Treadmills, stair steppers, elliptical trainers… They leave you sweating and give your heart a great workout, but if you want to reshape your body, you’re going to have to work out a little smarter. Let’s face it: sometimes we all need to zone out on a stationary bike with headphones and a magazine, but experts say the most effective workouts engage the mind, as well as the body.
Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez), a classic mind-body workout created in the 1920′s by legendary physical trainer Joseph Pilates and since adopted by dancers, may be the ideal antidote to a tired fitness routine. This method of body conditioning involves stretching and strengthening exercises done on mats and specially designed exercise apparatus.
Even for beginners in great shape, the first Pilates mat class can be a humbling experience. Clare Dunphy, 36, now a certified Pilates instructor, recalls her first class, “I’d been teaching fitness classes for fifteen years, training teachers, and making videos, and I couldn’t believe how little command I had over my body.”
Although I walk and strength train regularly, I found myself struggling in Dunphy’s morning mat class. Cues like “draw abdominals in and up,” “press back into mat,” and “lengthen the neck” seem to make sense on their own, but in concert, they were more than my body could focus on all at once. The moves are not complicated—Dunphy’s demonstrations were simple and graceful—but they require an attention to our bodies that is unfamiliar to most of us. By working the body’s core, including lower back, abdominal and gluteal muscles, the mat exercises challenge areas often neglected by traditional fitness routines.
The machine exercises are even more unfamiliar to many newcomers. Offering resistance and support, the Reformer, Cadillac, Barrel, and Chair (all Pilates machines) are found at most fully-equipped studios. Proper alignment is critical, so machine routines are generally taught one-on-one. From my first exercise on the Cadillac, I could feel how I’d been neglecting a whole dimension of fitness by focusing only on aerobic exercise and weights.
Such renewed body awareness is a vital part of Pilates. For many trainers and students, the lessons are simple: I can change my body with these exercises. And a great workout doesn’t have to hurt.
All Gain, No Pain
Without question, Pilates is a challenging workout, but beginners need not fear injury or excessive stress. The moves are low-impact, and repetitions are few. Over time, they even help correct imbalances created by poor posture and alignment. For this reason, many people actually turn to Pilates for relief from muscular pain.
“Men in particular are drawn in because of back problems,” says Barbara Longo, an instructor based in Wellesley, MA. “Most have muscle tightness they’ve never addressed.”
Longo discovered Pilates after teaching aerobics classes for a decade. “I was tired of the gym grind,” she says. “I wanted to try something new and build strength.” She began working with a Pilates trainer twice a week. “I felt taller and leaner from just a few sessions. In three months, I totally changed my body.” Without altering her healthy diet, she’d lost inches, dropped several sizes, and stopped experiencing hip pain that had troubled her in the past.
After undergoing knee surgery from “doing weights wrong for too long,” Raoul Choos, 34, started working with Longo in January. A few months of twice-weekly sessions gave him relief from chronic back pain and helped strengthen his abdominal muscles. “Crunches can only do so much,” says Choos. “But every exercise in Pilates works your center. I can feel the different compartments of my abdominals now.”
How does body awareness translate into a fitter, more graceful form? “Most people can’t separate their muscle groups unless they’re properly trained,” explains Longo. “They use their hip flexors for abdominal work, or their shoulders to move their arms. But Pilates teaches you to separate movement. That’s why dancers look so poised.”
Improves Athletic Performance
From ballet to golf, the skills gained through Pilates make other activities easier. “In general, Pilates is more applicable to sports than conventional exercise,” says Joan Briebart, president of the Physicalmind Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which certifies and trains instructors. “Banging out miles on an aerobic machine doesn’t train the body to perform any better.”
Specifically, Pilates-based exercises improve athletic performance in several ways, according to Briebart.
In activities from skiing to cycling, people fatigue not because they come to the limits of their aerobic capacity, but because their muscles can’t keep pace. By strengthening the body from the core and building out from there, Pilates improves muscular endurance so people can enjoy activities fully and for longer.
Critical in most sports, this idea is often called “focus” or “visualization.” Swinging for a tennis ball is not just a physical movement, but rather a transfer from a focused mind to the body. As you can’t play tennis without mind/body awareness, you can’t do Pilates while tuning out.
Quite simply, Pilates trains you to know where you are in space. Dancers understand this (where is my weight? how is my body placed?) as do professional golfers. The equestrian community has turned to Pilates for its emphasis on centering. These are not connections you’re going to make on a treadmill or in spinning class. Athletes, professional and recreational, can benefit from a better understanding of body placement.
In many cases, training causes imbalance. Single arm rotation in tennis, for example, or pushing harder on the dominant leg in cycling, can leave some muscles more developed than others. A Pilates trainer can identify these imbalances and help correct them.
As dancers and boxers cross train with Pilates or ballet, other exercisers can benefit from a varied routine. “I’m lucky to play tennis once a week, but I progress, while others at the club who play daily stay at the same level,” says Breibart. Why? By changing your workout, you learn more about your body, and that information can help you improve.
From Movie Stars to Mainstream
Popular with dancers for decades, Pilates also won devotion from celebrities whose careers depend on having a sculpted body. Now athletes are taking notice as more discover that the technique improves performance and helps keep injuries at bay. The trend has been fueled largely by women over 35, but men are becoming more receptive.
The average cost for group mat classes is between $10 and $15, while private machine sessions start around $50 and go up from there, depending on city and instructor. But routines can be done at home with the aid of a book or video (pay careful attention to breathing and form). For the millions of women and men doing Pilates in studios, health clubs, and at home, the fitness payoff is well-worth the investment. “I just wish I’d discovered it earlier,” says one Pilates convert.
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