fulcrum, 2007). “You tune it up, you change your oil, you replace all the fluids — but if it’s misaligned, parts are going to wear out, and damage is going to be done. Alignment is the first principle of good movement, and improving the quality of your movement is one of the biggest things you can do to improve your quality of life.”
Stricker notes that good posture can help you breathe better, improve your digestion and prevent headaches. Better alignment and posture also help individuals recover faster from injuries — and prevent them from happening in the first place. Craig Zeller, a financial adviser from Denver, Colo., discovered Pilates by accident — literally. After he tore both of his rotator cuffs kayaking, his physical therapist prescribed Pilates. The practice aided his recovery, he says, and improved his paddling form. “With better core awareness and balance, I find myself much less susceptible to over-tweaking my arm muscles,” says Zeller, 51.
Many athletes, including Ironman champion Paula Newby-Fraser and Nordic skier Johnny Spillane, have been inspired to take up Pilates as a form of cross-training, not only for its physical benefits, but also for the mental boons (including relaxation, body awareness and concentration) that the exercise affords. Each movement incorporates visual images and cues — such as slapping water or reaching for imaginary objects — that demand concentration. This not only makes the hour or so of class time fly by, it also tends to leave your mind clear and focused, your spirits lifted.
Curious to find out what Pilates can do for you? Try the exercises presented here. Then sign up for a class. Chances are, you’ll discover muscles you never knew you had.