The Benefits of Pilates
by Veronika Reinert
It's no secret by now that Pilates offers a pretty long list of amazing benefits. We hear it all the time from new clients coming in: "I heard Pilates was good for me," or "My doctor said I should do Pilates." We are happy to report that the rumors are true—Pilates is indeed good for you and your doctor was right. Here's a breakdown of why Pilates is so beneficial for every body (buckle up, it's a thorough but very informative list):
While Pilates is categorized as a "mind-body" format, it is also considered a form of strength training. Pilates can be performed on a mat using bodyweight or small props, or on special equipment that uses spring tension for weight resistance. With a unique emphasis on "core strength," Pilates encourages practitioners to work deeply and target the muscles that protect and support the spine. At the same time, practitioners also perform movements that improve their overall strength, working those often neglected muscles they "didn't know they had" when they feel sore in new places the day after a session.
Pilates utilizes a wide spectrum of muscle activation, including concentric work (where the muscle is shortened while loadbearing), eccentric work (where the muscle is lengthened while loadbearing), and isometric work (where the muscle stays the same length while loadbearing). Movements are often performed in a repetitive, controlled manner, generally under light to moderate weight resistance, which also increases muscular endurance.
Activates Muscle Tone
We often hear new clients say they're trying Pilates because they want "toned muscles," but what exactly does that mean? It comes from the concept of "muscle tone." Many scientists still debate the exact definition, but essentially "muscle tone" is the amount of tension or contraction a muscle has at any given time, whether that's during a Pilates class or throughout the day during normal daily life activities and rest. Neuromuscular connections (how your brain gets your muscles to fire) play a large part in muscle tone, and in turn muscle tone plays a large part in one's posture (not to mention just keeping one's body upright). Muscles that have a lot of "tone" also appear to be more defined. When doing Pilates, our brains are constantly sending signals to our muscles to fire during various movements, increasing their tone. The more regularly one exercises, the more tone their muscles will have at a given time.
Helps with Weight Loss
While Pilates was not created with the intention of being a weight loss exercise program, it can certainly supplement weight loss goals when coupled with a proper diet and exercise regimen. In general, strength training and building more muscle mass stimulates your metabolism to burn more calories at rest. Pilates also aids in revising your body's muscle-to-fat ratio. As Joseph Pilates once famously said, "In 10 sessions you'll feel the difference, in 20 sessions you'll see a difference, and in 30 sessions you'll have a whole new body."
Pilates increases flexibility in a number of ways:
Stretching: One way to increase flexibility is through different types of stretching that occur in a session. In fact, the BASI Block System® has a block dedicated to Stretches, so each full session will include stretching exercises. Pilates utilizes both static (or held, non-moving) stretches and dynamic (moving) stretches throughout various exercises.
Eccentric Muscle Contraction: Many Pilates movements load weight onto muscles when they are in an eccentric (or lengthened) phase. Studies have shown that eccentric training is more effective in increasing flexibility than static stretches.
Full Range of Motion: Pilates emphasizes moving through full joint range of motion, which allows muscles to stretch dynamically.
One of the many advantages of working with a Pilates instructor is that they can observe and correct your alignment while you're performing an exercise. Proper alignment is when your joints are arranged in a way that allows for efficient, smooth movement. Misalignments in the body can be the result of (and often perpetuate) muscular imbalances, which can lead to pain and injury if the body is continuously "out of whack." Think about when your car is out of alignment—the tires wear down unevenly. When you have good body alignment, it allows you to work muscles symmetrically and in a more balanced way. This leads us right into the next point.
Balances Out Muscles
Alignment and muscle balance go hand-in-hand. In today's sitting-oriented, sedentary culture, muscular imbalances are quite common. Constant patterns of driving, desk work, cell phone use, and sitting down to eat or watch TV lead to tight hip flexors, chest muscles, and shoulders, and weak, underutilized hip extensors and back extensors. Certain muscles become dominant, causing other muscles to stop functioning at their full potential. Muscular imbalances cause the body to create movement compensations and can lead to pain, injury, and poor posture. Pilates emphasizes exercising in optimal alignment in order to work muscles symmetrically and in a more balanced way. It also focuses on stretching and strengthening muscles so they are both strong and flexible. In addition, Pilates trains the body to inhibit (or relax) certain dominant muscles to allow underutilized muscles to become stronger, creating more efficient movement patterns and muscle recruitment.
