Why Pilates?

How Does Pilates Work?

Pilates was introduced by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century. He developed this method of exercising that was way ahead of its time and his aim was, "To develop the body uniformly, correct bad posture, restore vitality, invigorate the mind and elevate the spirit."

Pilates will give you suppleness at the same time as developing muscle strength and stamina. One of the key elements that distinguishes Pilates from other forms of exercise is that it uniformly develops all our muscles, whereas most sports develop one particular set of muscles. The minor muscles help support the major muscles, which in turn help the body perform at maximum efficiency with minimum work. Bulging muscles hinder flexibility.  Flexibility can only be achieved if all the muscles, big and small, are uniformly developed.

Pilates makes you more in tune with your body so that you become aware of how to perform everyday tasks in a way that both protects and enhances your body.
Pilates is good for everybody, regardless of age, level of fitness or if restricted by injury, as the exercises can be adapted to suit each individual body.

With regular Pilates you will develop:

  • A toned body with improved strength and stamina
  • A strong core; your body strength then comes from the deeper, supporting muscles, thus reducing the risk of injury
  • Increased flexibility
  • Greater joint mobility
  • A strong spine to help prevent back problems  
  • Ways to manage and reduce existing chronic back pain
  • Improved posture
  • Improved balance and co-ordination; useful for sport and everyday life
  • Breathing techniques, giving improved sports performance and improving lung function for those with breathing problems such as asthma
  • A boosted immune system
  • An improved ability to relax and concentrate
  • An increased sense of well-being

 

The Principles of Pilates:

  • Posture & Alignment
  • Core Strength & Core Stability
  • Flexibility & Ease of Movement
  • Balance & Co-Ordination
  • Breathing
  • Stamina
  • Relaxation of both Body & Mind
  • Concentration & Focus

 

Who was Joseph Pilates?

Joseph Pilates was born in Austria in 1880. He was a very sickly child, suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. However, his mother believed in exercise, fresh air and a healthy diet and so Joseph was brought up with this philosophy. Despite the fact that his doctors didn't expect him to live beyond childhood, he kept fit and strong throughout his life. He sadly died of smoke inhalation after his studio went up in flames at the age of 87.

Joseph Pilates believed that modern life-style, bad posture and inefficient breathing were the causes of poor health. In an effort to overcome his childhood weaknesses he studied the movement of animals as well as different exercise disciplines such as yoga, gymnastics, skiing, self-defence, dance, circus training, weight training and boxing. One can see elements of all these in the Pilates exercises taught today.

Joseph Pilates moved to England in 1912 and earned a living as a professional boxer and even taught self-defence to the Police at Scotland Yard. Being Austrian, when the First World War broke out he was interned on the Isle of Man where he continued to practise and teach his methods of exercise to the other internees. It is said that they emerged stronger after the war than they had been before. He came up with the idea of building a framework above the hospital beds and suspending springs which he used to rehabilitate injured limbs. This is how the Cadillac was born, now an integral piece of equipment in any Pilates Studio.

After a brief return to his native country, Pilates emigrated to the United States in 1925. On the voyage over he met his future wife, Clara, and together they founded the first Pilates Studio in New York. The Pilates method was then known as "Contrology", derived from "the use of the mind to control the muscles". The focus of Contrology was on the core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and provide support to the spine.

 

Posture and Alignment

Posture is fundamental in Pilates. Good posture (alignment), is more than just about standing upright, it is about how we use our bodies in all our everyday tasks; sitting at the computer, lifting heavy objects, gardening, pushing children in buggies etc.

Some Factors Affecting Posture:

  • Hereditary Factors such as scoliosis of the spine
  • Fashion: Wearing high heels encourages bad posture and back ache
  • Carrying heavy bags or lifting heavy objects: It is vital to adopt good posture to avoid back strain
  • Height: Tall people often stoop
  • Depression or Grief: People close their bodies inwards and often stoop slightly
  • Environmental Factors: Cold weather causes shoulders to tense and we stoop in order to preserve body heat
  • Illness and Disease: Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's can all have a detrimental effect on posture
  • Occupation: Labouring, sitting at computers, long distance driving and many other occupations can adversely affect our posture
  • Injuries: Most injuries adversely affect our posture


All of the above can be helped, if not solved, with the correct Pilates advice. (Massage also has wonderful benefits especially if combined with Pilates)

 

Pressure on the Spine

An interesting experiment has been carried out where fine pressure sensitive needles were inserted into the spinal discs of volunteers, which demonstrated how different postures affected the spine.

Least pressure - Lying on your back

3 x pressure - Lying on your side or standing in good posture

5 x pressure - Sitting upright in good posture

9 x pressure - Standing in bad posture or bending forward

10 x pressure - Sitting in bad posture 

Conclusion: 

Pressure on the discs is higher when sitting rather than standing. Lying on your back gives the least amount of pressure through the discs.

NB: See Tutorials on Posture in Standing, Sitting and Lying.

To achieve good posture and alignment you need to understand how muscles work.

