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After receiving lots of calls for both yoga and pilates lately, it occurs to me that, unless you’ve done it before, a lot of people think of these two forms of exercise are the same. In fact they really are quite different. Many people just don’t really know what Pilates is. Until more recently (last 20 years) it seems to have been shrouded in mystery, living in the shadows. It was whispered or rumoured to be something that professional ballet dancers did, or people with injuries, or gorgeous celebrities with loads of cash and unrealistic/unattainable bodies. Being the clever spark that I am (!!) it occurred to me that there are probably a few likers on my site who don’t know much about Pilates either. In the following series of articles I hope to share with you my knowledge of Pilates, and hope that this assists with your understanding of what it is, how it can benefit you, and how to do it better.
There is a common misconception among those who have never done Pilates that it is easy. I think this may come out of the commonly known fact that Pilates is a safe and gentle form of exercise. Doctors and physios and other health professionals often talk about it with their clients … it’s safe and gentle. Often this is incorrectly translated by the individual as: “easy and doesn’t hurt your muscles”. So…. it’s perfect for the person who wants to look toned and fabulous without actually having to work out. I hate to be the bearer of bad news … I really do, but this “easy”, “doesn’t hurt” is incorrect. Pilates is safe and it is gentle … on your body, on your joints, on your spine – when done properly. However the same principles apply when doing Pilates as any other type of exercise. If you don’t or haven’t done any regular exercise for a long time, then yes, you will be sore. Your muscles will feel like they’ve been used, and you will feel muscles that you never knew you had. The good news is that the muscle soreness will stop over a few weeks as the muscles become stronger and adapt to the physical work you’re placing on them and you will start to feel fabulous!
I have people come to me expecting that after one sessions they will be cured from their [insert painful spot here] forever. Again, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is incorrect. It takes time to learn how to apply the 5 basic principles to everything you do. That includes sitting, standing, exercising, driving your vehicle etc. It takes time to learn how to do something and create a movement habit (good or bad). You may have been doing something the wrong way for 20 years. You can’t undo that bad habit in 1 session. Like everything worth doing, it takes time, commitment and a willingness to listen and learn. Be brave and make a commitment to give it a good nudge. It will be difficult at times. It seems like a lot of remember initially, but I like to say to my clients this: it’s like learning to drive a car. There’s so much to remember .. clutch, break, blinker, side mirror, rear view mirror, watching cars around you, lights, sign posts, pedestrians !! arghh, we all remember that feeling. Pilates is the same: breath, position of pelvis, hips, ribs, relax your shoulders, activate deep abdominals, pelvic floor – GOODNESS GRACIOUS! But with practice it does become second nature and you won’t have to think so hard. All that thinking, all those connections between mind to muscle and movement develops a unique body awareness that will serve you into old age. Once learned, it’s impossible to forget. You’ll catch yourself on the train adjusting your position for good alignment! You will ☺
There are many different schools of Pilates. Not all of us agree with each other. We have a lot of the same or very similar exercises, but with different names. Some exercises are completely different and some are similar but are done utilising different muscles. A little confusing for the layman, but good to know. Different teachers will teach differently, have different cues and different styles of teaching. Some are serious and prefer absolute quiet, some are less serious, but exactly in the performance of each exercise. I suppose the important thing to understand is that each instructor with different training will come at your problem/s a little differently, but with the same outcome in mind!
There are many schools of Pilates. The original method was developed by Mr Joseph Pilates and is known as Classical Pilates (we will learn about the Master in another article). He is the start and the heart of Pilates! Anything not Classical is called Contemporary Pilates. I am not classically trained. What does this mean. I was not taught by Joseph Pilates himself (deceased) nor was I taught by a student of his directly (called an “Elder”) or by a direct student of a student of his. I teach Contemporary Pilates.
The important thing to understand is that we now know more about the body than we have ever before. Amazing leaps into understanding how the body and mind work in conjunction with each other are happening continually. But even so, the original method of Joseph Pilates is still very much at the “core” (excuse the pun) of all other methods, just with the additional knowledge that has come available to us over the last few decades. The classical method (as taught by him) has changed little. Important however is to understand that all Pilates teachers are passionate about Pilates or we would have come gym instructors. So even though we sometimes disagree, each of us strive to keep on top of new developments in the science of human movement.
