Author: Christin Call

Pilates Instructor, Seattle Athletic Club Downtown

Mythbuster 4: Pilates is too easy. Pilates is too hard.

Are you an athlete?  Physically active and fit?  Pilates, with its fluid, effortless-looking motions and low-resistance spring-loading, may seem like it won’t challenge you enough.  In actuality Pilates can require as much exertion and stamina as your regular workout routine, but will never leave you exhausted.

The difference is to use mindfulness to work smaller muscle groups that often get passed over for the big movers.  You will also need precision to work only the necessary muscles required to do the movement.  Pilates will fine tune the way you work your body, change bad habits from overworking/underworking muscles, and increase mobility and functionality of your joints so that you can continue in your other physical activities.  In addition, you’ll work your mental acuity by challenging the coordination of the movements of your body.  The holistic development of this coordination with fluidity and control is excellent cross-training that will influence how you approach your other activities as well as reduce your recovery time from them.

Are you just starting a workout routine?  Do you have injuries or other limitations that impede your movement and wellness?  Pilates is a low-impact system of exercise that is gentle enough to allow you to focus on exactly what you need without ever endangering your health or safety.  The use of only gravity or spring resistance allows you to challenge and work your body while in a state of support.  There are hundreds of ways to cater each exercise to your specific needs, as well as to continue to challenge as you get stronger.  A very important element of Pilates is that you will work your body without experiencing pain.  This is radically different from the “no pain, no gain” mentality you may be more familiar with.  In Pilates, pain is the body’s alarm-system that means “stop”!  But, it won’t stop you from still working hard under the guidance of your instructor, who will challenge you and make you feel at ease as you work!

Mythbuster #3: Pilates and yoga are the same.

Joseph Pilates had a diverse background in physical activity. Being  sick as a child motivated him as an adult to become an accomplished boxer, diver, and skier who also studied ancient Greek and Roman exercise regimens.  He developed his own system of exercise by culling from a variety of sources, including fencing, acrobatics, and yoga, etc.

 

It is clear that he was influenced by the goals of yogic practice, bringing the mind and body together for holistic health. He called his method “Contrology,” the study of control, because he believed that connecting the mind to the work of the body would bring strength and fortitude to everyday life. Yoga comes from the mindset of a spiritual practice, however, and the idea of “yolking” with ultimate reality. Pilates was very much reacting to the industrialization of the early 1900’s. He saw that the burgeoning technology of mass production was causing people to move mindlessly and sought to bring mindfulness into the mechanical precision of the new age.

 

There are two components to Pilates: matwork and apparatus work.  The matwork is the most similar to a yoga class. Both are performed on a mat while your teacher leads you through a specific order of exercises that use gravity as resistance. In Pilates matwork your main focus will be moving from your center, called the “powerhouse,” to execute movements that focus on control and precision, while in yoga you will use your breath to place your body into alignment.

 

The pace of the class can be a major difference, as well. In Pilates matwork there is a seamless and rhythmic flow between exercises, so that you are always moving and never still. This is a way of stretching your body dynamically—making you limber while maintaining and improving explosive muscle power. Yoga generally employs a different kind of stretching that is muscularly active but much more static, holding poses for a certain length of time in order to deepen into poses. The use of eccentric contraction in Pilates matwork, (actively contracting the muscle while it’s on the stretch) is what gives Pilates practitioners the “long, lean” look.

 

The apparatus invented by Joseph Pilates include the Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Electric Chair, and Ladder Barrel. They are incredibly versatile pieces that use spring resistance to develop the powerhouse, articulate the spine, and increase strength, flexibility, and balance in the body. You will always use apparatus with the guidance of a Pilates instructor who can modify your workout and the exercises to either assist or challenge you in your workout goals. The genius of Pilates’ designs is that there are almost limitless variations of exercises that allow your instructor to cater directly to you, whether you are an elite athlete, just beginning a workout regimen, or recovering from injury.

Internal Resistance in Pilates Matwork

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

Read these instructors’ bios and credentials.