Many Pilates enthusiasts rave about the benefits of Pilates. As an instructor, I hear many glowing comments - “I feel so good after my Pilates session”, “I am much more aware of my posture”, “I feel taller”, “I feel rejuvenated”. Sometimes the praise is specific, “My plantar fasciitis is completely gone”, “Pilates has improved my continence”, “Now I can stand up to put on my pants”. I receive regular feedback like this but how does it work? Thank you to my lovely Buff Bones client, Dianne, for asking this, and for seeking further understanding of this intricate exercise system we call ‘Pilates’.
Joseph Pilates was coined a “genius of the body”. Through his own frail health as a child, he suffered from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever and having a prize-winning gymnast for a father and a mother who practised naturopathy, he was naturally drawn to the field of therapeutic exercise.
Joseph began researching different exercise methods to improve his own health. He studied the movement of animals, he observed the development of babies and participated in many sports from gymnastics, boxing and martial arts to meditation and yoga. During World War I, Joe was interned at a British Enemies Citizens Camp on the Isle of Man, serving as an orderly in a hospital. He began refining his ideas which enabled bedridden soldiers to exercise against resistance by attaching springs to ends of the hospital beds. Here, the beginnings of his method were born.
JOE'S GUIDING PRINCIPLES
• Whole body health • Whole body commitment • Breath
Through his research, Joe embodied the idea of “Whole Body Health”, development of the mind, the spirit and the body in complete coordination with each other. Joe believed “Whole Body Health” could be achieved through exercise, proper diet, good hygiene and sleeping habits, plenty of sunshine and fresh air and a balance in life of work, recreation, and relaxation.
Joe was also guided by the idea of “Whole Body Commitment”, realising that health is a mental and physical discipline, a work ethic, an attitude towards one’s self and assuming a lifestyle that is necessary to achieve whole body health. A famous Joe quote, “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness”, he believed that emotional health is inextricably linked to physical wellbeing. Healthy body, healthy mind!
The last principle, that Joe discovered through his own battle with asthma, was “Breath”. Breath is the first and last act of life. It is the most important principle according to Joe. Breathing helps the circulatory system to nourish all the tissues with oxygen-rich blood while carrying away impurities and metabolic waste. Joe likened breathing to an ‘internal shower’. Breathing properly calms the nervous system, creates focus, improves awareness, lengthens and stabilises the spine and deepens the engagement of core muscles. It helps facilitate better movement to bend the spine forwards, backwards, sideways and into rotation which is why we cue it so regularly in Pilates.
If you’ve tried a Pilates class, you will know how much breathing is mentioned. It’s a bit different at first but after a few sessions, it becomes more natural to prepare for a movement with an inhale breath and exert during an exhale breath. Sometimes the breathing style will be percussive like in the ‘hundred’ or directed into the front of the chest when doing spine extension or directed into the back of the ribs for spine flexion. Belly-breathing is used to create awareness of the pelvis and uni-lateral breathing is useful for side-bending. All the different styles have their unique benefits and purpose but share the same goal: to facilitate movement.
The INNER unit
Pilates exercises are initiated by stabilising important core muscles. These muscles include: the transverse abdominis, the multifidus, the pelvic floor and the diaphragm. Joe understood the importance of keeping the inner unit strong. Without the smaller stabilising muscles doing their work, the outer muscles cannot develop uniformly. Studies have shown that people with no history of lower back pain automatically fire up their stabilising muscles before moving as compared to those suffering from lower back pain whose muscles don’t. Pilates teaches awareness of these core stabilising muscles which lie close to the spine and how to turn them on in a variety of different positions – lying supine, prone, side-lying, seated, kneeling and standing. After awareness has been reached, practice follows until these muscles automatically switch on during functional, everyday activities without having to consciously think about them.
The OUTER unit
The outer unit consists of larger muscles that are prime movers, Latissimus Dorsi, Gluteals, Quadriceps and Hamstrings. Moving is the role of these larger muscles. They control the range of motion, while generating movement and provide stability on a bigger scale when the body is lifting weight or moving quickly. Integrating the two units (inner and outer) keeps you stable and strong. Both units are addressed in Pilates.
Disassociation & movement Strategy
I have worked with gym junkies whose general movement strategy is to switch on as many muscles as they can, when they exercise. Over-recruiting muscles, particularly the larger, more superficial muscles can lead to injury. Joseph Pilates advocated using “as much as necessary, as little as possible” to move more efficiently expending the least amount of energy as possible. This enables us to develop the smaller muscles closer to the joints while strengthening the larger, superficial muscles. Exercising is about engaging muscles, but it is also about letting go of muscles that we don’t need to use. We only need to use the “appropriate amount of stiffness for the anticipated load”.
Faulty movement patterns occur for different reasons such as poor alignment/posture, overtraining, fear of pain, or by developing postures from repetitive activities specific to work or sport like running, swimming, dancing or soccer. When these patterns set in, Pilates is ideal to educate new postural strategies through varied exercises that provide new muscular and kinesthetic challenges.
Mind body connection
Many newcomers to Pilates, discover that it’s a bit like learning how to drive a car. They may envisage a relaxing form of exercise only to find out that their brain is being challenged as much as their body. Pilates is a precise form of mindful movement that optimises breath and alignment of the body in every single exercise, as it moves through different positions with low repetitions, engaging every single muscle in the body by the end of the session. It works so well because of the neuromuscular patterning that occurs from the brain to the muscle. It is not possible to workout in Pilates without thinking about what you are doing and how you are doing it. There is nothing else like it. Many forms of exercise use a set number of muscles, take walking for example, it is a great form of light-toning for the body but only requires a limited number of muscles to do it. Joseph Pilates was not only a genius of the body to invent such a unique method, he was also an ‘inventor’.
Have you heard of the neck corrector, foot corrector, spine corrector, ladder barrel, wunda chair, trapeze table or reformer? These are some of the many pieces of equipment that you will find in an authentic Pilates studio. They were all designed by Joe, for clients who needed assistance due to injury, illness, weakness, restrictions, poor posture and other conditions. Mat Pilates is designed for healthy bodies that require little to no assistance to perform the exercises. Studio Pilates is designed more for clients wishing to work on set goals or pathologies in their bodies with assistance from the marvellous equipment that Joe designed.
Functional movement is the goal
Training in Pilates involves challenging the stability of the spine in many planes of movement. It allows clients to progress from foreign environments to familiar environments in a timeframe that is right for them. Pilates instructors are trained to facilitate and challenge movement by adding/removing assistance, varying the base of support, adding balance challenges and coordination, increasing/decreasing the range of motion and adjusting lever length depending on the level of the participant. The exercises are designed to increase muscle strength and endurance, as well as flexibility and improved posture and balance. Pilates is for “every” body regardless of age, shape or size.