Pilates is something that many people I talk to still don’t quite understand. Most think of it as a form of yoga, and although Pilates and yoga have some similarities, Pilates is much different. As a trainer with extensive training and a specialty in Pilates, I am very excited to introduce the top benefits of Pilates and ten classic moves to get you started!
First, What is Pilates?
Pilates has actually been around for over 100 years now. It was developed in Germany by the late Joseph Pilates. He developed it as a cure for himself of ailments such as asthma. During World War I, he began teaching his methods to others, mostly bedridden military patients who needed exercise to prevent them getting sicker. It was used almost as physical therapy for them.
In the 1920s, Pilates moved to America where he opened his first official “studio.” It happened to be in the same building as the New York City Ballet — and this is where the “female” and “dancer” workout association comes from.
Until his death 40 years later, he trained many others who have carried on the Pilates traditions. Pilates is one of the most popular workouts today, with classes at almost every gym or athletic club. But the root of Pilates is deep, and many of the exercises have not changed in over 100 years. (1)
Benefits of Pilates:
It’s a Total-Body Workout – While Pilates focuses on core strength, it also develops full-body strength. It ensures that certain muscles will not become overdeveloped or underdeveloped. Pilates promotes balance through the body while increasing flexibility and joint range of motion.
Improves Mind-Body Awareness – Attention to core strength and matching movement with your breath provides a challenge to the mind as well. This mind-body connection becomes important in everyday movement as well as in your other non-Pilates workout routines.
Perfect for Everybody – No matter what your fitness level, Pilates can be adapted to your workout routine. The foundational exercises and movements are used for the very most basic exercisers all the way to athletes. With thousands of exercises and modifications, Pilates can be tailored to any individual. Focusing on core strength and proper alignments allows the exerciser to develop the strength to progress at a safe, yet challenging speed.
Increases Flexibility – With each movement, you will work through contracting certain muscles, while finding length through other muscles. Many exercises work on increasing range of motion through a joint or focus on building flexibility through muscles.
Improves Posture – With increased core strength and an understanding for the correct alignment that comes with Pilates, better posture will also soon develop. Good posture is a reflection of good alignment supported by a strong core.
The Basics of Pilates
Complete this workout as a series, moving from one exercise to the next with minimal breaks in between. As you develop strength, you may even be able to complete the entire series without resting.
Start by laying on your back with arms extended overhead and legs out straight. Engage your abdominals to flatten your lower back into the mat. Without using momentum, peel your spine off the mat, one vertebra at a time, pulling your navel into your spine. Keep using your abdominals to sit all the way up and reach towards your toes, making a C-curve with your spine.
Slowly lower back down keeping your heels glued to the mat, and place one vertebra on the mat as you lay all the way back down, reaching the arms back overhead. The key is to make sure you roll SLOWLY through your spine, using your abs, and not “hoisting” yourself up with momentum. Complete 4-6 repetitions. Works your abdominals, stretches your spine, and warms the body up for more intense exercise.
Sit right on top of your sit bones, and reach your arms out to the side, extending through your fingertips. Imagine a string pulling you up from the crown of your head and rotate from your spine to the RIGHT. Scoop your belly button in towards your spine as you start to reach your LEFT arm forward to your RIGHT foot.
Imagine “sawing” off your pinky toe with your pinky finger. Stack your spine back up straight using your abdominals and rotate to the other side, reaching your RIGHT arm to your LEFT foot. Make sure to reach through the fingers and always lengthen through your spine. Complete 6-8 repetitions on both sides. Works the abdominals, including the obliques, and stretches the spine and hamstrings.
Single Leg Stretch
Lay on your back and bring your RIGHT knee in towards your chest. Hold onto the knee with both hands, but don’t “pull” the knee into the chest. Just use your arms as support. Extend the LEFT leg out so that it hovers over the mat a few inches (making sure your back doesn’t arch). Lift your head and the chest off the mat and lengthen out through the crown of the head.
Use the abdominals to switch the legs so that the LEFT knee comes in to the chest. Continue alternating which knee comes into the chest, using the lower abs to bring the knees in. Complete 6-8 repetitions on both sides. Works the upper and lower abdominals. Stretches the lower back.
Double Leg Stretch
Bring both knees in towards the chest so that the knees are directly over your hips. Lift your head and your chest off the mat and position the hands on the knees. Keeping the head and chest lifted, extend the arms overhead, keeping your biceps in line with your ears, and extend the legs out into a diagonal position to your point of control. As you use the lower abdominals to bring the knees back into the chest, circle the arms around to lightly “hug” the knees into the chest. Repeat 8-10 times. Works the upper and lower abdominals. Stretches the lower back.
Single Straight Leg Stretch
Extend both legs up to the ceiling and hold on to the back of the RIGHT thigh, calf, or ankle (depending on flexibility), and extend the LEFT leg so that it hovers at your point of control. Keeping the head and the chest lifted, “scissor” the legs to switch the LEFT leg up to the ceiling as the RIGHT leg hovers off the mat. Repeat scissoring the legs side to side for 6-8 repetitions on both side. Works the upper and lower abdominals, stretches the hamstrings.
Double Straight Leg Stretch
Keep both legs extended up to the ceiling as you bring both hands behind your head, keeping your elbows wide. Press your lower back into the mat completely as you lift your head and chest off the mat.
Keeping the legs straight, lower them a few inches to your point of control. Engage the lower abs and pull the legs back up. Be sure the lower back doesn’t leave the mat and stays imprinted into the mat during the length of the exercise. Targets the lower abdominals.
Keeping the hands behind the head, bring the knees into the chest. Keep the RIGHT knee into the chest as you extend the LEFT leg out to your point of control. Rotate from the spine to the RIGHT, reaching the LEFT elbow to the RIGHT knee. Keep the hips steady as you rotate the RIGHT elbow to the LEFT knee. Continue rotating side to side for 6-8 repetitions on each side. Works the upper and lower abdominals, the obliques, and increases spinal mobility.
Bring yourself to a full plank on your hands. Engage the abs to keep the spine straight and lengthen through the crown of your head. Make sure you don’t lock out your elbows, and keep your middle fingers pointing straight forward with your fingers spread apart and pressing into your knuckles (to prevent discomfort in your wrists). Rotate the inside of your elbows forward to engage your biceps. Hold for 5-10 deep breaths. Works the abdominals, shoulder girdle and stabilizers.
Lay on your RIGHT side, stacking your hips and feet. Position your bottom RIGHT elbow directly under your RIGHT shoulder. Lift your bottom hip off the ground to create a straight line in a plank. You should be lifting from your bottom oblique and feel a slight pinch in the waistline. Reach your top hand towards the ceiling or place it on your top hip. Hold for 5-10 deep breaths and then switch sides.(To modify this exercise, keep your bottom knee on the ground.) Targets the obliques and strengthens shoulder stabilizers.
Lay on your back with your arms by your sides. Just as with the roll up, roll one vertebra at a time off the mat as you also lift the legs up pulling the knees in towards the chest. Balance on your tailbone as you reach your arms towards your toes.
Try to bring your shins parallel to the floor, and focus on lifting your chest and lengthening through your spine. Slowly, and with control, lower back down, one vertebra at a time. Repeat 6-8 times. Works the abdominals and spine erectors.
Adding this Pilates sequence into your workout routine 2-3 times per week will improve posture and help you develop strength in your other exercises. A strong core and a better mind-body connection may help you take your workouts to a level you didn’t even think possible.
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