Author: Richard Weil, MEd, CDE
Pilates is a popular method of exercise in the United States, with more than 5 million individuals participating. What is Pilates, and should you be doing it? I'll answer those questions and more in this article.
What is the origin of Pilates?
Admittedly, the history of many ancient fitness activities is sometimes sketchy. Tai chi, swimming, yoga, and even running all started thousands of years ago, and although there is some documentation, the precise beginnings are unknown. Things are different with Pilates. The beginning is clear. It was created in the 1920s by the physical trainer Joseph Pilates (1880-1967) for the purpose of rehabilitation. Some of the first people treated by Pilates were soldiers returning from war and dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine (to strengthen their bodies and heal their aches and pains). Since the 1920s, the basic tenets that Joseph Pilates set down have been preserved, and to this day, even with some modifications, the Pilates remains true to its origins.
What is Pilates?
The Pilates "method," as it is now known, is an exercise system focused on improving flexibility, strength, and body awareness, without necessarily building bulk. The method is a series of controlled movements performed on specially designed spring-resistant exercise apparatus (the Reformer, the Cadillac, the Spine Corrector, the Ladder Barrel, and the Wunda Chair) or on the floor (mat work), and the sessions are supervised by specially trained instructors. Pilates is resistance exercise, not aerobic (cardio), although the heart rate will certainly rise for a deconditioned individual. However, it's closer to weight lifting than it is to jogging, biking, or other aerobic activities, and so you should consider it resistance exercise.
Two of the key elements of Pilates are core muscle strength* and spinal alignment. The core musculature is loosely defined as the spine, abdomen, pelvis, hips, and the muscles that support these structures. Some of the main core muscles are the erector spinae (located in your back along your spine), the internal and external obliques (the sides of your abdomen), the transverse abdominis (located deep in your gut, this muscle pulls your belly button in toward your spine), the rectus abdominis (the "six-pack"), and hip flexors (in your pelvis and upper leg).
During a Pilates session, whether it's on the machines or the floor, your instructor will continuously prompt you to concentrate deeply on your core muscles, as well as on your breath, the contraction of your muscles, and the quality (not quantity) of your movements. These are also key elements of Pilates, and your instructor will emphasize them at every session. The objective is a coordination of mind, body, and spirit, something Joseph Pilates called "contrology." In his first book published in 1945, Pilates' Return to Life Through Contrology, the 34 original exercises that Pilates taught to his students are described along with the guiding principles of contrology.