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To many, the form of exercise innovated by Joseph H. Pilates nearly a century ago is viewed as something almost exclusively for women. Pilates, a bodybuilder, boxer, gymnast and dancer, developed a system that provides a method for obtaining true strength, structural alignment, increased athletic performance and injury prevention, regardless of the practitioner’s sex. As a Pilates instructor, I’ve studied both West and East Coast styles, worked with physical therapists and have trained dancers, housewives, marathoners, Ironman participants and football players, all with the goal of increasing integrated balanced strength.
“True strength” is how I refer to the balanced strength that Pilates training gives a body. At traditional gyms you can develop your pectorals, biceps and “six-pack” abdominals, but oftentimes the same workouts that build these muscle groups neglect the deeper, intrinsic muscles so necessary for true strength. Pilates also helps to rebuild weakened and damaged ligaments and tendons. One of my clients came to me complaining of back problems. He did only crunches for his midsection. With Pilates, we worked on strengthening his transverse abdominals—a deeper layer of muscle than the visible rectus abdominis—whittling his waist down as we created core strength for back support. After just a few sessions his back problems had diminished considerably, and after two months he had none at all. He continues with Pilates to this day. His strength is now that of a gymnast. A healthy muscle is flexible and strong; a weak muscle is rigid and tight. The balanced approach to strength training advocated by Pilates practitioners results in a body with strong muscles that are not limited by the kind of one-dimensional training that has become the standard at most gyms.
Pilates can have a profound effect on a competitive athlete’s performance, regardless of the sport. Another client of mine was training for a marathon in Florence, a city whose cobbled streets pose a challenge to even the most veteran of runners. The structural alignment Pilates imparts helped improve his running mechanics, which in turn helped him avoid injury. In addition, increased core and intercostal muscle strength helped improve his lung capacity, thanks to the practice of breath control and diaphragmatic breathing that is integral to Pilates. Moreover, his timing and proprioception (cognizance of one’s own body strength and movement) improved—other assets invaluable to athletes. My client is now a regular marathoner.
One of the most important benefits of Pilates is injury prevention. Sports, such baseball, football and golf, work the body asymmetrically, creating muscle imbalances. Such imbalances are the root of many injuries, much a like a car whose tires have not been rotated. A blowout can happen anytime, to either the tires or to the disc in your spine. Pilates corrects these imbalances and improves posture. Elasticity of ligaments and tendons are also improved with Pilates. Few things are more painful or incapacitating than a torn or ruptured ligament, which can often require months of recovery. Other painful maladies, such as tendonitis, can be corrected by Pilates training.
On the whole, Pilates can improve performance, strength and appearance. Joseph Pilates himself embodied the classical Greek ideal of male physique and performance into his 80’s, and his system of life-enhancing physical exercises has been shown to balance the mind as well as the body, while incorporating breath work, to create an overall sense of wellbeing. All of these benefits can be gained from exercising the Pilates way, regardless of your sex, age, level of fitness or training goals. Moreover, integrating Pilates into your workout can be as simple as checking out some mat classes, and routines can be customized to meet your specific needs when you work with a well-trained Pilates instructor. If you’re serious about increasing performance and strength, try checking out pilates!