With dedicated practice one can expect a longer, leaner looking physique, increased energy and stamina and fewer aches and pains from the stresses of everyday life.

Pilates has become a household word, often with creative spellings and pronunciations. No longer an exercise program reserved for the physically elite or financially flush, the Pilates Method is finding its way into people's homes, becoming a regular practice with lasting results. In the 1990s and into 2000 we have seen an incredible trend towards mind/body-based exercise. In the '80s we found our energy and power. In the '90s we learned how to harness it.

Pilates is in no way a new approach to physical fitness. The Pilates Method of body conditioning was developed by German-born Joseph H. Pilates more than 70 years ago. Originally developed for the rehabilitation of bed-bound soldiers during WWI, the work was then adopted by the dance and performing community of New York, where Pilates immigrated to after the war. For many years Pilates training remained a well-kept secret in the world of dance and the performing arts.

The Pilates Method is comprised of more than 500 exercises developed by Joseph Pilates. These exercises are performed on an exercise mat or by using special resistance equipment that emphasizes spring resistance. The central concept of Pilates training is strengthening the so-called "powerhouse" or core of the body-the deep abdominal muscles, buttock muscles and the muscles around the spine. A training program based on Pilates will stabilize the pelvis and shoulder girdle, stretching and strengthening the entire body with movement initiating from "the center."

The Pilates Method is a mind/body approach to fitness and like yoga, requires concentration, focus, practice and patience. The results are well worth the commitment. As a beginner to Pilates, the learning curve can be slow moving and steep to begin with but no work is wasted. As one's mind/muscle connections are developed and the understanding of how the breath and muscle contractions work in a synergistic manner, one's body strength increases and movements that were once thought impossible become a graceful series of power-packed exercises.

Joseph Pilates formulated six basic principles for his exercise technique:

  1. Breathing-The pattern of breathing is connected with the pattern of movement. The use of the breath in this manner plays an integral part of the work. As a beginner, the breath is often overlooked because there is so much to think about. The instructor will always bring the student back to the breath with the knowledge that breath is the key to mastering the work.
  2. Precision-The method emphasizes quality of movement over quantity. I have had clients comment time and again how the work actually becomes oddly more difficult as they get better at it. As their skill and precision increase, the truth behind "less is more" becomes evident.
  3. Centering-Centering refers to the practice of initiating and controlling movement from the center core or "powerhouse"-abs, buttocks and back muscles. This concept lies at the heart of Pilates' work.
  4. Flowing Movement-In combination the breath, the challenge of performing flowing movements while maintaining core stabilization, is where the beauty of the work really shines through as you get stronger from the center out, your movement through space becomes more graceful and filled with ease. This proves extremely beneficial whether you are a mother or an extreme athlete.
  5. Control-Control and focus are vital to this work. Momentum is kept in check at all times. Through control, we work to correct old patterns of movement that may be unhealthy or hinder you in some way. This is largely where the mind part of body/mind resides.
  6. Concentration-This is directly related to control and focus. It is through concentration that one masters the control and focus to truly benefit from the work. The mind and the bodywork together as team. Every exercise requires your full attention. Observe your body as it works; think about each stage of the movement.

Once Joseph Pilates immigrated to the U.S. he developed the mat version of Pilates to accompany his equipment-based program. This mat variation developed into an important component of the Pilates method and is the most appropriate place to begin one's Pilates practice. The floor work introduces the body to the key movements and breath patterns that are always used for Pilates.

These would include:

  • Neutral Pelvis-This is a position where the hipbones and pubic bone are in the same plane, which helps to correct many postural imbalances that exist today.
  • C-Curve and spinal articulation-These movements help to free up tight back muscles and poor posture patterns.
  • Back muscle engagement-By learning to contract the large back muscles, called the latissimus dorsi (otherwise known as the "lats"), and relax the shoulder muscles, you are able to counteract the common hunched or rounded shoulder posture that is so prevalent today.
  • Abdominal muscle engagement-Making this connection can be one of the hardest elements of this work. By creating the mind/muscle connection with the abs, you develop the ability to actively, and subconsciously, use your abs for better support, stabilization and power-meaning flatter tummies, less injuries and better functionality in all activities.
  • Breath-Without it we die and with it used to its full capacity, we grow-stronger, longer, leaner.

There are 34 standard Pilates mat exercises created by Joseph Pilates. They are all important for various reasons, to challenge the body's musculature in different ways. As Pilates hits the mainstream and our knowledge about physiology increases, these exercises have been adapted to include different tools such as a Pilates circle, a resistance band and large fitness balls.

What does this mean for the average Joe or Josephine on the street who wants to get stronger, increase flexibility and generally feel healthy and vital? Is Pilates something that can work for them too?

