Complete guide to Pilates

Melissa Ironside
Monday, June 28, 2010
If there's one exercise style that has taken the fitness world by storm in the last decade, it's Pilates. Everyone is doing it — from dancers to footballers — and the benefits are said to be as much mental as they are physical. So should you give it a go?

What's it all about?
The exercises were developed back in the 1940s by a guy called Joseph Pilates who first used the yoga-like moves to rehabilitate Second World War soldiers. He then modifies the style for injured dancers and so the modern day method was born.

Different groups have added their own moves but essentially it's an exercise style that involves training your muscles to improve posture and alignment. By focusing on your core strength, you enhance the little muscles in the body so you're better able to support the larger ligaments, tendons and joints.

Why is it so good for you?
When our muscles are weak they make compensations for each other which lead to instability and injury. Take your back for instance: if your posture is bad, your lower back and hips will then adjust themselves accordingly which means they're essentially out of whack.

Pilates encourages you to think about how you perform everyday movements. It heightens your body awareness which in turn improves your overall agility, flexibility and strength. It helps you ensure your body is working at its optimal level all the time.

What is a class like?
"Pilates is a very intense stretching class that incorporates workouts for your abdominal, leg, arm and back muscles", says Pilates instructor Rebecca Ibrahim. "Some movements are slow and controlled while others are very fast. The classes usually last for around 45 minutes and aim to work all areas of your body."

There are three types of Pilates, the most popular being the mat workout, where much time is spent on the floor using gravity and your own body weight to create resistance. There is also a Pilates class that incorporate weights and one that uses special equipment. Joseph Pilates developed these machines which allow people to do the Pilates moves using a pulley-system of resistance (pictured above).

What are the benefits?
Muscle tone, increased strength and flexibility and improved overall mobility and precision at which you move. It's perfect for people who like a meditative element in their exercise regimes. "Pilates will give you more of a holistic result than most other exercises regimes", says Ibrahim. "It will make you focus on your breathing which is great for improving circulation and relieving stress. It's a fantastic way to balance out your health and wellbeing."

What are the negatives?
On its own Pilates will not help you lose weight. You need to do at least thee cardio workouts a week plus two to three Pilates classes and follow a healthy eating pattern for overall results.

Some people can find it a little boring as well. If you're used to high intensity workouts with loud music and a pumped-up instructor than you may find the Pilates classes too slow and monotonous.

Is there anything of which to be cautious?
Pilates is actually great for people with injuries, weak muscles and particularly bad posture because it encourages you to strengthen your problem areas in a relaxed and low impact way. It is advisable that anyone with serious injuries consults their doctor or physio though. Pregnant women should also get the okay from their doctor before proceeding.

"People should also be very careful to ensure that the instructor who is taking the class is fully qualified", says Ibrahim. "No one should be twisting and turning their body unless under professional guidance."

What do I need to take?
All gyms should provide Pilates mats, however you can buy them at most fitness outlets if you want your own. You should take along a towel to lay down over the mats for hygiene reasons. It's also advisable to wear loose, comfortable clothing and you'll probably go barefoot.

There are lots of Pilates books and DVDs on the market that can help you to understand the idea behind the movements and help you incorporate them into everyday life. They are in no way necessary but they may be of interest.

How much is a class?
Most gyms offer Pilates as part of their membership program. However you can take a one-off class for around $15 to $20. A number of people also like to get personal Pilates trainers as they find that the individual attention helps them to tailor the moves to their body and challenge them more.

Personal trainers can be quite expensive though: you're probably looking at between $40 and $70 a session, so maybe a few individual classes just at the start is best if you have an eye on your budget.

Summing it up
While Pilates won't help you to lose weight it will tone and strengthen muscles and enhance your overall wellbeing. If you can add a few classes into your exercise schedule it really will help to improve your performance in other areas, such as when running. If you are easily bored, though, perhaps stick to aerobic workouts.

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