Nadia Wallace’s reply to one guy: What is pilates, btw?

I recently had a brief, lively chat with a prospective client. Part of our conversation may be interesting for you. (His name and a couple of details have been changed to preserve anonymity.)

This gentleman, let’s call him “David,” has had a good experience with a personal trainer over the last 6 months. He’s in his late-30s, has full days at work, likes to be active, and has no injuries. David happily reports that he’s lost a significant amount of weight through healthy diet and exercise over these last months. But he hasn’t quite accomplished all of his goals for his body, through his workouts. He’s not entirely sure what’s missing, and his search for that missing piece led him to call me. David has heard of Pilates, and wanted to explore whether some Pilates personal training sessions might be an even better basic component of his fitness plan.

A couple of emails later, David popped the question. What is Pilates, btw? Here is my reply, an overview to be sure:

Pilates is a method of exercise originally invented for soldiers, police officers, and firefighters. Later, dancers, performers and athletes discovered the benefits of Joseph Pilates’ method. The Pilates method consists of a wide range of exercises that can be used very effectively, either to focus on one joint or body part in need, or to create whole body challenges, or both. Pilates exercises can be performed anywhere on a mat or a rug, or using specialized equipment. In Pilates, we start with the inner-most muscles of the torso and work our way out. Then we work our way back in again!
Today, many elite athletes make Pilates a fundamental part of their training programs. It is widely recognized as the peerless method for abdominal toning and strengthening. Pilates is also widely practiced by people graduating from physical therapy, women seeking support through the body changes of pregnancy and childbirth, and all sorts of men and women seeking greater resilience in their bodies. Pilates is a great foundation for healthy movement for every body.

The Pilates method of exercise has had a profound influence on the fields of physical therapy and rehabilitation. Most modern physical therapy exercises are Pilates exercises. The exercises are varied and highly adaptable. People recovering from illness, injury or surgery can achieve targeted results safely. I have seen in my own teaching work how even those recovering from grievous illness can began their journey back to strength safely and very productively with Pilates. Pilates is a fantastic method of exercise for just about anyone, in every physical condition.
I guess Pilates is, at bottom, a form of strength training. But it is unique, different from all other types of strength training that you have seen or felt. Pilates improves the whole body’s resilience by operating on several levels at once. Some people find that it has a deep calming, even meditative effect. Through Pilates, we awaken the brain to muscle connections. We connect mindfully with our bodies through our breath and our movement. And we tend to the body’s alignment, while increasing range of motion, strength, and flexibility. This Pilates is powerful stuff.

– We train the whole body, beginning with the deepest core muscles. We begin with the “core,” the deep abdominal muscles that support and move the spine and pelvis. Pilates is sometimes loosely called “core strength training” for this focus. Yes, your stomach will be flatter and a whole lot sexier. It will also support your spine better. In Pilates, we wake up and strengthen the very muscles that many adults have forgotten. Then we connect that deep strength out, through movement of the limbs, and ultimately through movement of the whole body.

– For resistance, we use springs and the body’s own weight. Your muscles will work while contracting (shortening), and also while lengthening back out (eccentric contraction). If we’re working your bicep with a curl type of exercise, for example, we’re working it both coming and going. We also train the muscles isometrically. There is no resting in Pilates, and no use of momentum to propel you along. It’s a controlled press up, and a controlled lowering back down. This makes Pilates super efficient, strengthening and lengthening.

– We tend to your body’s alignment as you move. Pelvis over knees, over ankles. Ribcage right over pelvis. Our attention to healthy alignment allows you to find your full range of motion safely in all joints. We strengthen the right muscles and tissues to support each joint so it bends in the most stable, supported way. Rather than aching slightly the morning after your workout (or worse), your joints have a new fluidity and comfort after a good Pilates session. Have you ever had that sense of floating down the street after a fabulous massage? There is a sense of lightness too after Pilates, well-performed.

– We free the diaphragm and ribcage through our breath. For many adults, rigidity in the chest area and thoracic spine creates issues along the kinetic chain, above and below. Our daily breathing is often more shallow, not permitting the diaphragm its full wave-like motion. When the ribcage, thoracic spine, and diaphragm begin to move again with deeper Pilates breathing, you feel benefits throughout the spine, shoulders, chest, indeed the whole body. The breath, one of the deepest rhythms of the body, provides a tempo and a pleasing flow for your workout.
So, David, that is my brief take on why Pilates is recognized as an exceptional form of whole body training. I hope it is helpful. A regular Pilates practice undoubtedly will prepare the body for many different movement challenges, and will increase overall body resilience.
Here are a couple of links in case you’re curious to read more about Pilates from someone other than me (see below). Thank you for asking a great question, and for your interest in practicing Pilates with me!

Summer Olympics 2012 — athletes who train with Pilates article