Schools of Pilates include: Stotts Pilates; BASI Pilates, Fletcher Pilates, Polestar, Body Balance, Pilates Method Alliance and the list goes on and on! We’re all a little different but very much the same.
There is a difference between the Pilates you may learn at the physio and the Pilates you learn at a Pilates Studio. Pilates exercises are often adjusted by Health Professionals such as Osteopaths or Physiotherapists to suit a particular injury or condition. The patient may only do a part of the exercise relevant to what they need and all exercises will be directed to this issue with great care being taken not to exacerbate the current condition. The aim is to either sort out the injury and get everything working well, or teach the client to move around the injury/condition, or to prevent it from becoming worse. This is called Clinical Pilates. It moves slowly in order not to exacerbate the injury/condition and is almost always done in a 1:1 scenario or small group (up to 4 ppl). Some Pilates instructors are also Clinically trained (like myself) to work in this setting, and there are a large number of Osteopaths and Physiotherapists who have also trained in Pilates and use Pilates in the treatment of patients. Larger pilates classes are however not suitable for injured clients or for rehab. The exercises given in a group class are aimed at delivering a balanced and safe workout that a non-injured person would be able to do.
I am a Fully Certified Stott’s Pilates instructor and also completed by Clinical studies through Stotts. I also I hold my Cert IV as an Allied Health Assistant and work alongside Allied Health Professionals such as osteopaths, physios and chiros. As well as teaching locally, I also teach and work with the fabulous Osteopaths at Williamstown Osteopathy. I work with postural and muscular imbalances, and also work right at the end of the line in rehabbing from surgery and recovering from more serious injuries. I come after the doctors, after the rehab clinic at the hospital/specialists, and after or under the supervision of the osteos. I also hold my Cert IV in Fitness and although not registered (yet) am trained as a Personal and Group Trainer. PT has become a more recent love of mine as I get more and more athletes coming in to improve their performance using the Pilates method. And it has been an enormous help in understanding the difference between endurance, stamina, strength and power.
Originally developed by the late Joseph Pilates, it is a system of exercising which uses floor exercises and/or equipment designed specifically to improve core strength, muscle tone, flexibility, balance, posture and an enhanced mind-body connection. When we talk about the “core”, we’re talking about the muscles which wrap around the abdomen, lower back, and pelvic floor muscles which work together to create a stable and strong environment which protects the spine, and allows us to safely build strength and flexibility.
Movements are slow and deliberate, emphasising increased body awareness and ultimately the ability to control your body through movement.
Once core strength and stabilisation is achieved, the exercises begin to incorporate more parts of the body to allow you to become stronger and more fluid in movement.
Pilates exercises work through the full range of motion at each joint and full length of the muscles accentuating the eccentric contraction of the muscles through exercise. Eccentric contraction just refers to the muscle lengthening through the contraction (rather than shortening). For example, when you do a weighted bicep curl, the eccentric phase is when you slowly lower the weight back down to a straight arm, working through the entire length of the muscle, rather than just the middle of the muscle. Working in the eccentric phase builds strength without building bulk giving you long, lean and strong looking muscles, rather than bulky heavy muscles.
Pilates was developed by Mr Joseph Pilates who developed this system of exercising over his lifetime.
Joseph Pilates was born in 1880 near Dusseldorf Germany. As a child, Joseph suffered from several health ailments: asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever.
In an effort to restore his own health, he studied many kinds of self-improvement systems and reinforced what he learned by observing animals in the woods. He studied Eastern disciplines, like yoga and martial arts, as well as more Western forms of physical activities, such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, boxing and recreational sports, which he blended all together. By the age of fourteen he had sculpted his physique to such an extent that he was posing for anatomical charts.
As a young man, Joseph boxed, and taught self-defense. In 1912 he moved to England where he continued to box and teach self-defense at police schools and Scotland Yard. At the commencement of World War I, his German citizenship led to his imprisonment along with other German nationals as “enemy aliens.” During his imprisonment he taught his exercises to fellow compatriots, and later acted as a nurse-physiotherapist of sorts. It was here he began to develop the popular equipment used in Pilates today, by utilizing items available to him at the camp such as bed springs (Reformer) and beer kegs rings (Pilates circles/ring) to create resistance exercise equipment for his patients. One of the greatest examples of the immense benefits of practicing Joseph Pilates’ holistic approach to health is the outbreak of a terrible influenza in 1918. The 1918 influenza epidemic decimated populations all over the world; areas of close co-habitations of people, such as internment camps, were especially hard hit. However, all those who followed Joseph’s routine survived due to their good health.
