Strengthening Your Core and Your Life with Pilates

6 Tips to Get Started.

Slow, methodical, intentional and controlled. How many moments in our lives can we describe this way, let alone when we’re talking about how we exercise? For many of us, exercise is all about speeding up, pounding it out or moving at a frenetic pace to energize ourselves or to work out the day. While that can be good and sometimes it’s just what we need, it can also be beneficial to slow it down, focus on your breath or be so in the moment that you can feel every vertebra as you roll your body up or down. That’s what it’s like to be in the world of Pilates and after one micro-session to see what it’s all about, it’s a world I definitely want to go back to.

Going into this experience, I had done plenty of cardio, lots of strength training, some yoga and even occasional high intensity interval training, but I had never done Pilates. When I asked Pilates Teacher Scotti Harwood, PMA-CPT with Source Pilates if she could tell me all about this method of exercising, she not only agreed but invited me to come walk through some of the exercises. What an eye-opening experience! I learned that you really can strengthen both your core and your life with Pilates, and with Scotti’s tips to get started, you may just find that this is one system of exercising you can’t live without.

Scotti Harwood, PMA-CPT

What is Pilates?

The Pilates method was developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s and was brought to the United States by he and his wife Clara as Contrology. According to Joseph Pilates, “Contrology is the complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit.” The exercises achieve this by emphasizing the core and spine, while at the same time, working the whole body. Scotti says that the core is important because “it includes the stabilizing muscles in the body. Having control and stability in the core is foundational for all of our movements.”

Even the breathing exercises are focused on the core. Scotti says this is because breathing uses the transverse abs, which help to support the body. As it turns out, “there’s a lot of muscle work involved in breathing.” That’s why Scotti calls Pilates a “neuromuscular exercise.” Every exercise is functional and requires complete concentration so that your brain can communicate with your muscles.

Courtesy: Scotti Harwood

How Pilates is Done

The foundation of Pilates is its mat program, which doesn’t require any extra equipment other than a Pilates mat. This type of mat is similar to a Yoga mat in length but is usually a bit wider to allow for the wide range of exercises that are done on the floor.

Learning how to do Pilates begins with learning how to breathe correctly. According to Scotti, this is critical because “breathing gives your body the cues and guidance it needs during the exercises.” For Pilates, you breathe into your rib cage and exhale by feeling your breath move up your body. In Return to Life, Joseph Pilates says, The complete exhalation and inhalation of air stimulates all muscles into greater activity.” Because of this, each of the subsequent movements you learn will then correlate with your breath in one way or another.

Many Pilates programs also use special equipment such as the cadillac, reformer and chair. At first glance, they may make you think of torture equipment, but the results are far from it. The design of the equipment is based on when Joseph Pilates was helping to rehab soldiers in World War I and had to work with them in their hospital beds. That’s how he developed many of the exercises, which are now used for a variety of fitness needs. Scotti uses both mat exercises and the equipment with her clients because “each piece of equipment is good for different aspects of what you want to focus on.”

Whether it’s on the mat or with equipment, each sequence of exercises builds on the one before it. The key to all of it though is control. You have to be focused, you have to feel every movement and you have to let your core do all of the work. There is nothing fast, jerky or spastic about the movements. They are all slow and methodical.

As I found out, this is easier said than done because my arms and shoulders wanted to do all the heavy lifting, but that’s not the way it works. It has to all be in the core. While I have a standard set of ab exercises I do on a regular basis, this was like nothing I’ve ever felt before, and it went from my abs up my spine and back down again. You definitely feel each muscle being isolated and worked.

Courtesy: Scotti Harwood

Primary Benefits of Pilates

In his book Return to Life Through Contrology, Joseph Pilates says “Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.” While it may seem too good to be true, it’s exactly those types of results that have millions of Pilates practitioners throughout the world coming back for more.

According to the United States Pilates Association, the classical methodology of Pilates has been proven effective with injury prevention and recovery, improved alignment, enhanced breathing and circulation, increased strength, flexibility and balance and improved muscle tone, energy and mental concentration. Scotti says, “You feel taller, more limber, and as if the whole body has had a good workout.” These benefits are why Pilates can be used as a primary form of exercise or as a complement to other athletic pursuits. Dancers, football players, runners and gymnasts are just a few of the types of athletes that use Pilates to enhance their skills and improve their performance.

Scotti’s clients use Pilates for a variety of reasons – athletes who want to make sure they’re using and moving their bodies the best way possible so they don’t end up injured, people who are learning to move freely again after being injured in an accident, those who want to maintain their good posture as they’re getting older, people who incorporate it into a rehab regimen and many who just look to it for general fitness.

I even found that my short session gave me the added benefit of being more mindful while I was eating for the rest of the day. After having been so aware of every move I was making and how my body was feeling, rushing through eating didn’t seem to fit at all. This type of residual mental effect is what Scotti described as that “bright-eyed happy look at the end of a Pilates workout.” She says that focusing only on your body, breathing and moving for 45-50 minutes leaves you feeling more clear and present as you go about the rest of your day.

The ultimate benefit of Pilates though, at least according to what Joseph Pilates believed, is that anyone can do it. If you’re working with a teacher, it can be modified to fit any need or level.

Courtesy: Scotti Harwood

Tips for Getting Started

If you’re just getting started with Pilates, Scotti offers the following tips:

  • Find a teacher at the beginning. Work with a teacher in a one-on-one or one-on-two setting until you at least learn the basic exercises to make sure you’re doing them correctly. While Scotti fully endorses taking Pilates classes, she says that unless you can find one that’s geared specifically for beginners, you probably won’t be able to get the attention you need as you’re just starting out. Once you’ve learned the basic moves, she says, classes are a good way to have someone guiding you through the exercises while keeping costs lower.
  • Find a trained teacher. If you decide to work with a teacher, make sure they are well trained. While you can find teachers who are certified, it’s not absolutely necessary that they are. According to Scotti (who is certified), the certification process is fairly new, so you may have teachers who have been teaching for decades, but they’re not certified because that wasn’t an expectation until recently. She says the most important thing is knowing what training and experience your teacher does have.
  • Wear clothing that is comfortable but not baggy. You want your clothing to allow you to move freely but not be so baggy that the teacher can’t see what your body is really doing.
  • Focus on breathing. As mentioned before, this is one of the most fundamental aspects of Pilates.
  • Listen to your body. If it hurts or doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Ask your teacher for assistance or modification.
  • Enjoy it! Challenge yourself and work to your edge and level because that’s where you’ll get the most benefit.

Since core strength is my weakness, I’ve been very interested in trying Pilates but have been too intimidated to participate in a class. Doing the research for this blog and the micro-session with Scotti has reinforced the idea that Pilates is something that I really want and need to be doing. I highly recommend giving it a try if you haven’t already!

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