When fitness enthusiasts are asked about the benefits of Pilates, most will talk of abdominal strength and definition. However, while the coveted six-pack abs is one of the most apparent benefits of Pilates practice, the true advantages of Pilates are more than skin-deep. This age-old exercise method corrects postural alignment and facilitates fluidity of movement, thereby enhancing grace and coordination.
A Brief History of Pilates
Ironically, the Pilates technique was created by a man who was, at first, not very graceful or coordinated. In fact, he embodied the principle of "healer, heal thyself." By looking at his history, one can understand how Joseph Pilates developed a tried and true method of physical conditioning.
Joseph Pilates: From Asthmatic to Athletic
Unlike many of the historic superstars of the fitness industry, Joseph Pilates was not a natural athlete. He was born in 1880 in a small town in Germany. As a child, he suffered from rheumatic fever, rickets and asthma. This would change when his doctor gave him an old anatomy book. It was then that Joseph Pilates decided to take charge of his own health and fitness.
His eclectic routine included observation of the movements of animals, along with a study of Eastern and Western exercise techniques. By age 14, he was so buff that he was asked to model for anatomy charts. Eventually, he became a skier, a gymnast, a boxer and a circus performer. In fact, while visiting England to gain further training for his boxing skills, Pilates was employed as a circus performer.
Pilates Exercise and Immunity
With the outbreak of World War I, Pilates was transferred to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. It was here that he developed his unique method of conditioning, which involved rigging the hospital bedsprings to create rehabilitation exercises for injured soldiers. Years later, this basic yet brilliant idea inspired the creation of the Pilates Reformer.
Even before more sophisticated equipment was invented, Joseph Pilates’ patients discovered one of the unexpected advantages of Pilates exercise. At the time, there was an influenza outbreak, which killed many people throughout England. The unsanitary conditions at the internment camp meant that these prisons were hit the hardest. However, none of the followers of Joseph Pilates were infected with the disease. While research about the correlation between exercise and immunity was sparse in the medical community, this scenario served as a clear indication of the benefits of Pilates.
Develop a Dancer’s Grace with Pilates
After the war, Pilates returned to Germany, where many of the pioneers of the modern dance movement became enamored by his technique. The advantages of Pilates for dancers were obvious. Pilates exercise enhances fluidity, corrects postural alignment and creates a mind/body connection that facilitates the ability to concentrate on learning new choreography.
When Pilates was asked to train Hitler’s army, he declined and came to America. Upon his arrival, he opened a studio in New York City, where his popularity extended beyond the dance community to the general population.
Understanding the Benefits of Pilates
The advantages of Pilates practice include:
- Improved posture
- Core strength
- Fluid movement
- Better muscle tone
Additionally, anyone who has ever suffered from joint pain will find that it alleviates the pain associated with this condition. In fact, because of its emphasis on fluid movement, Pilates may be helpful in preventing the onset of arthritis.
Cutting to the Core of Pilates Training
Pilates spoke of the powerhouse, which included the deeper muscles of the abdominal area, the gluteus and the back. He believed that all movements stem from this area. Today, we call this region "the core." Pilates was ahead of his time. When the Australian physiotherapist Paul Hodges performed his research about back problems, he discovered that people who did not have lower back pain automatically activate their core muscles a fraction of a second prior to performing a given movement. The resulting core stabilization protects the muscles of the lower back.
In contrast, people with back problems activate their core muscles a second after a movement begins. This means that they are working from a starting position of instability. Instability is the enemy of fluidity. Movements that lack fluidity are jerky. Jerky movements cause back problems and other types of injury. Pilates exercise enhances the ability to activate the core, and thus prevent injury. Toned and defined abdominal muscles are a welcome side benefit of this core activation.
Perfecting Posture with Pilates
Additionally, by correcting common muscular imbalances, Pilates exercise aids in the development of optimal postural alignment. Yet unlike static exercise methods, the alignment, strength and flexibility achieved through Pilates is dynamic. Instead of holding a series of postures, you flow from movement to movement. As such, the technique simultaneously enhances flexibility and strength. Some instructors call this "strength with length." Furthermore, the ability to maintain postural alignment while in motion is called agility, which is an important component of athleticism. Pilates’ participants speak of their improved ability to catch a ball, ski a mogul, or quickly or spontaneously change directions.
Pilates: A Breath of Fresh Air
The breathing patterns that are incorporated into the Pilates movement promote relaxation and relieve anxiety. Furthermore, since the function of the deep core musculature to compress the air from the diaphragm on exhalation, these breathing patterns aid in core activation. You can see examples of the technique by trying out these free Pilates exercises. When you become proficient with the mat exercises, you may want try a Pilates machine class.
Pilates exercise was once in the domain of the professional athletes and dancers. Today, it’s become a popular exercise form for people of all professions. Joseph Pilates once said that he was 50 years ahead of his time. Apparently, he was right.