After the war he returned to Germany and continued training police officers in Hamburg, also working with dance and movement experts. When he was pressured to train the New German Army, Joseph chose to leave Germany and made his way by boat to New York. It was on this journey that he met Clara, a nurse. The two married and founded a studio that taught his developing method, “Contrology.”
Joseph Pilates taught in New York from 1926 to 1966.
Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967. He had maintained a fit physique throughout his life, and was in remarkable physical condition in his older years. He is also said to have had a flamboyant personality, smoked cigars, liked to party, and wore his exercise briefs wherever he wanted (even on the streets of New York). Clara Pilates continued to teach and run the studio for another 10 years after Joseph Pilates death.
Joseph Pilates called his work, contrology. He defined Contrology as “the comprehensive integration of body mind and spirit.” This philosophy is beautifully elucidated in his book, Return to Life Through Contrology.
Think about the body like this:….
Your legs support your hips and the rest of your torso/body. The hips are wide, and your hip bones are large so they support that weight well. Between the large bones of the hips and the ribs, there is a great gap between. The only bony structure between the hips and ribs is your lumbar (lower) spine. Your lumbar spine supports the weight of your entire upper torso. That includes the weight of the chest, the heart, lungs, shoulders and arms (including muscles), neck, and head (and our large brains!!). That’s a lot of weight for the lower spine to support on its own. It is designed to be flexible and move which makes it susceptible to forces and load.
Add to this any additional weight around the tummy and chest area which exerts a forward pull on the lumbar spine. The strain of all this weight, without good core strength, causes compression of the vertebra and pull on the spine, either forwards or backwards depending which posture you have.
Our sedentary lifestyles of sitting at computer desk all day, driving around seated in motor vehicles, and sitting in front of the television in the evening don’t exactly help us either. The core simply doesn’t get used enough, or properly and isn’t able to support the lower spine as it should.
The core muscles run from around the back of the body, between the hips and ribs, and wrap around the side of the body and into the abdominal region at the front of the body. When these muscles are conditioned and strong, they act much like a corset, drawing everything in to a centre point, assisting the spine in supporting the weight of the upper torso/body.
Having strong core muscles is how we take care of our spine.
There’s lots of talk of abs and core muscles …and there is a big difference between the abdominal muscles and how they act on the body. Most people think of a 6 pack when they think of abs, but when we’re talking Pilates abs, we’re not talking about the 6 pack. I can almost hear everyone gasping … “not the 6 pack?”! That doesn’t mean you can’t have one, you just need the other abs first.
Without getting too technical, muscles, via their attachments, move bones.
The 6 pack muscle (aka rectus abdominis) originates on the last couple of ribs, and runs vertically down to attach down near the pubic bone. Imagine that a muscle is like a piece of fabric that only stretches in one direction (fibre orientation), vertically in the case of the 6 pack. So it can lengthen and shorten via muscular contractions along the line of pull. Now let’s go back to where the 6 pack attaches to the front of the ribs, all the way down to the pubic bone area. Essentially, it’s job is to bring the ribs closer to the pubic bone and vice versa – this is called flexing the spine. So when you do abdominal crunches (eek, not done in Pilates), you are using this muscle. That is all that this muscle really does. It puffs outwards when you contract the muscle, pushing your tummy out rather than flattening. It doesn’t exert a stabilising effect on the spine, but it looks great!
The abdominals that we’re talking about in Pilates are the OTHER abdominals…. the core muscles. They run from around the back of the body between hips and ribs, around into the front of the body.
There are 3 main abdominal muscles that we talk about and use in Pilates: the transversus abdominis; the internal obliques; and the external obliques.
The transversus abdominis is the deepest lying muscle of the abdominals. Think of like one of those big 1980s elastic belt. It wraps around your waist and cinches your waist in at the sides and flattens it out from the front.