Poor posture is the result of misalignments and muscular imbalances in the body. For example, sitting at a desk all day can cause tight chest muscles, forward shoulders, a rounded upper back, and the head to jut forward. If your body is conditioned to be in this position for several hours a day, this becomes the body's default position in other activites. For many, this leads to chronic pain in the neck, back, or hips, and can lead to further injury. Correcting this type of posture would involve stretching the chest muscles, strengthening the back muscles, and creating more body awareness around proper alignment with the head and spine (all things Pilates is great at doing). Good posture is achieved when opposing muscle groups are evenly balanced in strength and flexibility. In addition, Pilates uniquely gives just as much value to how the body is positioned while performing an exercise, as it does to the exercise itself. This helps train the body to move and take on weight loads with optimal alignment and posture.
Two major factors that help with balance are core strength and proprioception (body awareness, or having a sense of where your body is in space). Pilates emphasizes core engagement in all of its exercises, using specific breathing techniques to access the deepest muscles that make up the "inner core." In addition, there is constant attention given to various parts of the body during any given exercise in a Pilates session, which develops proprioception.
Increases Body Awareness and Control
You may have heard Pilates referred to as a "mind-body" format. This descriptor sets Pilates (and other mind-body formats) apart from traditional exercise types by asking practitioners to really focus on their entire body and technique during an exercise. For example, a simple Bicep Curl on a Pilates reformer is never just about bending and straightening your arm while mindlessly counting reps; equal focus is given to joint placement throughout the entire body, alignment, posture, core engagement, and spinal elongation, as well as the actual movement, itself. Being on a moving apparatus also challenges the body's ability to stabilize while moving through space. Developing a strong mind-body connection facilitates increased body awareness, proprioception, and control.
For those new to Pilates, even the act of coordinating an inhale-exhale breath pattern to a simple 2-part movement can be a challenge. Pilates systematically progresses practitioners based on their coordination abilities, from fundamental exercises that require less moving parts, to advanced, choreographed sequences using all limbs.
Injuries can stem from a number of different causes, but several common injuries are directly linked to muscular imbalances, muscle weakness, and/or muscle tightness—all conditions Pilates seeks to correct. In addition, having good proprioception, core strength, and balance helps reduce the likelihood of falls (and at best helps minimize the impact of falls).
Relieves Back Pain
Doctors in the know often recommend Pilates for patients with back pain, and many physical therapists use Pilates in their practice. Back pain can be the result of a number of different issues, but depending on the problem, can often be alleviated by increasing core strength, activating underutilized muscles while inhibiting overactive muscles, stretching, mobilizing the spine, re-balancing out the body, and learning better posture—all things Pilates aims to achieve in every session.
Decompresses Joints and Discs
It is not uncommon to hear someone say they feel taller, or even looser, after a good Pilates session. This has to do with the emphasis on lengthening the spine throughout the session, which eases pressure on the discs in between the vertebrae. In addition, Pilates also encourages participants to "lengthen out" of stabilized joints and not collapse into the joints—this allows for more space in the joints, which creates further ease of movement.
Improves Joint Mobility and Range of Motion
Pilates emphasizes moving joints through their full range of motion from a stable base. A balanced PIlates session moves the body through all planes of motion, thereby allowing the body's joints to mobilize through their natural movement functions. Repetitive joint movement stimulates the body's natural lubrication system, releasing synovial fluid into the joint cavities that helps protect joints and allows for smooth movement.
Helps Fight Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones lose their density and become porous, making them very susceptible to fracture. One major key to fighting osteoporosis is through regular weightbearing exercise that loads the muscles, thereby stimulating bone growth. Whether done on the mat using bodyweight or small props, or on Pilates equipment with spring resistance, Pilates helps fight osteoporosis and osteopenia.
Meditative and De-stressing
Another element of Pilates that sets it apart from traditional exercise programs is its use of specific breathing techniques. It requires participants to breathe deep and utilize primary breathing muscles, coordinating breaths rhythmically with the exercise movements. Taking deep breaths calms the mind and induces a de-stressing effect, grounding participants and allowing them to focus on the present moment. A Pilates session takes someone out of their head and away from stressful thoughts about other things that may be happening in their life. Instead, they are asked to focus on their bodies, their movements, and themselves, moment-to-moment, for the entire session.
In addition, Pilates exercises are performed in a graceful, rhythmic manner that some would even describe as dance-like. These types of movements release loads of feel-good hormones in the body, like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.
With all of the above benefits in consideration, the ultimate takeaway from a good Pilates session is that it just makes you feel better physically and mentally. As Joseph Pilates once said, "Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness." Countless studies have been done that correlate feeling good and happy with increased productivity, motivation, and success. Feeling stronger, more capable, and moving through each day with less pain and stress lends to a higher quality of life. Plus, whether it's one-on-one or in a small group, working with a Pilates instructor who is focused on you and genuinely cares about your health, well-being, and safety—who wants to see you progress and succeed in your practice—gives you that positive interpersonal connection and support that we as humans crave.
As a parting thought, how have you benefited from Pilates? Do any of the above points ring true for you, or has Pilates benefited you in another way?
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