With names like “the Spine Twist,” “the Saw,” and “the Jack Knife,” Pilates may sound more like a method of medieval torture than an exercise system designed to improve body awareness, muscle function, flexibility, and posture. As a German national in Britain, Joseph Pilates was sent to an internment camp during World War I. It is here that he developed his fitness techniques as he worked to rehabilitate his injured fellow internees. Towards the end of the war, he was freed from the camp and served in a hospital with patients who had lower body injuries. During this period of his life, Pilates studied human anatomy which helped to refine his skills as both a rehabilitator and fitness trainer. After the war he moved to New York and opened a successful gym where he and his wife developed the system known as Contrology. Contrology would develop over the life of Joseph Pilates, and after his death began to be called the Pilates Method (Pilates Foundation, The History of Pilates, https://www.pilatesfoundation.com/pilates/the-history-of-pilates/).

The Pilates Method employs movements which originate from six core principles. When combined, they encourage the synergistic use of the mind, body, and spirit to aid in the development of a healthier overall existence. The concept is meant to reach into the performer attempting to encourage a synergy between brain and body. Fear not though, these six principles blend together seamlessly, making Pilates an ideal addition to any exercise routine for those seeking a healthy and balanced body. For those not into the Pilates system, the ideology of the six principles can be a healthy supplement to any form of exercise or the activities of daily living. To better understand the system, we must look into the six principles.


1. Breath

Necessary for the survival of all of our cells, oxygen is one of the life-forces that fuel our bodies. As exercise intensity increases, the heart pumps faster and the body requires higher levels of oxygen; hence, the feeling of being out-of-breath during moments of rigorous training. Joseph Pilates once said, “Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying and dead germs as well as supplying an ideal haven for the multiplication of other harmful germs” (Joseph Pilates, Return to Life). Pilates encourages control and regulation of breath to aid in a higher level of performance.


2. Concentration

Distractions from our jobs, families, and our beloved electronic devices are all around us. These are exercise obstacles which easily detach us from achieving the focus necessary to fire on all cylinders and reach our full potential. When you enter a Pilates studio, leave your belongings and their accompanying stresses behind. As class begins, guide your focus to the direction of the muscle contractions which are moving your body, the pattern of breath throughout each movement, and your body working as one cohesive unit. Concentration during exercise has been lost over the years, and without it we put ourselves at risk of improper form, incorrect exercise performance, and increased risk of injury. Pay attention not only to the movements, but also to the desired result.


3. Center

The body’s center of gravity is the single point about which every particle of mass is equally distributed (Isacowitz & Clippinger, Pilates Anatomy). This center of gravity, otherwise known as the powerhouse, is where Pilates movements originate. Proper activation of this center results in movements which are balanced and graceful. Think about the solar system, with the sun at the center radiating energy and power to all of the planets in orbit. The planets orbit the sun and rotate on their axes with a heavenly character. With proper performance, the power emanating from the center of the body can be directed equally to all of the extremities allowing motions involving both the arms and legs to be performed with swan-like elegance.


4. Control

The ability to direct ones muscles to perform a certain movement defines how beneficial the movement will be for the performer. As an example, we look at one of the most popular pieces of Pilates equipment, the Pilates Reformer. The first time a person uses the Reformer, their movements may be awkward and forced; but after only a few sessions, the body becomes used to the movements. As you progress in ability, the amount of effort needed to keep correct posture during movement is minimalized. At this point, greater concentration can be applied to the specifics of each movement, breathing technique, and the flow of the exercise.


5. Precision

Joseph Pilates once said, “A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion.” Pilates produces motions which are designed to lengthen and strengthen the muscle and condition the connective tissue to become more elastic, all while maintaining proper skeletal alignment. This means that risk of injury is minimal compared with other forms of exercise, and Pilates programs can be a legitimate long-term exercise routine.


6. Flow

Perhaps one of the most neglected manners in exercise is a smooth, even flow of movement. Pilates movements are meant to fit together seamlessly. One motion flows into the next as the entire body of the performer works together in harmony. Energy and power radiate from the body’s center in all directions equally, resulting in a balanced, powerful, and elegant flow of motion.

According to Sung Kyung Kim of Healing Pilates in Daegu, South Korea, many of her clients come to her studio with recommendation from their doctor. Some have postural issues, others have joint pain; but in many cases the root cause of these problems is structural misalignment and weak postural muscles. Clients at Healing Pilates typically start out with a ten session package, come in two or three times a week, and the majority renew upon completion of their sessions. The Pilates instructor is essential to the experience. Pilates can be done at home, with a mat, some simple equipment, and an instructional video; but this method lacks the benefit of studio classes. The role of the instructor is not only to lead the class, but also to give posture, motion, and breathing corrections as participants are learning the movements. For this reason, Ms. Kim recommends a one-on-one class for beginners while they advance their skills and learn to control their bodies.