The fibres run around your waist, so when you contract that muscle, it has the effect of cinching you at the waist and drawing it in at the belly button, much like a girdle. Similar to the feeling of sucking in the tummy when you zip up a super tight pair of jeans. When we contract this muscle, it pulls the lumbar spine from both sides, exerting a stabilising effect on the lumbar spine, assisting to hold it in place and sturdy.
The next layer of muscle, lying over the top of the transversus abdominis, is the internal obliques:
You can see that the muscle attaches to the top/crest of the hip bone (back and front) and runs around the waist, and upwards diagonally into the bottom couple of ribs. Due to their muscle fibres, they assist in also pulling the ribs down towards the pubic bone, ie, flexing the spine, but they attach to the hips and ribs from back of the body to front, so they help to stabilise one big body part (the hips), on another big body part (the ribs).
The next layer of muscles overlaying the internal obliques is the external obliques:
You can see that the muscle fibres here run in a diagonal line from the bottom couple of ribs down to the crest of the hip bones also, but in a different direction from the internal obliques. Via their directional pull of muscle fibres, they also help to stabilise one big body part (the hips), on another big body part (the ribs).
We have the pelvic floor from below and the diaphragm from above. Think of the pelvic floor like a diamond shape with points at the pubic bone and tailbone (front and back) and sit bonz (side to side). Those 4 points make a diamond shape. The pelvic floor group of muscles act sort of like a hammock to stop the contents of the pelvis from falling out! It’s not that bad, but it does act to stabilise and hold everything in place when its working well. And they work in conjunction with the deep abdominals (and the diaphragm) to stabilize the whole mid centre/core. Working well means drawing gently upwards from, the centre (not from the tailbone and not from the pubic bone), but right up through centre. This means all the muscles are working evenly.
The Diaphram pulls down and releases up as we breath and so can also cause a stabilising effect via its pressure on the tummy cavity. So when we breathe well and deeply (in and out), it increases the abdominal pressure creating stability.
In summation, we have gentle pelvic floor activation from below (ie, gently drawing up), and the downward force of the diaphram from your pilates breath (ie, pushing downwards) and with the action of the transversus abdominis and internal and external obliques drawing into the centre. With all these muscles working together as they should, you get a really strong compressive structure which supports the spine and the weight of the upper body, which also keeps appropriate alignment of the top of the body on the bottom of the body. The body truly is a magnificent and amazing structure!
If you’ve never used these muscles properly before, it can take a little getting used to. Some people find it hard to find and switch on those muscles and even harder at first to keep them working for any period of time. Be patient and allow yourself time to build their strength. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your abdominals will not be super strong in a day either!
If you don’t feel your abdominals working, then they’re probably not switched on. Different cues or imagery will work with different people. Some people find the cue of “pretend you’re zipping up a super tight pair of skinny jeans” works. This helps to give them the imagery needed to draw those abdominals in to the centre point to activate the deeper layers. For others, it’s the cue of “like a corset” that seems to work. For men, it may be the “weight belt” pulled tight around the tummy before doing heavy weights. Find the one that works for you and stick with it.
Ensuring that you’re drawing in at the waist and flattening out at the front of the belly before you move, and maintaining that gentle feeling of drawing/flattening tummy will ensure activation of the deep abdominals. Add in the gentle draw up of the pelvic floor and you’ve got it. You will need to keep thinking about it at first untilt hey naturally will learn to come on together. If at any time you feel your tummy pushing outwards, rather than in, then you’ve lost that connection. When lying on your back with knees bent, if you feel the arch of the lower back increase when bringing legs up, then the abdominal connection has been lost, and that’s a lot of unnecessary stress and strain to put on the lower back. So make sure you come back to your start position and re-set the abs.
When we first start using these muscles, it can be hard to maintain that connection, but like all things worth doing (and this is definitely one of those), it takes time. The muscle isn’t going to become strong after using it for 5 seconds. You wouldn’t just do one bicep curl and expect to have a big strong bicep… it’s the same with the deep abdominals. It takes time and regular use for the muscles to become strong. The more we use them, the stronger they become and the more easily they will switch on and become active. With enough training, they will learn when to switch on without you telling them to! So, the questions for any abdominal exercise will be: is your tummy puffing out; does your lower back change shape; do you feel a pulling sensation in your lower back? If yes to any of these questions, then we need to reset and start again. Then reduce your range of motion in whatever you’re doing (smaller movements), the number of repetitions you do, and slow it down. As you get stronger, you will be able to do more.
