Named after its inventor, Joseph Pilates, the practice of Pilates has become synonymous with svelte dancer bodies and strong core muscles. However, it’s an exercise practice that can be confusing to learn about, as there are two separate versions involving either mats or specialized equipment. We’ll examine what exactly pilates is, what it’s good for, and how to get started if you’re interested in trying a pilates class. To help us best understand this unique workout system, we tapped Pilates and fitness professional Ethan Carter and Club Pilates master trainer Ricardo Granados.
What Is Pilates?
Developed in the 1920s, Pilates rose to popularity in recent decades. It’s an exercise system that focuses on the spine and core muscle group, aiming to build strength and flexibility through low-impact movements. Stressing alignment, posture, and breathing, Pilates uses moves that may initially seem small or simple but are challenging when done correctly and repeatedly. It aims to be accessible for all people, regardless of age or fitness level, and works both to improve your fitness level and to help rehabilitate injuries.
Mat Pilates is done, as expected, on a yoga or other mat, while equipment-based Pilates, often referred to as “Reformer” Pilates for the most famous of its equipment pieces, is done on specialized equipment that utilizes springs for resistance. Mat Pilates can be done at a studio or at home, while the equipment version always involves going to a studio.
Of Pilates’ ability to create change in our day to day lives, Ethan notes, “Pilates is unique because it is built for longevity and improves our daily activities, so one can maintain their Pilates practice for a lifetime.”
An Excellent Toning Exercise
Because Pilates works on strengthening small muscle groups, along with focusing on posture and alignment, it is excellent for toning your muscles without creating bulk--hence its usage by dancers and others looking to maintain lean physiques. That’s not its only use, though. Ethan says that Pilates can help you “develop strength with flexibility, increase core connection, improve posture, and reduce the chance of injuries” from other activities.
What to Expect From a Pilates Workout
If you’re considering a Pilates class, first you should decide whether you want to do a mat class or an equipment one. If you’ll be streaming the class at home that decision is made for you (mat it is!), but if you’re going to a studio you’ll have the option of either. Despite this being a personal choice, Ethan suggests starting with mat work, noting that “the mat work is the foundation to all Pilates, and not incorporating the mat into one's sessions is like building a house without a concrete slab foundation. One could do it, but it's not recommended.”
When you go to a Pilates class, expect lots of small movements that initially may not seem difficult but will quickly grow more challenging as you do them. Modifications will be offered, so those should be used by any who need them. And just because you’re working with small movements and muscle groups, that doesn’t mean you won’t be sore! Expect to feel the class after in areas where you weren’t even aware you had muscles, throughout your entire body.
Benefits of Pilates
Better posture and more toned muscles are just two of the many benefits of Pilates. Ricardo says that the “strongest health benefit of doing Pilates, aside from achieving your fitness goals, is that it improves your everyday living in the way you move.” It’s also useful to help recover from injuries, with instructors often touting pilates as the best form of exercise rehabilitation. Pilates is an excellent stand alone exercise system, but its benefits, like improved posture and core strength, can also help you prevent future injuries from any other types of workout you do in addition to it.
It’s rare that a workout makes a point of noting that you don’t need to be in shape or youthful to try it, which is one of the many ways that Pilates is unique. Ethan says, “Pilates is truly for every body regardless of age, injuries, and/or level of fitness. A qualified instructor will know what exercises to modify and/or omit based on the individual. Pilates is low impact and should not cause any injuries.” That being said, if you do experience pain, speak to your instructor first to ensure you're practicing correct form. Seek medical attention if the problem persists.
It’s best to not eat directly before class since you’ll be doing ab and core work, and to drink plenty of water before and after class to ensure you stay hydrated. There are certain specific groups of people who may not benefit from pilates, including those with pre-eclampsia or fractures.
Pilates Vs. Yoga
Pilates and yoga have some similarities, such as both improving flexibility, but they’re very different overall and, as such, tend to be viewed as complementary exercise systems. Ricardo notes, “Pilates is great in that it compliments all forms of fitness, including Yoga! Your core movement is enhanced along with other muscle groups that you don't typically work.”
Ethan agrees that the two each have their place: “I hesitate to say one modality is better than the other when discussing Pilates versus yoga. There are some similarities but they really are very different formats.” However, he feels that age can make the scales weigh in Pilates favor, noting, “I do believe for aging clients that Pilates is a better choice. From my experience, yoga can be hard with seniors that develop joint issues specifically with their wrists and shoulders, as well as those with balance issues. In contrast, the Pilates apparatus can assist a client with these issues while still challenging them to a good workout.”
What to Wear to a Pilates Class
If you’re going to an equipment class, it’s very important that you wear form-fitting clothing free of hanging ties and belts so that it can’t get caught in the machines, as well as that you avoid buckles, hooks, or any other fasteners or baubles that could damage the equipment’s upholstery. You’ll want to remove any jewelry that could get caught in machines, as well. Simple leggings or sweats and a t-shirt or tank top are ideal for either a mat or equipment class.
In terms of footwear, shoes are eschewed in favor of bare feet or socks with rubberized gripping power. Each studio will have its own preferences, as will each practitioner, but it’s important to know that you won’t be wearing any athletic footwear, and that Pilates studios are shoe-free spaces.
Because many movements are done with legs in the air, for equipment or mat classes you’ll want to avoid wearing short shorts or loose pants that will fall down to your buttocks when your legs are lifted.
How to Get Started With Pilates
Even though it’s a different form of exercise than you’re probably used to, there’s no background work needed before your first class. Once you’ve scheduled the class, you need only to show up on time--or early if you need to fill out paperwork--and be prepared for a new workout. Ricardo suggests that “it’s ok if you don’t understand it at first. With practice and commitment, you will develop the knowledge to move your body in the proper form for Pilates,” and Ethan agrees, adding, “the only things needed are a mat and a reputable instructor to get you started.” Ethan suggests bringing “ToeSox, or any socks with the rubber grips on the bottom” over bare feet.
Unlike many other forms of exercise, Pilates is truly for everyone. It’s a system that aims to strengthen your core muscles, improve your flexibility, tone your muscles, and overall help you stay in shape throughout your life. Starting with a mat class is recommended over jumping straight into equipment work, and you don’t have to buy any special equipment or attire in preparation. No matter your age or current fitness level, Pilates is worth a try, and does not carry much risk of injury provided you’re working with a good instructor.
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