Pilates

Pilates uses machines and body movement to improve your core muscles.

There was a time when my day wasn’t complete without a trip to the gym, a brisk walk, a run or a bike ride. I went dancing every weekend, zipped around on rollerblades and even used exercise videos.

But lately, the only exercise I manage to squeeze in is isometrics while carpooling the kids. So I’m a bit reluctant when heading to a Pilates class at the YMCA.

Pilates is more of a workout than the “relaxing” (ha!) yoga classes I sometimes attend. When you’re out of shape, all that yoga pretzeling can kick your butt, even if the calming music and low lighting bring your stress level down a few notches.

Pilates and yoga are similar enough that some teachers meld them together in hybrid classes such as PiYo, which focuses on yoga stretches and postures while using the repetitive resistance moves of Pilates to build core strength, sculpt the body and increase flexibility.

Pilates is touted for building flexibility, muscle strength and endurance in the legs, abs, arms, hips and back. Many professional dancers swear by the training, because of its emphasis on aligning the spine and pelvis, strengthening the core, maximizing breathing and improving coordination and balance. 

"Many dancers do Pilates because they know how great they feel after a Pilates class ... but you do not have to be a dancer at all to take a Pilates class. It is a form of exercise most everyone could benefit from," said Tracy Neal Fischer, who teaches Pilates at Louisville Ballet School.

Pilates classes generally include about one hour of exercises done on a mat. Some teachers incorporate equipment, such as exercise balls or stretch bands. More advanced classes use specially designed machines with names such as “the Reformer” or “the Cadillac.”

No two Pilates instructors are alike in the way they teach their classes, although there are fundamentals you can expect. Most teachers don’t play music — in fact, according to the industry organization Pilates Pro, using music is discouraged if not outright forbidden by some teacher certification programs.

You’ll appreciate the no music thing if you are one of those who finds it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time, while also remembering to keep your shoulders relaxed, abs contracted, breathing controlled and spine in a neutral position.

I’m not kidding about that laundry list of things to remember. There’s a reason Joseph Pilates, who developed the method, described it as the “thinking man’s workout.” To achieve the best results, you are supposed to apply the basic principles of Pilates, which are:

  • Centering. Throughout the class, you will “engage your powerhouse,” which is the group of muscles at the center of your body. This includes muscles of the upper and lower back, abdomen, hips, buttocks and inner thighs.
  • Concentration. Think about the movements. Think about your breathing. Don’t think about what you need to get at the grocery store, or the cute yoga pants that gal on the next mat is wearing.
  • Control and precision. Every exercise uses precise, controlled movements, to help maintain the body’s balance and alignment while increasing range of motion. Ever hear of “Contrology?” That’s what Joseph Pilates called his fitness method.
  • Breath: Coordinating the proper breathing technique with everything else can sometimes be the hardest part.
  • Flow: Although the movements are precise and repetitive, they shouldn’t be mechanical. Once you get the hang of it, you’re supposed to move smoothly, like a cat, with one exercise flowing into the next.

Whether the class you’re taking is on video, in person or online, Pilates moves can look and sound deceptively simple. For instance, you’ll start by pressing your lower back into the floor. This is how the teacher might guide you to this position, which is known as “neutral spine,” or starting position:

Lie on your back with your arms by your sides. Bend your knees, and have your legs and feet parallel to each other, about hip distance apart. Slowly inhale. Exhale slowly and use your abs to press your lower spine into the floor. Now inhale and release. Now, do that again, and this time, you’re also going to tilt the chin down toward the chest. Your head stays on the mat. Exhale to return to the neutral spine position. Inhale to tip the head back a little bit. Exhale to return to the neutral position.

Sounds easy, right? And you haven’t even lifted an arm or leg yet.

The thing I dread in Pilates class is called The Hundreds. Imagine 100 sit-ups. Now jack things up a bit and do them rhythmically, with your arms pulsing as you work to keep your legs up in the air, all the while inhaling and exhaling on command. Imagine your chest is an accordion. Think of squeezing an orange under your chin. Engage! Engage!

I’m not exaggerating.

Don’t get me wrong: A lot of people absolutely love The Hundreds. They probably enjoy “feeling the burn.” (And they also might be intimate with “the runner’s high,” which I maintain is mythical.)

Speaking of mythical, how about that Joseph Pilates? Although his namesake fitness method has exploded in popularity in recent years, he actually began developing it about 100 years ago.

As a youngster, German-born Joseph Pilates seemed an unlikely future fitness guru. He was scrawny, and battled asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. His father, an award-winning gymnast, and his mother, a naturopath, encouraged him to build himself up through total-body workouts such as skiing, body-building and gymnastics.

Apparently, it worked. Pilates became a professional boxer, circus performer and self-defense trainer at Scotland Yard before World War I, when he was sent to a series of British internment camps. While confined, he began refining and teaching his Contrology methods to help other prisoners stay healthy.

After the war, Pilates immigrated to New York City, where he and his wife, Clara, founded their Contrology studio. Clients included Russian-born George Balanchine, who is known as the father of American ballet, and modern-dance legend Martha Graham. Scores of fitness disciples trained at the studio, and helped carry the Pilates Method throughout the world.

Joseph Pilates explained his system in two books, published in 1934 and 1945.

“Contrology is not a fatiguing system of dull, boring, abhorred exercises repeated daily ad-nauseam. Neither does it demand you joining a gymnasium nor the purchasing of expensive apparatus. You may derive all the benefits of Contrology in your own home,” he wrote. “A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion.”

There are no age limits for Pilates — in fact, Joseph Pilates lived by the “you’re only as young as you feel” philosophy.

“If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young,” he wrote. “We retire too early and we die too young. Our prime of life should be in the 70s, and old age should not come until we are almost 100.”

–Mickey Gramig