Pilates 101

“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.

Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”
– Joseph Pilates

Spontaneous zest and pleasure…how can you not love that?

Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates at age 60

History of Pilates

Pilates (pih-LAH-teez) is named for its creator, Joseph Pilates (1880-1967). Joe, a German, was a boxer and circus performer working in England when World War 1 broke out. Along with the other German citizens who were in England at that time he spent the years of the war in internment camps. It was here that he had the time to really develop his method.

In the 1920’s Joe moved to New York City, meeting his future wife Clara on the boat on the way over.  He called his method of exercise Controlology. And control is at the core (sorry, can’t help myself) of the method. The original Pilates repertoire was the mat repertoire. But Joseph also designed innovative resistance equipment, among them perhaps the first piece of home gym equipment, the Wunda Chair. Pilates equipment uses springs to provide progressive resistance (the more you pull on that spring the harder it gets). Those springs help you tap into your inner elasticity. And that inner elasticity, the two-way stretch, suspension through opposition, bio-tensegrity, call it what you will, but that’s the real magic of Pilates. It feels great and it’s great for you.

Pilates isn’t about how much or how many. It’s about how.

Let’s set some things straight. Pilates isn’t just for ballerinas. Yes, Joe had many clients that were dancers, and most of the first generation teachers were dancers, arguably because of dance Pilates is still around, but Joe also trained boxers, hockey players, and non-athletes. There’s nothing dance specific about the method. Pilates is not stretching (but it is in there). Pilates is not yoga. Pilates is not rehab, although it’s easily modifiable to be suitable for almost anybody and it’s used often in physical therapy and for post-rehab training. It’s not only core training, although it’s certainly about moving from your core. And it’s decidedly not just for girls (in fact, Joseph developed his method for men and is turning over in his grave at the thought that some people think Pilates is girly!).

Pilates is about how your body works, not how it looks (looking good is just a great additional benefit!). Pilates is whole body resistance training. It’s about a strong and flexible spine. It’s about strengthening the deep muscles (those closest to your bones) to build healthy joints (it’s often recommended after knee, hip and shoulder surgery for this reason). But it also works the bigger muscles – muscles like your glutes and lats will not be ignored during your lesson. And yes, it’s about core strength.

Core strength is a term that’s popular these days, but Pilates isn’t about Abercrombie 6-packs. Abdominal strength is only part of core strength (and those 6-packs are only the muscles on top, there’s a lot more going on in there). To truly have core strength you also need strong and flexible muscles in your back. You only have 8 abdominal muscles but you have a vast network of small muscles that support the more than 100 joints in your spine. And your deepest core muscle is neither an abdominal muscle nor a back muscle, it’s the human tenderloin, your psoas (SO-az) that connects your low back to your thigh bone. Pilates is designed to awaken and strengthen these core muscles.

And it’s not just the Pilates exercises and equipment that are different than standard weight training. In Pilates you’ll do a few repetitions (sometimes as few as three, never more than 10) and usually only one set. The Pilates philosophy is that bringing all your focus to doing the very best you can on a few repetitions is worth more than mindlessly slogging through multiple sets. Resting between exercises? Oh no, I don’t think so. There’s a flow to Pilates. One exercise right into the next. You get “rest” because you move the focus to a different body part, or because you use your muscles differently, for instance from a stabilization exercise to a mobilization exercise.

The most common comment I hear from new Pilates students is “wow, that takes a lot of concentration”. It truly is mind-body exercise. There’s no such thing as sloppy form in Pilates, there’s a lot to keep track of (oh! abs in, I forgot!). And we tap into the power of imagination. The awareness you will build about your body – how it feels, how to make it do what you want – will translate not just to your Pilates practice but to your life.

While Pilates is certainly exercise, there’s no grunting or straining. Effortless effort is the goal. Pilates is work, to be sure, but it’s not work that requires a cheerleader. I will not be cajoling or berating you into doing two more reps. “C’MON! YOU CAN DO IT! DON’T QUIT NOW!” Instead, I’ll encourage you to get taller, longer, to create more space in your body. I may even ask you to slow down. To explore what feels better. How can you make this movement easier? Wait. Easier? What? Don’t you want things to be easier? Picking up the laundry basket. Balancing your groceries in one hand while opening the door with the other. Hell, getting out of bed in the morning. Remember what Joe said?:naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”