Pilates as Smart Exercise - Principles and Efficiency

What Is Pilates Exercise?

When I began teaching pilates, my grandmother thought that I taught Karate. Everyone else seemed to think it was just a sister to yoga, i.e. a whole lot of stretching and not much else, and something that Oprah does.

So what exactly is pilates? And if it is just a whole bunch of stretching why would anyone do it besides dancers?!

Pilates Basic Principles

I’m going to start with the very basics and work my way up so that everyone can have a clear foundation of what pilates is, but not limited to! The pilates system is built upon principles which make it so applicable to a wide ranging number of activities including daily life. Depending on the different methods of pilates there are varying numbers of basic principles. I teach five basic principles:

1. Breath
2. Pelvic Area
3. Rib Cage Area
4. Scapular Area
5. Head & Cervical Area

I always tell my clients that understanding the pilates principles is key to progression and getting a full workout. I can give my clients very challenging workouts but if they are not willing to understand how engagement works (which I teach of course!) within the principles, then their workout will always fall shy of its full potential.

It is the difference between working one or two muscles on a given exercise and working almost every muscle in the body!

Pilates as Intelligent Exercise

This is what some people refer to as pilates being a form of “smart exercise.” While teaching I avoid letting my clients get away with mindless and repetitive movements because it is not (for you business people out there) cost effective.

Why would anyone spend their time doing a ridiculous number of every kind of sit-up known to mankind if they could do a few exercise that targets all of the abdominal muscles AND many other muscles in the body?

Why would they spend more TIME (because it is so precious these days) doing countless exercises when they could cut down and get faster results which are multi-purposed?

Multi-Purpose Pilates Yields Results

Multi-purpose? Often when people go to the gym they mindlessly (usually while watching a TV) work out different muscle groups. What I also see at the gym are people working out with weights and their alignment is stacked up resembling the leaning Tower of Pisa or a weeping willow tree.

Those people wind up with a little (and sometimes a lot thanks to Creatine) more muscle, however those muscles are trained to push large amounts of weight and often lack stability and awareness. Pain and injury can result, sometimes long term, affecting simple pleasures like a walk.

Bigger muscles are not bad. Going to the gym is not bad. Pilates makes the distinction between big muscle vs. muscle that has function beyond pushing heavy weight. Pilates saves on time by working more muscles in every exercise and creates faster results. Pilates principles can even be implemented into weight training for extra effectiveness!

Pilates Workout

In pilates we focus for one hour each session not only on pushing through weight but also spend a lot of time reminding our bodies, in every single exercise, where healthy anatomical alignment is. Time is spent understanding exactly how to wrap our mind around our bodies to restore control of our body in neutral, flexion, extension, and rotation - this alone requires a lot of coordination despite the level of workout.

I find it fascinating that there are people who cannot, or think they cannot, do certain movements. Our bodies (for you science people) have things like tissues, muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, etc. Our brains (by way of nerves and signals) move our muscles and our muscles move our bones. If you have a brain, some muscles, and some bones then you can do most movements - if the time is put in!

It is great to watch a person who thinks they are incapable or uncoordinated master challenging pilates exercises. Pshew- just one more self imposed limiting hurdle lifted! (see photo illustration below)

Pilates Applied

My favorite part of pilates? I love how accessible pilates is to other parts of lives. When you leave the pilates studio you take your brain, muscles, and bones with you (hopefully) and as a result you get to see differences in other areas in your life ranging from less body pain and better posture to better control and flexibility.

If you spend time teaching your muscles - they will remember! This is why I have worked with horse riders, gymnasts, dancers, etc. because they find that the time that they spend in the Pilates studio is immediately transferable to their activity of choice.

People who have back or other chronic pains finally find relief. In understanding the neutral alignment and the principles, they can get at the root cause of the pain.

I find that pilates restores so much in a body that can easily get lost. By doing exercises on pilates equipment, from the simple Mat or Flexband, to the specialized Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, or Barrel, you gain flexibility, strength, range of motion, and control - along with countless other intangible things enabling you to pursue and enhance the things most important in your life.

So remind me again what exactly those principles are and how exactly do they work? Check out this review of the pilates basic principles, and don’t worry it doesn’t involve your mother’s list of good morals.



Pilates Cadillac Exercise



These two pictures illustrate a pilates exercise called the Spread Eagle using the trapeze - performed on the Cadillac.

I have posted them to show an example of an exercise that all of my clients learned to do. The catch is that it is NOT an easy exercise. It requires coordination, strength, and an understanding of all of the pilates principles, which is clearly seen at every stage.

Spread Eagle on the Cadillac - Step by Step

  • Starting position is the first picture.
  • Exhale - Articulation begins in the pelvis and continues through the low back, middle back, and upper back sequentially until the body is in one straight line from heels to upper back. (picture not shown)
  • Inhale - Elbows bend and even extension of the spine is executed with the sternum leading towards the ceiling. At this point the ankles can release the dorsi flexion because of the downward pressure of the leg. (second picture)
  • Exhale - Chin gently nods towards the chest starting the reverse spinal articulation; head, neck, upper back, middle back, lower back, and finally pelvis. Elbows return to a straightened, but not locked, position.
  • You are now back to the starting position with ankles flexed, legs long, pelvis in neutral (not tucked, or extended), back long, and elbows soft.
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