The History and Benefits of Pilates

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Whether you want to lose weight, increase your strength and endurance, or simply improve your overall health, making regular exercise an important part of your life may yield great results. Along with eating well and making strides to achieve a strong sense of self, getting plenty of exercise is paramount to one’s overall health and well-being. With the myriad workout regimens and techniques out there, however, many of which seem confusing, difficult or too good to be true, how do you choose the best one for your needs?

Finding a workout style that’s right for you is a personal decision that depends on many factors, including your physical ability, available free time and budget. Some people would rather work out on their own or with a personal trainer while others thrive in group classes.

Many workout styles offer more than simply strength. When you want to improve your health and strength, a whole body approach to your exercise regimen is an ideal solution, and Pilates delivers. The workout style became a household name in the early 21st century, primarily due to its popularity among high-caliber Hollywood stars, but Pilates has a rich history stretching back nearly 100 years. As of 2010, approximately 8.6 million people practice Pilates.

Pilates Overview

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Pilates is named for its founder, Joseph Pilates. He was raised by his gymnast father and his mother, a proponent of alternative medicine, and his namesake workout method mingles their influences. Joseph believed that physical and mental health were intertwined, and it is under this idea that he established Pilates in the early 1920s.

His method, which he called “Contrology,” is designed to work the body’s core, and its 34 poses should be performed in a particular order for maximum effectiveness, according to Joseph Pilates. When done properly, Pilates effectively strengthens your core, which includes your abdomen, lower back and pelvic muscles. The Pilates method also alleviates stress and tension, and helps promote proper posture and balance.

In 1980, Pilates instructors Gail Eisen and Frank Philip Friedman outlined what they referred to as the “six principles” of Pilates:

• Breathing
• Center
• Concentration
• Control
• Flow
• Precision

These six principles remain the core of modern Pilates.

Celebrities Who Practice Pilates

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No matter their age of body type, actors and entertainers regularly take on roles where they have to show off their body or utilize more strength than they’re used to. Over the past several decades, many celebrities have turned to Pilates to improve their strength as well as to appear long, lean and svelte.

Is Pilates the secret to an Oscar-caliber performance? Maybe not, but Oscar winners who are dedicated to the practice of Pilates include Sandra Bullock, Marisa Tomei, Kate Winslet and Anna Paquin, who is reportedly “obsessed” with Pilates.

• To stay in top shape and age more gracefully, 67-year-old Samuel L. Jackson has practiced Pilates for nearly a decade.

• Actress and singer Mandy Moore loves how Pilates helps her achieve improved “balance, good health, and happiness.”

• Television host and actress Chelsea Handler is a dedicated Pilates student, practicing as often as six times a week. Her stunning results have landed her on the cover of several popular magazines, including Shape.

• Fitness enthusiast, actress and author of self-help books including 2013’s bestseller, The Body Book, Cameron Diaz counts Pilates as an integral part of her daily workout regimen.

• Emmy and Tony winner Vanessa Williams was an early proponent of Pilates. She began the practice of Pilates following the birth of her first child in 1987 and hasn’t looked back. “[Pilates] makes you walk straighter and gives you great posture,” says Williams.

• A dancer turned musclebound action star, Vin Diesel regularly practices Pilates to help his body appear less bulky and more limber.

Getting Started With Pilates

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Think of Pilates as high-intensity yoga; proper breathing is paramount, and stretching and contortion are major elements of this workout style. Both styles were developed in and gained massive popularity during the 20th century and are typically practiced in a group environment.

The similarities between yoga and Pilates end there, however. The biggest difference is the use of equipment in Pilates, commonly known as “apparatuses.” Pilates instructors emphasize the importance of resistance when working out, which can help strengthen your core, and the many different types of Pilates equipment is designed for resistance.

Finding the Right Instructor

While there are plenty of at-home instruction DVDs available, you’ll get the most benefits from Pilates by enrolling in a class or private lesson, especially if you are brand new to Pilates. As of the year 2000, the term “Pilates” is considered generic and is thus unregulated at the federal level, meaning that anyone can claim to be a certified instructor, so you must use common sense and do a little research when searching for an instructor.

