Pilates studios and classes have been popping up everywhere over the past several years. The cautionary tale here is that Pilates, since it was never trademarked, has become a generic label to slap on any movements using your core (abs, back and glutes) and anything resembling a Pilates apparatus. It can be confusing since, for example, if you’re using a TRX apparatus, no matter what moves you do you’re still doing TRX. So, wouldn’t that apply to Pilates? Meh, not so much.
And, Pilates – what does it even mean? The Pilates Method of exercise and apparatus were created and invented by a guy named Joseph Hubertus Pilates (from here on just Joe). He called his method Contrology, the complete control and coordination of the mind and body, and invented, but unfortunately did not patent, unique equipment using springs for resistance. The exercises, including the Mat or floor work, he created are designed to engage the Pilates Powerhouse, predominately the abdominal muscles as well as pelvic, hip, glutes and back muscles to support the spine. There is even a specific order to the routine to keep us moving in different, sometimes opposing, directions, with the purpose of creating a flexible spine, to strengthen while lengthening the muscles and connective tissues, to put space in the joints, to work in alignment to correct muscle/postural imbalances, protect against injury, and to make us breathe. Each session begins and ends with the abdominals while engaging the entire body. A Pilates workout is a full body workout.
Dubbed “the thinking man’s exercise”, the Classical moves (Classical refers to the exercises that Joe created, as opposed to exercises that have been made up over the years using his equipment designs) are meant to be acutely precise, requiring the practitioner to find the smaller, deeper muscles that don’t get used often enough. Even the beginning exercises are deeply challenging and will change every single body when done consistently.
Because Pilates can feel awkward at first and challenges more traditional forms of movement, it gets watered down. The more watered down it gets, the less you will see the significant, unique changes like a smokin’ hot waistline and a taller, longer, tighter-all-over physique with excellent posture.
Without naming names, many of the places, large, popular franchises as well as boutique studios, pitching Pilates are teaching grotesquely diluted, if even remotely similar, routines. While we can’t give a run-down of all the Classical exercises and evaluate every place that’s telling you they are doing Pilates, there are a few things you should look for and others to avoid when choosing where to learn and practice the Method.
First, Pilates is never, ever, done to the beat of music. One of the Pilates principles is flow of movement and this flow comes from within. There may be music in the background, but it should never dominate the session or class. Your instructor should know the other Pilates principles: breathing, concentration, control, centering and precision. Is the environment you are entering conducive to mastering these principles? The goal is to work up to a good pace while maintaining the integrity of the moves. This will be difficult in a chaotic space.
Second, as stated above, Pilates is always a full body workout. When done properly you will get a butt/leg workout while working the rest of the body. It’s not about “feeling the burn” and a squat is part of a bigger movement. Squats and lunges, for example, are helpful for building the larger muscles but on their own aren’t part of the Classical repertoire. Pilates exercises force you to find a different way to move, recruiting those smaller muscles and strengthening the body from the inside out.
Finally, the Classical Pilates Method, or Contrology, “is not a fatiguing system of dull, boring, abhorred exercises repeated daily ad nauseum” (Joseph Pilates). The practice of executing 3 to 6, sometimes 10, repetitions of a combination of some of the over 200 moves in the repertoire, with deep concentration and accuracy, is how we get the Pilates body. You’ve got to work up to the hard stuff and it takes some dedication. It’s important to build a solid foundation of the basics. It would behoove anyone starting Pilates to take some private, 1 on 1 sessions before going into group classes.
If anyone tells you Classical Pilates is easy, they’re doing it wrong!