For individuals accustomed to strenuous workouts such as “HIIT” or powerlifting, it can be incredibly easy to view Pilates as child’s play. After all, if it doesn’t involve lightning-fast burpees or heavy weights, how truly challenging can it be?
However, as the saying suggests, appearances can be deceiving. “Pilates may seem delightful, but it’s actually an intense experience because it requires your body to engage muscles you may not even be aware of,” explains Amy Jordan, the creator and CEO of WundaBar Pilates. “Within just a few minutes of a Pilates class, you’ll find yourself sweating and trembling.”
In simple terms, Pilates is a workout style that is both pleasurable and painful, and as it turns out, it offers numerous benefits. Here, Jordan and other experts break down the fundamentals of Pilates, including its nature, common exercises, and the significant advantages you can achieve with just a few sessions.
What Is Pilates?
Developed by Joseph Hubertus Pilates in the 1920s, Pilates was originally known as “Corrective Exercise” but was later rebranded as “Contrology” before ultimately adopting the name of its founder, as explained by the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA), a non-profit professional association. “Contrology refers to the control of the body, and that essentially conveys the original intention of the method: to learn how to efficiently control the body by connecting the mind to the body,” states Sonja Herbert, a classically trained Pilates instructor and the founder of Black Girl Pilates.
To attain this control, you will engage in specific exercises designed to stretch, strengthen, and harmonize the body, accompanied by focused breathing techniques, according to the PMA. These movements can be performed on a mat, with or without props.
Popular Pilates Exercises
Whether you’re testing out an in-person class or following along with a virtual workout, you’ll likely power through a few Pilates exercises that may already be a staple in your workout routine, such as elevated planks and lateral planks. The plank is a head-to-toe exercise that is “the quickest way to a fully functional, strong core, as well as to connect to the back of your body,” says Jordan. Maintaining the plank position with your arms, legs, and spine fully extended can help strengthen your posterior chain (the muscles on the rear side of the body, from the rear of your head all the way down to your heels) and enhance posture, she explains. (Achieve all these benefits by incorporating variations of the plank into your abs routine.)
In addition to traditional abs exercises, you may also engage in more unique core-strengthening moves such as “the hundred,” which is a static combination of a crunch and a V-up paired with arm pumps and rapid breaths, and “the roll up,” which entails rolling into a seated position from supine and back down again, says Herbert.
To focus on the lower body, you might lie on your back and perform single leg circles in the air or sit with your legs extended forward and attempt “the saw,” twisting at the torso to touch the opposite hand to the opposite foot, says Herbert. Other lower-body Pilates exercises may be more familiar, such as the forward lunge or the glute bridge, adds Jordan. In each workout, you’ll target multiple “planes of movement” or angles, performing Pilates exercises lying on your back, standing tall, and on your hands and knees, with the aim of helping you move with ease in real life, says Jordan.
Though you may only perform five to 12 repetitions of each exercise — focusing on quality, not quantity — you’re sure to break a sweat. The exact pace of your Pilates workout will vary depending on the studio and instructor, but you can anticipate keeping your body in constant motion throughout, says Jordan. “The pace of the class is intended to challenge you with a smooth flow,” she says. (P.S. Kristen Bell attests that classes at this Pilates studio leave her “legs trembling uncontrollably.”)
The Advantages of Pilates Exercise
All that perspiration and core effort has a few major benefits, including improved body alignment, according to Jordan. “[Pilates] is helping you establish a connection to the muscles along your backside [also known as the posterior chain], so you maintain better posture and become more mindful of it,” she explains. Similarly, this exercise technique focuses on the transverse abdominis, a deep core muscle that aids in stabilizing the lower back and maintaining an upright stance, says Jordan. Studies support this claim, as a small research study found that individuals who engaged in a one-hour Pilates workout twice a week for 12 weeks experienced improvements in their upper spine and core posture.
The stretching involved in a Pilates workout can have remarkable effects on your flexibility, says Jordan. In fact, a 2010 study discovered that individuals who completed one hour of Pilates exercises twice a week for 12 weeks demonstrated significant increases in hamstring flexibility. Additionally, a separate study conducted on 32 participants who engaged in one-hour Pilates workouts weekly showed that their fingertip-to-floor distance (think: when bending forward) decreased by an average of 4.3 centimeters after six months. (This test will help you determine your current level of flexibility.)
Strengthen Joints and Enhance Cardiorespiratory Fitness
If you power through an in-studio Pilates class using a Reformer with a Jump Board, which allows you to “bounce” horizontally on a cushioned surface, you can get your heart rate up without putting excessive strain on your knees. “You’ll be sweating profusely and catching your breath,” says Jordan. “However, since you’re in a horizontal position, or lying on your side or knees, you won’t experience the full impact of a jump like you would on a hard surface.” (Newcomers to the Reformer should refer to this guide before their initial session.)
Even at home, performing Pilates workouts on a mat only can benefit your joints. This exercise technique targets and strengthens the vastus medialis oblique muscle, which stabilizes the inner thigh area just above the knee, notes Jordan. “If you neglect conditioning this muscle, you become more susceptible to knee joint problems,” she explains. “So it’s crucial to work on this muscle if you’re a runner or engage in spinning workouts — it can help safeguard your knees during your other exercise routines.”
Regardless of the equipment used, research indicates that Pilates can enhance cardiorespiratory fitness.
Exhibit A: A 2019 systematic review of nine studies, which investigated the effects of both mat and machine workouts, discovered that Pilates increased V̇O₂ max or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during intense exercise. The higher your V̇O₂ max, the more energy your body can utilize, and the longer you can engage in physical activity, according to UC Davis Health.
An increase in self-assurance may not be the most technical advantage Pilates has to offer, but it’s one Herbert has observed most frequently among her clients. “These exercises are highly challenging, and sometimes it’s extremely difficult to master the technique,” she explains. “But once you conquer that exercise, a sense of accomplishment washes over you. It’s like, ‘If I can conquer this exercise, then what other things can I conquer outside of Pilates that I previously believed were impossible?'”
The Finest Pilates Workouts
Ready to enhance your cardiovascular stamina and take your flexibility to the next level? Consider incorporating these Pilates workouts into your fitness regimen. Regardless of which sweat sessions you choose to put to the test, anticipate leaving your mat with a comprehensive, satisfying burn.
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