Lured by the promise of stronger, leaner muscles toned and stretched to the perfection of a dancer, I booked a Pilates training session and was surprised by what I discovered. Celebrities tout the benefits—citing everything from sculpting a longer, leaner, lighter body to developing strength and boosting energy—and scores of professional athletes now incorporate Pilates training into their regimen to help improve posture, balance, coordination and core strength. And while I found that Pilates can, and does, offer these benefits, it is much more than just a quick fitness fix recently taken up by the Hollywood elite. It is a method that builds upon itself and involves hundreds of specific exercises, with just as many variations.
The Pilates method was developed originally in the early 1900s by German-born Joseph Pilates who set up his first studio in New York City after immigrating to America in 1926. It quickly became the secret workout of leading dancers in New York, a fact that has led to the common misconception that Pilates was developed strictly for dancers. Joseph Pilates was not a dancer himself, but was a gymnast, skier, diver and boxer who suffered from asthma and rickets as a child in Germany and developed his method as a way to strengthen his frail body.
“One of the biggest myths about Pilates is that you have to be strong in order to do it,” says Marian English, a Pilates instructor in her sixth year of teaching in the Valley. Pilates is a low-impact exercise. Anybody can do it and feel immediate results. “I have a lot of clients in their 50s and 60s,” adds English, “and you can be 80 years old and still do it.”
Lisa Jenner, who is certified in the STOTT™ Pilates method (one of the variations on the original exercise regime), agrees that age does not matter, nor does experience or physical ability. “You may come in with one leg longer than the other, or you may come in with just one leg,” she says. “It doesn’t matter, because Pilates will make you strong in the body you have.”
Most beginners in an individual session will start on the universal transformer—a long sliding bed built into a wooden frame that uses springs and sliding pulleys to help facilitate careful, controlled movements. Other exercise aids include the trapeze table, various chairs (the Wunda chair, and high-back chair), barrels (including the ladder barrel, half barrel and spine corrector), the Ped-O-Pul, foot corrector, toe corrector, magic circles, bean bag and pinwheel.
Most Pilates equipment is not very different today from what it was in the 1920s—spring tension, straps to hold the feet or hands, and supports for the back, neck and shoulder—and all the equipment is designed to both challenge and support the body.
Surprisingly, a tighter spring or higher tension does not necessarily equate to a more strenuous workout. Often, working through an exercise with no spring tension at all is the most challenging because it requires complete muscle control and precision to manage the sliding carriage.
All the equipment is designed to resist your movement just enough to force those smaller inner muscles to work against it (the ones you didn’t know you had, the ones that don’t usually do the work). Because of this, Pilates takes a tremendous amount of concentration. You have to think about each movement. You are working precise muscle groups with the goal of performing each exercise slowly and smoothly. It requires concentration, control and effort to get the movement correct.
“In Pilates, we are isolating specific muscle areas and ‘supporting’ from the core rather than ‘working’ from the core,” says Kay Marron, who has both practiced and taught Pilates in California and the Valley over the last 17 years.
“You can’t just power through Pilates,” agrees Olympia Nuttal of Innerflow Movement Studio in Ketchum. “You need to listen to and respond to your body to get the benefits.”
Because your mind is required to engage with your body to perform the movements correctly, Pilates truly is a mind-body exercise technique similar to yoga or tai chi.
There are more than 500 Pilates exercises using the equipment, hundreds more mat exercises, and just as many modifications for each.
Pilates can’t claim any cardiovascular conditioning, but it can increase lung capacity and endurance through breathing techniques and core strength. It helps improve posture, balance and coordination, and lengthens muscles without building bulk or stressing joints. And based on recent research and the developing body of medical knowledge supporting the benefits of core strength—which boosts energy, increases blood flow, and helps in resisting injury and disease—sculpting a longer, leaner body might just be a nice side benefit.