There are no towers of weights in the Pilates room. No clanging of metal on metal. So what makes Pilates a comparable workout to lifting heavy weights? How is it even possible to use the same exertion? The key is using internal resistance — leveraging the body’s own muscles in controlled opposition — to build strong, yet pliable muscles.
Joseph Pilates, who was a big, barrel-chested man as an adult, developed this carefully designed group of exercises in the early 1900’s after being plagued as a child with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. He integrated many influences, including calisthenics, boxing, yoga, and gymnastics into a comprehensive system he called “Contrology.”
Joseph believed that the mind must be as active as the body, attuning itself to physical awareness and the internal, biomechanical components at play. With the mind connected to the body, you can harness internal resistance to control which of your muscles are moving and which are stabilizing. Without concentration the body will recruit the muscles that are strongest to perform the action, and the muscles that are weaker, especially the hard-to-find muscles of the low abdomen, miss their opportunities to be challenged. Being able to control which muscles are moving and which are stabilizing makes your movements more efficient and fluid, helps you stave off fatigue, and keeps you feeling energized throughout your workout.
Joseph Pilates’ concept of control hadn’t been studied or tested in the scientific community very much during his lifetime, but now we can explain the “-ology” aspect through simultaneous use of eccentric and isometric contractions.
Eccentric contraction happens in the muscles that are on the move, i.e. your hip and leg muscles when swinging the leg front and back. All Pilates exercises combine an element of strengthening with lengthening, so that your muscles are active while on the stretch. This is what makes the muscle stronger and more pliable at the same time. The benefits are two-fold—your hips get stronger and more flexible simultaneously. Plus, your muscles will start to look different, too, as they get longer and leaner.
Isometric contraction happens in the muscles that are not moving but stabilizing, i.e. holding your torso still while swinging the leg front and back. The more effective the isometric contraction the less you will become fatigued while active. High intensity movement requires us to be able to hold more muscles still than are actually moving. If there are “too many cooks into the kitchen,” the muscles groups you are trying to target don’t engage fully, and the ancillary muscles work too hard and are soon exhausted!
The combination of eccentric and isometric contraction exists throughout the Pilates work, especially so in the exercises on the mat. (See SAC Pilates Instructor Jocelyn Paoli’s posts on basic mat exercises.) In fact, matwork is considered to be both the base and the crown of the Pilates work. While the Pilates equipment assists in finding correct muscle use, control, and alignment, the tools of matwork are limited to your own internal resistance and gravity. It is with matwork that you are challenged to move and flow with control through whole body exercises with only the aid of muscle groups in opposition. As you master these concepts, the exercises continue to challenge with new variations that keep your mind engaged and your body working towards even more control, range, and pliability.
If you walk into the Mind/Body studio at the club during mat class, you will notice the fluidity and calmness of the movement. You will also notice intense focus, sweat, audible breathing, and yes, a few groans and grunts as the mind and body work together to build a comprehensively stronger, more flexible, more balanced physical self!
Why not give it a try as the new year kicks into high gear? Even if you are very fit, start with a Fundamentals or Basic class, as you will need to further develop or fine-tune your mind-body connection to really get into the meat of this unique workout. Enjoy the results!
Christin Call teaches Fundamentals of Pilates on Wednesdays, 12:00 – 12:45pm
Danielle Zack teaches Basic Pilates Mat on Saturdays, 8:00 – 8:25am
Masha Volotovskaya teaches Fudamentals of Pilates on Sundays, 11:15am – 12:00pm