In Pilates we talk about flattening out the tummy, or drawing the belly button in and up under the ribs, rather than “scooping” the abdominals. If we “scoop” the abdominals too much this causes us to flatten out our natural lumbar curve of the spine. We will go more into this when we discuss the 5 basic principles. We want a nice gentle and controlled activation of these muscles for them to work to their best abilities. When you achieve this cinching and flattening of the waist, you have correctly activated your deepest abdominal layer: your tranversus abdominis. The internal and external obliques will naturally kick in during breath to work alongside.
Breathing … sounds like something that’s really easy to do. After all, we all do it all day, every day and have done so since we were born! We have to breathe. Now if I went into an indepth explanation of breathing, we’d be here for days! And I am in no way medically trained, or an expert in the field of breathing. There are whole books dedicated to the art of breathing well. They explain why it is so important to the efficient functioning of our bodies and brains. Breathing well can improve mental clarity, reduce stress, increase energy levels, reduce muscle fatigue, increase the ability to sleep soundly and a myriad of other wonderous things when done well.
Normal breathing rates differ for each adult and is dependent on fitness levels, health issues and a huge array of variables, but the normal breathing rate is considered between 12 and 18 breaths per minute. At rest, we inhale 5 to 6 litres of air per minute through the nose. During exercise, we use our mouth to breathe to increase the volume of ventilation to 20 to 30 litres of air per minute.
So the short version of this very complicated action, goes something like this: Blood is pumped from the right side of the heart into the lungs where it is oxygenated by taking a breath. The left side of the heart then receives the oxygenated blood from the lungs and pumps it through the arteries to the entire body delivering oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells. The oxygen is used to produce energy, amongst many other reactions in the body, and then the de-oxygenated blood, carbon dioxide, and other metabolic waste products are carried back via your veins to the right side of the heart where the blood is pumped back into the lungs awaiting oxygenation. So there is a gaseous exchange which occurs in the lunges where we exhale the carbon dioxide and inhale a fresh new breath where it starts its journey…
So, in short, that’s breathing. If you can learn to breathe well, ie, full breaths in and full exhales out, you can see how an increase in the level of oxygen in the body could make you feel great!
As an experiment, next time you get out of the shower and dry off, please stand yourself in the mirror and watch yourself breathe. As you inhale, look at your shoulders, watch the movement of the ribs and start to notice whether you hold any tension anywhere when you breathe. Do your shoulders and neck tense slightly, and hike up when you breathe in? Or do your ribs expand out to the side, and your shoulders and neck stay relatively relaxed? Do your ribs push out forwards towards the mirror? Put your hands to the outside of your bottom ribs and try and direct your breathe down deep and out to the sides and back of the ribs. Feel how tight and difficult it might feel. Now breathe into the top of the ribs only, a shallow breath, and then take a deep inhale into the bottom of the ribs/lungs and feel the difference in lung capacity. Start to pay attention to how to breathe.
In the next section of this article I’ll be referring to the Pilates Breath and how it helps us. This is different to the yoga breath, or the breath you may use when playing a wood wind instrument …. It’s the Pilates Breath.
The Pilates breath seems peculiar and weird at first, but it’s actually a great way to breath! In fact, it’s fantastic for most exercises and sporting activities allowing you to take full and deep breaths to oxygenate the blood and give energy, mental clarity, and reduce fatigue throughout the entire body. It allows you to keep your core stabilised during both the inhale and exhale through movement.
So what is it exactly … It’s a 3 dimensional inhale through the nose with a slightly forced exhalation through pursed lips.
