Pilates 101: Understanding the Basics Before Your First Class

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If you’ve never tried Pilates, there are many compelling reasons to incorporate it into your cross training routine.  Pilates workouts can form the foundation of any fitness routine, by focusing on core strength and stability, and emphasizing smaller stabilizing muscles in the hips and shoulders.  While most people are familiar with Yoga either from personal experience, friends or through popular culture, Pilates is still a mystery to the vast majority of the population.  While some describe it as “yoga with sit-ups” this description doesn’t do it justice.  Here are the basics to get you started before attending your first class.

History and Background

Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates, a German man born in the 1880’s.  He began his life a as a sickly child, and devoted his young life to fitness to overcome his ailments.  By adulthood, he was no longer sickly, and was an avid boxer, gymnast, skier and diver.  One of his first jobs was training Scotland Yard officers in self defense in England.  Caught up in an internment camp in WWI, Joseph developed a fitness training regimen for other prisoners and hospital patients using various props, including springs and lifts from hospital beds.  After the war, he continued to refine his fitness regimen, and his workouts eventually became the go to methods used by dancers around the world, including the entire NYC Ballet in the 1920’s and 30’s.

From humble origins in internment camps with invalids, to elite dancers, Pilates is meant to form the foundation for all around fitness and body stability, regardless of an individuals level of health.  As many of the exercises were developed in hospital beds, it is a great routine for even the most inexperienced that can be leveled up to challenge even the fittest athlete.

Workout Focus

Pilates workouts can be designed to work every muscle in the body, but as a whole it focuses on toning muscles rather than building bulk.  For that reason, it’s become more popular with dancers who wish to be strong, stable and flexible without changing much about their overall shape.

Full and complete breaths to promote the circulation of oxygenated blood is a big part of the workout, and throughout the class instructors will cue breathing, asking students to expand their rib cages or use their deep abdominal and pelvic floor to exhale fully.

Every exercise begins with abdominal engagement and spinal alignment, even when the specific movement seems to be targeting extremities such as arms and legs.  That core stability focus helps athletes in other fitness fields to consciously keep abdominal engagement throughout their workouts and competitions even when off the mat. 

Many athletes, including professional basketball players and football players, have begun adding Pilates to their workout regimen.  Trainers specifically adapt exercises to the needs of these elite athletes, and as one trainer for NFL athletes notes, “People look at Pilates as sort of a girls’ exercise, [but] you can ask one of those men I worked with . . . how much we kicked their butts. They were shaking, they were sweating, they were uncomfortable. And then afterwards they felt calm, relaxed, loose.”  Trainers for elite athletes focus on, “creating a natural muscle balance, where he has the appropriate length and strength of each muscle on opposing forces.”

Types of Pilates Classes

Mat Classes 

These classes require limited equipment, and are easy to preform at home to workout videos.  They’re a great place to start for beginners who want to get to know the basics of Pilates without a huge learning curve.  Classes start out with breathing exercises to engage the core and diaphragm, and that engagement is stressed as participants work through various forms of core exercises including at least 5 different forms of sit-ups targeting different groups within the abdominal.  Planks, side planks, and balances help to round out the core work, before moving onto hip stability work including leg lifts, bridges and various glute exercises.  The arms tend to get less focus in mat work, but are touched upon a few times with exercises like tricep dips and various forms of push-ups.

Reformer Classes

These classes are often taught in private or in small groups because they require complicated and expensive equipment.  A “reformer” is a piece of fitness equipment that has a movable carriage on rails that the participant sits, stands of lays on to provide weight resistance while the carriage is moved against the resistance of springs.  Straps and pulleys distribute the weight, and allow for a full body workout that in some ways is a bit similar to a Bowflex machine with the ability to pull or push against resistance in just about any plane.  Reformer workouts are much better at targeting arms and legs, but also help work on dynamic core stability as the carriage moves.

Other Equipment 

If you get further along in your Pilates journey, or go to a physical therapy clinic that is Pilates based, you may encounter all manner of other Pilates equipment that’s used for private instruction or to target specific issues. 

Author: Ashley Hetrick

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