What is Pilates?

Based on an understanding of the muscular and skeletal systems, Pilates is an exercise method which aims to strengthen the body and restore it to balance by using precise movements and emphasising core strength and stabilisation.

Exercises are focussed on particular areas of the anatomy but involve the whole body in a holistic fashion. The therapy works on the principle ‘quality not quantity,’ in other words the simple exercises used in Pilates do not require a great deal of repetition.

Because of its low-impact and muscle/bone strengthening abilities Pilates – unlike many other forms of physical exercise – is suitable for use by the elderly and those who have a physical disability. Children aged 12 and upwards can also benefit from this therapeutic exercise.

The main focus for every Pilates exercise is that of core strength. The core muscles – or ‘Powerhouse’ as Joseph Pilates termed it – are those in the stomach and back area. The theory goes that if the core muscles are working property, other muscles will benefit and the spine will be supported. This relieves pressure on the back and is why Pilates, in particular, benefits those suffering from back pain.

Those who take a Pilates class learn to align their body prior to exercise. This means they can work on particular groups of muscles without compromising other parts of the body. Because it strengthens core muscles, Pilates is said to improve posture and help with back problems.

The method involves concentration and breathing techniques. What it does not do is lead to increased muscle bulk and strain on particular tendons or joints.

At more advanced levels the therapy is a combination of both aerobic and anaerobic exercise taking in body-weight training and strength-promotion. More basic, gentler classes are more akin to yoga and tai chi aiming for flexibility and core strength promotion.

There are six principles in Pilates. These are: Centring, Control, Flow, Breath, Precision, and Concentration

  • Centring – focusing on the centre of the body. This involves, for instance, taking into account the abdomen, lower and upper back, hips, buttocks and inner thighs. All movement, according to Pilates, should start from here and flow outwards towards the limbs and extremities
  • Control – every exercise involves complete muscle control. Joseph Pilate’s belief was that the individual should be in control of their body and not vice versa
  • Flow – exercises are graceful and flowing. This mirrors the body’s energy which should flow freely throughout the body in a regular manner
  • Breath – the lungs should be regarded as bellows where air flows fully when inhaled and then exhaled in the proper fashion. According to Joseph Pilates breathing properly through oxygenating the blood circulatory system (by swapping oxygen for carbon dioxide) could result in a more invigorated and alert body. Every exercise in Pilates involves a breathing instruction.
  • Precision – the body all fits together in a series of movements and only works through precise movements ie one part of the body affects another. Another use of the term is that the movement should be precise and perfect – using it incorrectly or half-heartedly will not be beneficial. Eventually the precision should become second nature
  • Concentration – because it allows the person exercising to focus, concentration is paramount to this exercise, allowing the user to reap maximum benefit

All Pilates exercises have particular names and some of them can sound quite unusual such as The Mermaid, The Saw, Scissors, The Bicycle and The Hundred. Many are similar in name and technique to yoga movements although they both differ greatly in their execution.

Pilates invented exercise machinery to combine with his exercises and today this ‘machinery’ or equipment includes large power balls, Pilates rings and soft weights.


What to expect

You should turn up for class wearing loose and comfortable clothing bearing in mind you will be exercising areas such as the stomach, legs, arms and back. Many of the movements will be slow but others very rapid therefore light clothing such as leggings and a tee-shirt is advised. You may also be asked to bring along a warm fleece.

Your class will probably last 45 minutes to one hour. Some classes may involve weights and special equipment such as that invented by the founder of the exercise, Joseph Pilates himself.
Unlike a traditional aerobics class, Pilates instructors focus on just one muscle group at a time.

Many classes involve the use of a mat, using your own body for resistance. You will be instructed to lie either on your back or front, your side, or you may even sit during the class. Exercises here involve gravity and body weight which are used to provide resistance to muscle groups.

The class will begin slowly, allowing you to relax and focus. The first class will normally involve looking at breathing techniques, correct body alignment and how this makes other muscle groups feel.

In other classes, you may be assessed by an instructor which involves providing a brief medical history. The instructor will then work out a series of tailored exercises unique to your own needs. These sessions normally last longer than that of a class and can be anything up to 90 minutes.

You may recognise traditional exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups. Others may seem similar in fashion to Callenetics and even Ballet.


Effects and benefits

Pilates energises the body while at the same time promoting physical harmony and balance. This makes it a therapy to promote general fitness. It can also assist particular conditions and overall well-being. Some of the benefits of Pilates include:

  • Injury prevention
  • Better breathing during pregnancy
  • Quicker recovery from soft tissue injuries
  • Recovering body tone post-pregnancy
  • Improving posture
  • Help with weight loss
  • Aiding mobility and strength of the spinal system
  • Boosting muscle tone and flexibility
  • Promoting healthy joints
  • Helps athletic training and dancing rehearsals when integrated with normal training routines

The exercise can be particularly good for certain conditions. These include osteoporosis (by strengthening the bones), circulatory problems, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, anxiety and conditions associated with balance including ageing.


Pilates and fascinating facts

  • The term Pilates stands for Proximal Integrating Latent Agile Toning Exercise
  • The therapy was devised by physicist Joseph H Pilates who first experimented on bed-ridden injured soldiers in England.
  • Joseph H Pilates came up with around 500 specific exercises which involved five pieces of apparatus
  • Pilates was also called Contrology due to the fact users must be in constant control of their movements
  • Contrology was renamed Pilates after the death of Joseph Pilates in 1967, aged 87
  • In 1926 Pilates made an appearance in the States, mostly in ballet schools and fitness clubs
  • Some of the first people to try Pilates were dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine
  • In 2005 the States had 14,000 Pilates instructors
  • More than 12 million people worldwide are believed to practice Pilates
  • Pilates wasn’t introduced in the UK until 1970, by dancer and teacher Alan Herdman
  • Different forms of the therapy now exist such as the hybrid Yogilates and the newly developed Menezes method and Stott Pilates.
  • Pilates has been used to help ease the symptoms of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s
  • Pilate’s Contrology exercise system became popular with the German police training school
  • Joseph Pilates patented his first piece of exercise equipment in 1925. It was known as the Universal Reformer
  • One of Pilate’s exercise machines was called the Wunda Chair. It doubled as a piece of furniture
  • Pilates is known as ‘the thinking person’s exercise system’ as the individual learns what the body needs through feeling particular muscle groups and the strain put on them
  • Traditionally Pilates ‘exercise tools’ involved tables and chairs
  • A human breathes around 18000 times a day
  • New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks incorporate Pilates routines into their everyday training sessions. So too did legendary German heavyweight boxer, Max Schmeling
  • Around 25 per cent of those taking part in a Pilates class today are men


Professional Organisations

Pilates Foundation

Founded in 1996, the Foundation has an international remit and caters for both Pilates teachers and their training. It is non-profit making and offers certification for the discipline as well as a strict code of ethics and standards. Holds a register of accredited Pilates teachers.


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