3 dimensional breathing refers to a deep and full breath directed into the bottom of the ribs which uses the whole of the lungs. You should feel the ribs expand to the side (lateral), to the front (anterior), and into the back (posterior) of the rib cage (3-dimensional). The expansion should occur in an even fashion with all 3 dimensions expanding at an even rate. This ensures that breath is taken deep into the lungs, rather than up into the shoulders causing neck and shoulder tension. A good cue is to imagine there is a balloon in the bottom of your ribcage, and when you breathe in the balloon expands evenly into a large ball. Place your hands gently onto the side of your lower ribcage and feel them expand as you breathe in. This deep breath is great for the respiratory system as it utilises the whole of the lungs and assists in the gaseous exchanges necessary for oxygenation of the blood. If you haven’t breathed like this in a while (or ever) your ribs will be tight and it may feel forced. Keep at it – the muscles between the ribs will start to stretch and loosen up to accommodate the breath and this deep inhale will become easier with more practice.
On the slightly forced exhalation, the ribcage should come back in and knit together at the front. To assist with the forced exhalation, the deep abdominals of transversus abdominis along with internal and external obliques, and gentle activation of pelvic floor (all at about 20-25% of a maximum contraction) are recruited to assist with full expiration of all the air in the lungs. This slightly forced exhalation and engagement of the abdominals and pelvic floor creates stability in the torso and around the lower spine (aka, the “core”) and ultimately the entire body through movement and exercise.
When the abdominals are properly engaged, it feels like a “girdle” which can be felt as a light shrinking or cinching of the waist and a flattening of the tummy in exhale. To find what your 20-25% of pelvic floor engagement is, strongly draw them up as hard as you can, like you’re desperately holding on to a full bladder, and then release off to about ¼ of that contraction.
Our abdominals and pelvic floor should fire before any exercise is carried out.
The aim of the slightly forced exhale through pursed lips is to exhale every single particle of breath in the lungs, so as you get rid of all the stale and de-oxygenated air, allowing you to refill your lungs each time with fresh new air, able to effectively oxygenate the blood.
The importance of the full breath in utilising the whole of the lungs (and not just a shallow shoulder breath), and the full expiration on exhale means that with every breath, fresh oxygenated blood gets pumped around the body providing oxygen necessary for aerobic energy consumption and muscle firing. This reduces muscle fatigue, mental fatigue, increases mental clarity and assists with the removal of toxins through the body and organs. All really good stuff! The breathing alone will pep you up and have you feeling good. The number of people who comment on how invigorated they feel after their first pilates session is due in main part to the breathing. The body almost gets drunk on all that good stuff!
The 3 dimensional breathing is hugely important in keeping and maintaining the abdominal connection and a stable core during exercise. We don’t let the 20-25% abdominal and pelvic floor activation go at all, not during the inhale, not during the exhale, so we can keep breathing deeply and well, whilst keeping the abdominals activated and lumbar spine safe. It also helps centre the mind and focus on the task at hand. That’s why breathing is also the first principle of contemporary pilates.
Bad posture can affect how well you breath. For example, if you are hunched over, rolled forward in the shoulders, and have your ribs pushed out behind you, it’s not so easy to take a deep and easy breath. Your rounded forward posture, and the tight muscles that hold you there, basically stop you from using the space in the bottom of the lungs and won’t allow a deep and full breath. Breath is instead taken up into the top of the lungs and to increase air intake, these postured folk will generally lift their shoulders and strain into their neck to struggle for more breath. Try it yourself. Hunch yourself over and pull the bottom of the front ribs in. Now try and take a nice, deep breath. Did you feel the strain on the upper shoulders and neck muscles trying to take a deep breath? So if you, or someone you know has rounded shoulders and looks slouchy all the time, do you think they may suffer from neck and shoulder tension, headaches due to the recruitment of neck and shoulder muscles during breathing? Do they get tired easily because they’re unable to get enough oxygen around to fire up the mind and body? At the other end of this, stand to attention and stick your chest out and up towards the ceiling, and try and breath deeply. Again, it’s difficult to take a deep breath as you cannot use the back of the ribs/lunges to take a deep inhale.
Now stand up, find your neutral pelvis, stack ribs directly on top of hips, lengthen through the spine and grow taller from the top of your head and relax your shoulders, drawing them down the spine in a gentle V shape. Now take a deep 3 dimensional breath into the lungs and ribs. Ahhhhh, that’s better. Position and posture is everything. I have never met ANYONE with a perfect posture, but if we all aim for it, we’ll all do well. Through the practice of regular pilates, we can learn to apply the principles and become body aware Over time your posture will begin to change and your body will start to align and balance the muscles out. It won’t happen over night … but it will happen J