Absolutely! More than ever Pilates is becoming increasingly accessible to the general public. At one time the only way you could get exposed to Pilates was through private one-on-one instruction. While this is ultimately still the best way to practice Pilates, there have emerged a number of affordable, less time-consuming options in the form of group mat classes such as those available through workout chains like Gold's Gym. Also semi-private sessions that range from two to four students with one instructor, using different kinds of Pilates equipment. In addition easy-to-follow videos are available that range from the most beginner to very advanced. The videos have largely helped the general fitness person make the transition into Pilates with ease and comfort, combining some of the elements of familiar fitness tools such as the fitness ball or resistance band with the key principles of Pilates.

So what can you expect from making Pilates a regular part of your fitness regimen? A longer, leaner looking physique, increased energy and stamina and fewer aches and pains from the stresses of everyday life.

The concepts behind Joseph Pilates' approach to physical and mental fitness can be employed for all ages, shapes and fitness levels. Once one learns these they can be incorporated into everyday activities such as walking down the street or standing at a bus stop. And for the elite athlete, the improvements to their performance are tremendously rewarding.

Some frequently asked questions about The Pilates Method:

  1. How is Pilates different from other exercise programs?
    Each exercise engages the core abdominal muscles, and the method emphasizes the strengthening of the "powerhouse" region-abdomen, back, lower back, inner/outer thighs and buttocks. Strength is achieved through stabilization, with a focus on movement and functionality. Pilates concentrates on lengthening, strengthening and toning the body, without adding bulk to the muscles.
  2. Is Pilates done with machines only?
    No. Joseph Pilates designed the spring resistance machines in association with a matwork program, and one's complete workout includes exercises on a combination of the Reformer, Wunda Chair, High Chair, Ladder Barrel, Spine Corrector, Half Barrel, Cadillac and the mat. Now the work has expanded to include useful tools such as the fitness ball, resistance band and Pilates circle.
  3. Why are there so few repetitions of each exercise?
    Less IS more! Each Pilates exercise has only 3, 5 or 10 repetitions. The exercises were designed to work the body with precision and effectiveness, making additional repetitions unnecessary.
  4. Why is Pilates considered a mind/body-conditioning program?
    Pilates is a very intelligent form of body conditioning. One's mind is engaged throughout a specific program of exercises rather than wandering aimlessly during a workout of repetitive activity. When one focuses and concentrates on the body's movements, s/he is performing a complete mental and physical workout.
  5. How soon after beginning Pilates will I see results?
    Although individual results will vary, most people feel better in just a few sessions. With consistent practice you will gain increased strength in your "powerhouse" and be well on your way to achieving true mental and physical fitness.
  6. When I look at someone doing Pilates, it doesn't seem vigorous enough for me. Can Pilates give me a good workout?
    When most people first start Pilates, there's a lot of new information for the body to learn, so you probably won't get an aerobic workout at the beginning. Pilates can be aerobic at intermediate and advanced levels when the movement patterns become more familiar. Also, Pilates combines stretching and strengthening, using springs and your own body weight as resistance. That may appear easier than other forms of exercise, yet you actually work harder and more deeply through the muscles.
  7. I have had many injuries and physical problems during my lifetime. Can Pilates help me?
    Yes, definitely. The Pilates Method of body conditioning has a long history of helping people with old and existing injuries. Both physical therapists and chiropractors have collaborated with Pilates instructors to help heal soft tissue injuries and recover from various physical problems.
  8. How often do I want to do Pilates?
    Pilates is similar to other forms of exercise. You want to be sure you give your body enough time to recover when muscles are taxed. Twice a week when you are just starting is good, leaving at least two days between workouts. As you get stronger with consistent workouts, increase to three times a week with at least a day's rest. Remember to vary your exercises often, as the body adapts quickly.

Julie Tomlinson

Julie has been working in the fitness industry since 1985. Julie was an accomplished aerobic and hip-hop instructor working with Jane Fonda at both her studio in L.A. and participating in her videos. Moving to England in 1992, Julie excelled as a master teacher trainer while also running her own personal training studio in North London and then managed Dragons Health club in Brighton. During this time she became a qualified Holistic Nutritional Therapist and saw clients both in London and Brighton. Julie returned to Santa Barbara in 2000, working as a personal trainer and fitness equipment advisor. During this time she became a certified by Body Arts and Science Pilates instructor. Julie worked with BodyTrends.com to produce a number of beginner Pilates videos as well as contributing to a number of other fitness videos produced by the Bodytrends group. Julie moved on to work for ALL ONE Nutritech as a marketing coordinator and product educator, selling high quality nutritional supplements. In 2010 Julie had her son, Evan. A total surprise and blessing! She has spent the last two years focusing on him and his needs. Now she is back in full swing, loving teaching and enjoying relating to clients on a whole new level. Age and life experience has equipped her with a new understanding and appreciation for what our bodies need at different stages of our lives.

Website: www.simpaticopilates.com