Pilates - What's all that about, then?
Pilates seems to be a popular means of fitness training for skiing, especially aimed at strengthening those all-important core muscles. So here is a short description of the system, how it works and a few of the exercise involved. On account of her much-publicised fall from grace and her lack of current popularity, we have managed to secure the services of Kate Moss, as our model, at a bargain – 3s 6d and a gross of sherbet lemons.
Q: What is Pilates?
A: Pilates is a system of body conditioning, stretching and strengthening exercises which focuses on strengthening the deep abdominal muscles (i.e. those needed for posture and thrusting those hips forward in skiing) and improving posture and spine alignment. It originates from its creator Joseph Pilates who was born in Germany in 1889. Because he was a weak child he was fascinated by body conditioning systems to help him gain more strength. He became a proficient skier, gymnast, diver and boxer before opening a studio to teach his technique in New York in the 1920s.
Q: How do you do it?
A: Pilates mat-work classes are an excellent introduction, as no special equipment is needed. A typical one hour session will start with some simple stretching and warm-up exercises before moving on to the main exercises which will focus on building strength and increasing mobility. One of the key aspects of Pilates is that all exercises are done with the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles 'engaged'. To engage the abs, breath in and imagine pulling the abdomen in as tightly as you can, this being level 10. As you breath out, slowly release the tension one level at a time until you reach level 3, which is the level at which all the exercises are done. With the abs engaged, breathing has to be done using the rib cage (thoracic breathing), i.e. you breath by expanding the rib cage not by using the abdomen. To engage the pelvic floor, do the same as above but tensing the pelvic floor muscles to level 10 and then down to 3. For blokes, this is similar to the action of trying to stop peeing and, apparently, it is the same for you ladies. If you go to classes, the instructor will explain to you how to do this and will then take you through each of the exercises.
Q: Do you have to be quite fit to practice it or can anyone try?
A: Pilates is suitable for anyone because it comprises gentle and precise movements which do not put much stress on joints. Programmes are tailored to suit different abilities and it offers an exercise system for people who may not be able to participate in other types of exercise, including back pain sufferers, first time exercisers, the elderly and pregnant or post-natal women. Many exercises have different levels of difficulty, from 1 (easy) to 4 or 5 (difficult), depending on the amount of exertion and/or balance required.
Q: How will it affect my body shape and how does it compare to other forms of exercise and stretching, such as going to the gym, weight training or yoga?
A: Done regularly, Pilates will improve posture and body alignment and lead to a longer, leaner and stronger body, instead of the bulkier appearance you can sometimes get from exercise such as weight training. It will result in a flatter looking stomach owing to stronger core muscles. In Pilates, the focus is on building core strength and improving spinal alignment and posture. Yoga does not place the same emphasis on these areas but both techniques focus on breathing.
Q: What sorts of exercises are involved?
A: Below are examples of just four typical exercises, although there are many more (including warm-up and final relaxation exercises). All exercises start by engaging the abdomen and pelvic floor muscles, which should remain engaged throughout. Breathing is also controlled, typically breathing out to move from the starting position into the extension and then breathing in to return, but the details are not described here. Each exercise should be done slowly and, at the end of the exercise (which may involve holding and/or repetition), there is a 'release pose' in which you rest for a while.
1) From a standing position, with feet hip-width apart and core muscles engaged, bend slowly forward, without tension in the upper body, until tension is felt in the back of the legs. Continue down into 'box position' and from there extend to do 3 to 5 very slow press-ups (full or from the knees). After this, return to box position, then back onto your feet and unroll the spine back to the standing position. Repeat several times, then the release position is 'child's pose'.
2) Lie on one side with your body in a straight line and with the lower arm extended under your head. Engage core muscles and ensure that you are balanced (you may place your upper hand in front of you to help balance, but it is better on your thigh or hip. Raise both legs vertically as high as you can and hold. Without lowering the lower leg, raise the upper leg higher and hold. Then start circling the upper leg in small circles, ensuring that core muscles remain engaged and balance is maintained, with all leg movement coming only from the hip. Repeat for 5-7 circles then bring the legs back together again (the lower leg still held up) and lower back to the ground. Repeat on the other side. The release position is to draw the legs up towards the chest and hug the back of the thighs.
3) Lie on your front with your upper body supported on your elbows, directly below your shoulders. Engage core muscles and then, from the knees or the feet, raise your body up so that it is in a straight line. Hold this position for 5-7 slow breaths then lower back to the ground. The release position is child's pose.
4) Sitting down, drawn the legs up and extend the arms straight forward. Engage core muscles then, breathing out, slowly lower the body half way towards the ground. At the half way position, rotate the upper body first to the left then to the right then either continue slowly to the ground and extend the arms above your head, or sit up again back to the starting position. If fully extended, bring the arms back over the head, starting to sit up again when the arms are vertical. Repeat slowly 5-7 times. The release position is lying flat on the ground, either with arms alongside the body or with them extended back over the head.
Q: Does it work?
A: This would seem to be the crucial question. If you attend a class, you might find that things go rather slowly and gently and the exercises don't leave you puffing or sweating very much. I also find that we spend a long time in the recovery poses. Each exercise can be made harder depending on which level you use and, in particular, how slowly you do it (many people, for example, can rattle off 20-40 press-ups at speed, but 5-10 going as slowly as you can is quite hard work). But perhaps it is this apparent gentleness that makes it work – maybe we need to do some training slowly and in control, instead of bashing off at full speed all the time.
It is sometimes hard to remember to engage the core muscles, especially the pelvic floor, but this seems to be the key to the regime working. I suspect that if the exercises are done without these core muscles engaged, they are not very effective.
My teacher certainly looks sleek, healthy and toned, and she can do all the exercises at level 4 or 5. On the other hand, she is not a very good runner, but this simply shows that any exercise programme needs to include several different aspects, of which Pilates could be one. I feel that Pilates works for me but, on the other hand, I have made quite a number of changes to my overall training programme this year so it is difficult to identify what percentage of any improvement is attributable to Pilates and what to the other training changes. The only difficulty I find is that I am the token bloke in a class of middle-aged women (with the exception of the teacher, who is young), who bring a whole new meaning to the word "sanctity" but, otherwise, I think it's well worth the one hour per week it requires.
Q: How do I find out more and start exercising?
A: Many places offer Pilates courses, including gyms, and there are evening courses all over the place. A typical course, in a group of 5-10 people, will cost £5 and last for about an hour and, for the seriously rich, you can have private tuition from around £40 with some teachers willing to make home visits. It is worth finding a course with a qualified teacher and one with which you feel comfortable (a good teacher should, for example, be willing to correct your individual mistakes, as well as talking to the class as a whole).
The Pilates Institute (www.pilates-institute.com, 0207 253 3177) or the Pilates Foundation (www.pilatesfoundation.com, 0707 178 1859) can give further advice and help you find a teacher. There are also many books on the market which cover the exercises and explain how to do them, but you might find it easier to attend a class so that the teacher can talk you through each exercise carefully and in detail. The cheapskate way to do it, of course, is to attend a class for a while until you've learnt the techniques and exercises, then give up and do it at home. But this is rather unsporting and, anyway, if you don't have a class to attend regularly, you might simply forget to do the exercises at all.
Q: Do you stand by everything you have just written?
A: This short article has been aimed just to give you a flavour of Pilates, what it involves and what the benefits might be. It does not claim to have described the exercises fully nor necessarily correctly, your statutory rights are not affected and the editor's decision is final. To find out more and take it up, a good teacher is the way to go.