I’ve posted a few times over the last couple of weeks about my returning Pilates classes (can you tell I’m excited??). But why is Pilates so beneficial? What will it do for you and your body? And what is the difference between Pilates and Yoga or other core strength training? Well, here I am to give you some answers…
A Very Brief Histoy
So let’s start with what Pilates is… and what it is not! Pilates was invented during WW1 by a chap called Joseph Pilates (Hence the name – although he originally called it Contrology). Joseph believed that all movement starts from the centre of the body, what we often refer to as the core (more about that later…) and that a strong core would minimise stress and strain on the rest of the body. Joseph was a prisoner of war at the time, and he began training his fellow inmates. During the 1918 flu epidemic (which we’ve heard so much about recently) thousands of people died, but Joseph’s trainees survived, lending credence to his work.
Nowadays there are many different forms of Pilates, some using floor based exercise, some using swiss balls, some using reformers and other equipment, but all forms are based on Joseph Pilates’ original Contrology teachings. Joseph emphasised 6 principles;
These principles are what makes Pilates so different from other forms of core training. Most of us will have, at some point in our lives, dreamed about having a flat stomach or abs of steel, and we’ve all set about doing 500 excruciating stomach crunches a day… and then given up after day three because it’s a) hard, b) boring, and c) chocolate is a much better way to exercise, right? Fitness training has changed a lot over the years. Remember those Rosemary Connolly videos (if not, ask your Mum!) and all those women in brightly coloured leotards and big hairstyles? Nowadays fitness training is much more diverse! Burning body fat is the fastest way to a flat stomach. But Pilates takes core training in a slightly different direction.
The Mind-Body Connection
By employing the 6 principles, exercise is slowed down, so that we can regain control of our bodies. Using precise, flowing movements makes Pilates the most mindful exercise form there is (possibly with the exception of yoga – but we’ll come back to that). Thinking about what is happening to our bodies while we strengthen engages what I like to call the Mind – Body Connection. As a sports therapist I often deal with injuries, or bodily pain which has been caused by muscles switching off or weakening. This can happen for various reasons, but the most common in our current generation is our tendency to sit on our butts for hours on end! We spend 8 hours a day sat at a desk at work, and then we go home and spend another 4 hours on the sofa watching Netflix. This tendency causes our brain to lose it’s connection with certain muscles, such as the Gluteus Maximus. The strongest muscle in the body suddenly becomes redundant, and other muscles have to take over, in this case hamstrings and lower back. These are designed to be supporting muscles, and overuse leads to pain and injury.
How is Pilates Different From Yoga?
Comparing Pilates with Yoga brings us to the second benefit of Pilates. Many people who have not done one or the other assume these methods of exercise are very similar. And fusion classes which combine the two exercise forms can lead to even more confusion. They are very similar in terms of slow controlled movement, breathing, precision and a focus on core strength. The fundamental difference in my opinion (and yes, I have been practising both for many years!) is the functional style of Pilates compared with Yoga. There are many different forms of Yoga, and each style of class is very different, but as a discipline it is known for complicated poses, lengthening muscles as well as strengthening them, and getting into all sorts of weird and wonderful positions. Don’t get me wrong, I am not dissing Yoga, I often recommend it to clients with tight muscles to encourage flexibility. But when have you ever needed to wrap your feet around your face in real life? Traditional Pilates movements engage muscle groups in similar ways to which you would employ them in your everyday movements. But doing so with strength and control allows our bodies to train for functionality. Pilates is often used as a supplement to other sporting activities, for this reason. Increased strength from the core allows rugby players to apply more force and forward momentum when tackling or scrummaging. Balance allows runners to move efficiently through the gait cycle with equal and opposite muscle balance. Engaging the gluteal muscles takes the pressure off our lower backs when bending over to pick something up off the floor or tie our shoelaces (or indeed training to beat the World Deadlift record!).
What Exactly Is The Core??
I often get asked by clients what I mean when I talk about the core. It’s not as simple as just the tummy muscles. That’s why doing endless tummy crunches isn’t enough. The first most important muscle in the core is called the Transverse Abdominis. This is a deep tummy muscle, which combines with muscles in the lower back to form a corset around our middle. This is a really important muscle for supporting and protecting our lower back and spine during movement. It is also a muscle which is often lost due to lack of use, or in women following childbirth, particularly by c-section. But mindful training can switch it on and get it strong again. The second most important muscle in the core is our Gluteus Maximus, or in plain speak, our bottoms! I’ve already talked about how switching on and strengthening this muscle takes pressure off the supporting muscles in our backs and legs. It also helps us walk, run, jump, bend over, and even sit! This one is followed closely by Gluteus Medius. Another strong muscle, this one sits on the outside of our hips, and helps us to balance. If we lean to one side or another this muscle, among others, prevents us from falling, overbalancing, or causing strains or sprains elsewhere. So far all these muscles are about supporting the back and hips. I truly believe that ALL movement comes from the hips and the pelvic girdle. There are many many muscles which cause, assist and support this process. And all of them benefit from Pilates. But the core also includes the muscles around our upper back, shoulders and chest. These also assist greatly with balance, posture, protecting the spine, walking, running, jumping, and carrying around those big important and heavy brains of ours! Pilates employs and engages each and every one of these areas, so it provides a complete core training program. Nothing is left out!
Count Me In!
So, have I sold you on Pilates yet? I hope so, because I fully endorse Pilates as the perfect addition to any strength or fitness training program, as well as an accessible form of exercise for anyone who hasn’t trained in anything before, or anyone following injury or illness, or the elderly… everyone really! And I’m not just saying that because I teach it. I’m talking to you with my therapist head on now. So why not give it a go? Even just a few classes can provide you with fundamental skills you can utilise in other sports, such as how to effectively engage your core to help prevent injury.
Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, I am currently only teaching small group sessions (up to 5 people) in outdoor spaces. But hopefully full classes will resume soon at Devon Hills Fitness. Keep an eye on my Facebook page and website for more details. And give me a call on 07869 119169 if you have any questions or wish to book a session.