You may achieve more optimal results and rest assured that the methods are safe by selecting an instructor who is certified by the Pilates Method Alliance, the only third-party regulating body of Pilates instruction. In addition, one of the biggest indicators of an exceptional Pilates instructor is a mandatory intake process.

This process is typically a one-on-one meeting with the instructor, where he or she will assess your needs and address any concerns you may have about the Pilates method. This personal attention, even before training begins, sets Pilates instructors apart from instructors in other fitness disciplines. Then, the instructor will suggest the appropriate class for your personal goals and physical ability. He or she may suggest Classical or Modern Pilates instruction in either a group or private setting.

Both techniques utilize both floor-based exercises, which are performed on a mat, as well as apparatuses. Most Pilates studios will have plenty of clean, well-maintained equipment for use during classes, and you can expect that classes will contain as few as three and as many as 30 students, depending on the ability of the instructor and the size of the studio.

Classical Pilates

Nothing was accidental when Joseph Pilates developed his eponymous method. Every move had a specific form and was meant to be executed in a specific manner. Classical Pilates stays true to Joseph’s vision, using his original exercises in the order in which he intended.

Classical Pilates also features a particular pelvic position that differs slightly from that seen in its contemporary counterpart. When performing mat exercises, your abdominal muscles should be at a “posterior tilt,” which means that your spine is completely pressed to the floor when you lie in a supine position.

Modern Pilates

Conversely, a “natural pelvic position” is emphasized in Modern, or Contemporary, Pilates. This position mimics the shape of your spine as you’re standing upright, with a small space between your back and the Pilates mat when you’re on your back.

Modern Pilates instructors have much more freedom regarding the order of exercises than do Classical instructors, and they may even add new positions and moves. Physical therapy and bio-mechanical principles often influence Modern Pilates techniques.

Helpful Pilates Resources

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Whether you’re attempting Pilates at home on your own or you have chosen an accredited Pilates studio, you may want to invest in your own Pilates apparatuses as well as books. Joseph Pilates authored the original book on the technique, and a wide variety of Pilates equipment is available to fit any budget.

Pilates Apparatuses

Some Pilates apparatuses may look intimidating at first, but once you get started with the workout, you’ll understand their paramount importance. Pilates equipment includes Pilates mats, the Wunda Chair or low chair, and inflatable balls, along with the technique’s primary apparatus, The Universal Reformer.

The Universal Reformer
To some Pilates devotees, The Reformer looks like a confusing, old-fashioned contraption, and they’re half right. Invented by Joseph Pilates himself, The Reformer is based on the flat bed and machinery springs that were once attached to the bedposts of recovering WWI soldiers. This idea evolved into today’s Universal Reformer models, which vary slightly regarding size, construction and resistance but retain Joseph Pilates’ original design.

The Magic Circle
The original magic circle was crafted using the barrel ring of a keg, and today’s versions are typically made from strong plastic. The magic circle, another Joseph Pilates original, is designed to help you find your center.

Pilates Books

Return to Life Through Contrology
Originally published in 1945, Joseph Pilates’ groundbreaking book has been updated for the modern Pilates devotee. It features in-depth illustrations and descriptions of the original 34 exercises and is considered the essential starter’s manual for anyone who wants to delve deeper into the ideas behind Pilates.

The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning
Authors Frank Philip Friedman and Gail Eisen were students of Romana Kryzanowska, who studied under Joseph Pilates. In 1980, they published what is considered the first modern book on Pilates, The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning. The photo-filled book is designed to introduce beginners to the principles of Pilates and help seasoned devotees of the workout to refine their techniques.

Final Thoughts

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Few “modern” fitness regimens have managed to withstand the test of time as well as Pilates. Along with his wife Clara, Joseph Pilates opened his first studio in 1925 in New York City. His legacy has grown exponentially since that time, and today, there are more than 26,000 Pilates studios in the U.S., with yoga and Pilates combined bringing in nearly $7 billion annually.

If the steady increase in popularity of Pilates over the last 100 years is any indication, the method has proven benefits for many people from all walks of life. While the technique may appear daunting or confusing at first, few can deny the benefits of Pilates in strengthening your abdominal muscles and improving your overall well-being.

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