 

How Muscles Work

  • If all the muscles were stripped away from our skeleton we would collapse in a heap of bones. The bones of the skeleton provide the surfaces to which the muscles are attached but it is the muscles that provide form and movement to the body and help keep the joints in good alignment
  • A joint is where two bones meet and is the point at which movement occurs
  • When a joint is in 'neutral' the bones come together in such a way that there aren't any shearing forces around the joint and the muscles either side of the joint are in equal and opposite tension
  • Muscles work in groups surrounding the joints. Within this framework each one has a different role; when one muscle shortens its opposite lengthens. A different muscle works with the finer control of the movement and yet another stabilises the joint while the movement occurs
  • The big superficial muscles that we tend to focus on strengthening in the gym, e.g. biceps and quads (thighs), are known as mobilising muscles. They are designed to work hard for short periods of time and then tire easily. Core or stabilising muscles work at less intensity but don't tire so quickly, therefore they can work longer and are known as endurance muscles.
  • If we don't engage our stabilising or core muscles the mobilising muscles do all the work and that is when we are likely to injure ourselves
  • Pilates focuses on strengthening the core stabilising muscles equally with the mobilising (movement) muscles. This helps prevent muscle fatigue and thereby reduces the risk of injury


Soldiers are constantly reminded to "stand up straight, head up, shoulders back". No soldier who stooped could survive a long march and it has been noticed that the majority of survivors of the Death Marches in the Second WW were those who forced themselves upright, transferring their posture to the endurance muscles, within the core of the body and taking the strain off the superficial muscles. A soldier's chores such as mending, scrubbing, digging etc, are known as 'fatigues' as they mainly involve the superficial muscles which tire more easily.
 

The difference between Muscle Tone and Muscle Tension

Muscles should have a degree of tension but in a toned not stressful way. Muscles located either side of the joints work in pairs and for a joint to be in 'neutral' the tone needs to be the same on both sides. Imagine you are sitting on the floor! It is quite hard to stay upright for long without feeling tired. If, however, you are leaning back to back with someone else, with equal and opposite tension, you can both stay there for quite some time without any strain.

Muscles need the nervous system to maintain tone as without it the body becomes heavy and 'deadweight'. This term refers to moving a dead or paralysed body.

A sleeping child seems extra heavy to carry while the same child, when awake, seems lighter because the muscles are alive and active. People who have been bedridden for long periods find it difficult to walk as their muscles are unfit, even though the bones haven't changed. Hence the body feels 'heavier' until the muscle tone builds up again and movement becomes easier.

Muscle tension, in the commonly used sense of the word, is when a muscle has been overused or has remained in a shortened position for too long and microscopic damage occurs within the muscle fibres. The muscles feels 'knotty' and tight. Pilates stretching and remedial massage can help release and repair the muscle.

 

Core Stability

What is our Core?

Imagine a sturdy oak tree which has its trunk cut across to reveal the concentric rings. If those central rings were removed and the tree put back together again, it would look the same from the outside but would, in fact, be much more prone to being blown down than when it had its 'core'. Replace the rings and the oak tree is strong once more from the inside out and ready to face the next few hundred years!

The main 'core muscles' that you need to focus on are the transverse abdominal muscle and the pelvic floor muscles.

Our core muscles are the ones that stabilise the joints around the pelvis and shoulder girdle (shoulder socket, shoulder blades and collar bones). If we don't know how to engage them we tend to use the larger muscles which then tire easily and become prone to injury.

 

Flexibility

  • Joseph Pilates commented that, "You are as healthy and old as your spine. Would you rather be a 20 year old with a stiff spine or an 80 year old with a flexible spine?"
  • A fit and healthy body is one that balances strength with flexibility
  • It is very easy to focus on getting strong and toned ('fit'), but the body feels so much healthier if you move with fluidity and ease; this comes with flexibility
  • Professional athletes may be very 'fit' but they also tend to have lots of injuries usually caused by pushing themselves beyond the normal levels of endurance. Pilates aims to avoid this

 

Balance & Co-Ordination

In sport and life in general, balance and co-ordination are useful skills to maintain. As children we take our balance for granted but it tends to diminish with age unless we specifically work to maintain or improve it.

Pilates incorporates specific exercises to enhance our balance and co-ordination and using the core correctly plays a major role in maintaining poise and balance.

 

Breathing

Breath is both an involuntary action but can also be controlled voluntarily. Our lungs are protected by our ribcage and as we breathe in our ribcage expands and then retracts as we breathe out.

So often we only breathe into the upper part of our lungs, therefore only getting a reduced amount of oxygen into our body. The ribcage barely moves but the upper chest expands and our shoulders rise to our ears.

For the body to function more efficiently we need to take full breaths but still in a relaxed way. If we focus on drawing our breath in towards the base of our ribcage, our shoulders stay relaxed and we require less breaths per minute, while increasing our oxygen intake. This is what is meant by 'lateral breathing', a term commonly used in Pilates.

When you are new to Pilates the lateral breath can be hard to co-ordinate with the exercises but it soon becomes second nature and you will gain an extra vitality. Asthma sufferers report that lateral breathing helps them enormously. Sport is also enhanced and we get less breathless when utilising the lateral breath.

 

Stamina

If we combine all the elements of Pilates our bodies work in a way that is strong, flexible and balanced. This increases the body's stamina to allow us to accomplish more without any extra effort. 

Pilates increases muscle strength and tone which in turn improves our stamina.

 

Relaxation & Concentration

  • Pilates exercises are very specific. Sometimes a minor adjustment makes a huge difference to the benefit gained. While practising Pilates you keep totally focused which prevents the mind from whirring from one subject to another. Pilates encourages exercises to be carried out in a way that is flowing and free of tension. This feels great to do and by the end of a session you feel much calmer in both mind and body
  • The 'Relaxation Position' gives you the chance to focus on your body, calm the mind and release tension in the body
  • Pilates teaches you to be aware of tension in the body and how to release it
  • Pilates exercises in a way that can be dynamic but never rushed and it relaxes at the same time as invigorating you
  • Pilates often works slowly and at a deep level requiring concentration. While you don't have the time to think of anything else it calms the mind as well as working the body
  • A Pilates session is precious time to yourself and can give the same benefit as meditation.