The Promise of Pilates

Pilates (pronounced pi LAH tees) has been around for nearly a century, but it has become increasingly popular due to its association with professional athletes and Hollywood actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Melanie Griffith, Danny Glover and Drew Barrymore who credit the method with helping them overcome painful injuries as well as increase flexibility, stamina and core strength.

The Pilates method is a system of movement and therapeutic exercise developed in the early 1900’s by German born athlete and physical therapy pioneer, Joseph H. Pilates. Born in Germany in 1880, Pilates was stricken with asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever as a child. These ailments fed his drive to achieve a stronger, healthier body. Interned as a German national in England after the start of World War I, he preached the benefits of a strong mind-to-body connection. His advice was credited with helping fellow internees maintain their health throughout the catastrophic influenza epidemic of 1918.

An orderly on the Isle of Man toward the end of the war, Pilates began designing exercise apparatus for non-ambulatory patients by attaching springs to their hospital beds. These spring-based exercises became the basis for the apparatus he would later design that offers resistance for muscle strengthening while balancing muscular force at the joint level. This specialized equipment is used in conjunction with mat work. Pilates believed that, “You will feel better in 10 sessions, look better in 20 sessions and have a completely new body in 30 sessions.”

Pilates set up the first Pilates studio in the dance community of New York City after immigrating to the United States in 1926. Utilizing the specialized equipment he designed, he created a physical rehabilitative method that works by toning muscles as well as stimulating circulation through facilitating muscular flexibility, joint range of motion and proper musculoskeletal alignment.

Pilates outlined nine key principles for successful physical rehabilitation:

  1. Concentration — connecting the body and mind
  2. Control — function of the body core
  3. Center — coordinating movements from the inner center of the core
  4. Fluidity — grace of motion throughout the body
  5. Precision — choose to focus on doing one precise movement
  6. Breath — learning to breathe correctly and to reoxygenate the body
  7. Imagination — the release of muscle tension through visualization
  8. Intuition — listening to your body to avoid injury
  9. Integration — ability to see the body as a whole from your center core outward

Many clients come to Pilates at the end of the road after they try everything else but cannot resolve their pain issues. In particular, Pilates is used to rehabilitate spinal problems. The method strengthens, lengthens, and balances spinal musculature, thereby aligning and decompressing injured vertebrae and helping to relieve nerve and disc pressure. This pelvic and spinal stabilization work also helps prepare the body for rehabilitation of other weak or damaged areas more effectively.

the-promise-of-pilates-smallIn addition to disc and other spine related problems, the method is also highly effective for people suffering with complications from knee, shoulder cuff and hip injuries, whiplash, car accidents, spina bifida, stroke, and TMJ, among other issues. Clients who are preparing for or recovering from pregnancies or surgeries also have found the Pilates method effective in shortening the total length of time necessary to complete rehabilitation. Pilates is known to promote new neuromuscular patterns, heightened body awareness, and more precise coordination. All these things combine to help prevent future re-injury and reduce —even in some cases alleviate — chronic pain altogether.

The body is a carefully balanced system and any weak link along the line means the end product will suffer. The center of the body is where your strength and ability to move comes from. This center, called the “core” is defined as the largest muscle groups that includes the abs, back, hips and pelvis. As you take a step, muscles in your hips, pelvis, abs and back contract as the joints roll with the motion. This is the starting point of many daily activities. Pilates focuses on strengthening the deepest layers of abdominals which form a corset around your torso. Everything that is connected to your core will improve if you include exercises that focus on your core when working out. Your gait and even your breathing will improve over time with added concentration to core exercises. All of this work on your core helps you to stand up straighter, a definite way to look two inches taller and ten pounds lighter!

The Pilates method can be experienced in two ways. In equipment Pilates, you will work one-on-one with a certified instructor, who has been trained extensively to design a program and modify the exercises with your specific needs in mind. Your instructor will move you from one piece of equipment to another, choosing from well over 500 exercises, after mutually assessing your specific needs and goals.

In mat Pilates, you will be one of a group of 6-10 people, performing the same exercises, at the same pace. With a mat class, the instructor may only be able to occasionally give you specific instruction, based on your movement, and will direct the group as a whole. Mat classes are recommended for those who are without injuries and are relatively fit and pain-free as you will be receiving less individual attention. Since there is no apparatus in a mat class, you will look to your own body to create resistance, an amazing way to connect with and strengthen your core.

Sessions are experienced lying down, kneeling, sitting or in non-stressing postures with continual hands-on direction and encouragement by highly qualified and experienced teachers. Clients become aware of their bracing patterns and imbalances while developing more insight into dealing with these incorrect patterns and pain issues in their everyday lives. Clients willingly do "homework" exercises and learn pain-relieving tips to use at home and work in-between sessions.

Breathwork is integral during the sessions, enabling many clients to quickly become aware of holding patterns in their breath, shallow breathing to avoid pain and compensatory movement as well. Many clients experience a release of trauma held in the body related to an accident, enabling them to progress more readily.

Like any form of exercise, consistency is key, and it is helpful to not let too much time pass between sessions in order to remember the previous lesson and incorporate the information in your body, so twice weekly sessions are recommended for best results. Dress comfortably so that your movement is free, but try not to wear clothing that is too loose fitting so that the instructor will be able to observe your body as you move.

Today, Pilates is entering a new age of popularity, one that may produce significant results for people willing to make the commitment to this focused type of exercise. Pilates is offered in hospitals, medical offices, universities, health clubs and independent studios around the world. As both a rehabilitation and a wellness program, it is a wonderful complement to physical therapy, chiropractic, massage therapy and many other therapeutic or physical fitness systems.

Jennifer Blaine is director of Cape Cod Pilates in Osterville, MA. The center offers trainings in group mat and private reformer (equipment) sessions, pre- and post-natal fitness, flexibility, fit-ball and sport conditioning. Those interested are invited to come and watch a class to learn more about the method. Jennifer can be reached at 508-548-2559 or email