To find out if Pilates is right for you, first determine your exercise goals; then assess your needs based on these goals. If your goal is full-body realignment, lengthening and strengthening your muscles, and improving control of your motor functions, then Pilates alone may be the answer. Everyone has different fitness goals, and the program you chose should be tailored to ensure your needs are met. If your objective is weight loss, then a cardiovascular regimen is required. Supplementing with Pilates will help to align the body so the cardiovascular exercise is undertaken more efficiently. A competitive bodybuilder aspires to develop both the size and symmetry of their muscles. Hard, heavy weight lifting will build the bulky and sometimes asymmetrical muscle (which tends to be more injury prone), and the addition of a Pilates routine can help to lengthen the muscles and decrease stress on the connective tissue, reducing the risk of injury.

According to Maureen Nemmer and Marina Good at Club Pilates in Highland Park, IL, the proper apparel does matter. You should wear form-fitting clothing so your posture is easily visible during each movement, allowing the instructor to provide corrections. Also needed is a pair of grip socks as Pilates is performed without shoes and many of the movements will be in positions where the exerciser may slip or slide.

As with the onset of any exercise program you should consult your physician before beginning a Pilates routine and ask about any contraindications due to preexisting conditions or medications. Many Pilates movements are performed while laying on your back, so pregnant women in their second and third trimesters should avoid these moves, or find an alternative to Pilates for this time. Pilates can be used to help with rehabilitation of an injury to almost any joint on the body; just remember to be aware of your limitations due to any current or previous injuries. Breath deep, relax, and hit the Spine Twist with full force.


Pilates Moves

The Pilates 100

The Pilates 100 is a great way to begin your workout. It increases circulation throughout the body, works on stabilization of your trunk and core, enhances your lung capacity and cardiovascular endurance, and helps to develop proper breathing technique.

Lie on your back, bend your legs at the knee, and bring your knees up to your chest. Then extend your legs straight forward at a 45 degree angle with your arms along your sides and your palms resting on the floor. Raise your head and shoulders off the ground, engage your abdominal muscles to keep your body in place, and lift your hands and arms a few inches off the ground. The exercise begins here with a pumping motion, your arms moving only a few inches up and down with energy radiating from your activated core. Breathe in for 5 pumps, and breathe out for 5 pumps. Repeat this 10 times to reach 100 repetitions.


Leg Circles

Leg Circles are a beginner level move on the Pilates Reformer, but performing this movement in a fluid pattern is more difficult than it seems on first glance.  This exercise will strengthen and stretch the hip flexors, hip extensor (those glute muscles that we love to work), and the muscles of your pelvic floor. This group of muscles greatly influences posture and strengthening them will have a positive effect on the entire body.

On the Pilates Reformer, lie on your back, bring your knees to your chest,  grab the long straps and slide your feet through, placing the straps on the arch on the bottom of your feet. With straight knees, raise your feet towards the sky so that your legs are perpendicular to the ground. With your arms down by your sides, your heels touching each other, and your feet externally rotated, slowly rotate your legs outward from the hips, sweeping your legs open and inhaling. As your legs make a half-circle and are extended in front of you at a 45 degree angle, begin to inhale and complete the full circle by bringing your legs towards the midline of your body and back up to a position perpendicular to the ground.


The Shoulder Bridge

The Shoulder Bridge is an exercise designed to strengthen the core musculature as well as the hamstrings. The hamstrings are the muscle group on the posterior thigh between the hip and knee, and are used in the daily activities of walking, running, and jumping. They are the main muscle group used to decelerate knee extension (slowing down and stopping from a run), and are quite susceptible to injury, which makes them important muscles to stretch and strengthen.

Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and your arms along your sides with your palms resting on the floor.  Push your feet into the ground and raise your hips off the floor creating a bridge between your shoulder blades and feet.  Extend your right leg and kick it towards the ceiling until it is perpendicular with the floor, then bring it back down to the level of your left knee and even with your body’s bridge. Breathe in while your leg is kicking towards the ceiling, and out as you lower your leg to the starting position.

Ali Othman has been an NSCA certified personal trainer for the past 13 years with specialization in weight loss, functional training, muscular hypertrophy, and human nutrition. He also works in the Technical Department at IFANCA and manages IFANCA business activities in South Korea.