Get Lean With Pilates

by Kelly James-Enger

CHANCES ARE you’ve heard of Pilates (puh-la-tez) by now—in fact, your local gym may offer classes in it. Pilates has grown increasingly popular over the past decade, in part because of celebrities like Madonna, Sharon Stone, and Minnie Driver who swear by it. But don’t brush Pilates off as just another exercise fad of the stars—this discipline can offer a wonderful complement to your regular program, and help you develop a core that not only looks great but is stronger and more flexible as well.

Joseph Pilates, a personal trainer from Germany, developed Pilates in the 1920s. He drew on martial arts, eastern philosophies and physical training methods to create a series of exercises that focus on balancing muscular strength, increasing flexibility and giving a “total body awareness,” says Pilates instructor Fatima Bruhns, owner and director of The Pilates Studio in Chicago.

Pilates moves center around your core, also referred to as the “powerhouse”, the area between your ribcage and your pelvis which includes your abdominal and gluteus muscles. Because most Pilates exercises involve few repetitions and slow, controlled movements, you may find it a relaxing change of pace from higher-intensity workouts.

Just as there are different types and styles of yoga, there are different versions of Pilates as well. There’s traditional Pilates (or Pilates, Inc.), Stott Pilates, Polestar Pilates, and The Method Pilates (also known as Physical Mind Pilates) in addition to others. While each is based on Pilates’ principles of flowing motion and fluidity and use the same basic moves, different versions vary in terms of their emphasis—Stott Pilates, for example, aims to restore the natural curves of the spine while traditional Pilates focuses more on flattening the spine.

Interest in Pilates is growing for a number of reasons, says Moira Stott-Merrithew, creator of Stott Pilates. “There is much more emphasis on prevention in general with our health, and it’s a very preventative form of exercise,” says Stott-Merrithew. “And in athletic training and rehabilitation, there is far more emphasis on strengthening your core and strengthening the deeper muscles that really stabilize your spine. That’s exactly the major emphasis of this form of exercise.”

While Pilates may help you develop the six-pack you’ve always wanted, its benefits are more than cosmetic—research shows that the stronger your core is, the more efficiently your body works. By focusing on strengthening these muscles, you’ll also reduce your risk of injury both at the gym and in your daily life.

This seven-exercise set, provided by Bruhns, will introduce you to some basic Pilates mat moves. Add them to your regular routine, three times a week and you should see results in six weeks.

Hundred: This breathing exercise helps warm up your body and uses your upper abdominals. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent, and your arms straight out at your sides, palms down. Bringing your neck slightly toward your chest, move your arms up and down about 7-10 inches in a fast pumping motion, inhaling for five pumps and exhaling for five pumps. Do 10 series of 10 pumps. (If your neck gets tired, you can rest your head on the floor.)

Rollup: Similar to a sit-up, this move increases your abdominal strength and flexibility. Lying flat on your back, extend your arms so that they’re pointing toward the ceiling. Following your fingertips with your eyes, slowly bring your chin into your chest and lift your head and shoulders up from the floor, moving one vertebra at a time and reach forward as far as you can. Then tighten your gluteus (or butt) muscles and pull your stomach in and slowly roll back. Do 5-8 times.

Leg Circles: These strengthen and tone your leg and abdominal muscles. Lying on your back, arms at your sides and flat on the floor, raise one leg to about a 90-degree angle (or whatever’s comfortable for you); your other leg should remain on the floor, aligned with your nose. Keeping your hips still and your raised leg straight, make 5 circles in a clockwise motion and 5 circles in a counter-clockwise motion; switch legs and repeat. Don’t worry about the size of the circles you make—focus on controlling your hips so that you’re only using your leg and stomach muscles to make the circles. Do 5 times on each leg.

Spine Stretch Forward: This move strengthens your abdominal muscles and stretches your hamstrings and back. Sit up with your legs spread slightly wider than your hips. Reach your arms forward with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders, tuck your chin a little and slowly reach forward as far as you can and exhale; ease back into your original position while inhaling. Do 5-8 times.

Single Leg Stretch: This move strengthens and tones your legs. Lie on your back and holding your ankle with your right hand, bring your right knee toward your chest. Gently bring your chin up as you bring your right knee toward your chest and then put your leg down. Place your left hand on your left ankle and bring it toward your chest and repeat the same move before switching back to the right leg. Do 5 stretches for each leg.

Double Straight Leg Stretch: This move works your abdominal muscles, particularly the lower abdominal muscles, and the gluteus muscles as well. Lie on your back, with your hands behind your neck and your legs together at a 90-degree angle to your body or whatever’s comfortable for you. Raise your neck slightly, drop your chin to your chest and drop your legs about seven to ten inches; then pull them back up using your gluteus muscles and drawing your stomach toward your spine as you do so. Repeat 5-10 times. (This is a more challenging move—skip it if you feel any lower back pain.)

Criss Cross: This move targets your obliques, the muscles along the sides of your waist. Lie on your back with your legs bent, your knees close to your chest, and your hands behind your head. Lift your chest slightly and slowly twist your upper body while bringing your left leg in toward your body so that your right elbow and left knee are coming together. Hold for two or three seconds, then extend your left knee and twist to the opposite side, bringing your left elbow and your right knee toward each other. Do 5-10 times on each side.

Saw: this exercise works the abdominal and oblique muscles. Sit up with your legs straight out, slightly wider than your hips, and extend your arms out to your sides. Keeping your hips stable, twist your torso to the right and lean forward; then return to your original position before twisting to the left. Perform the twists slowly and focus on keeping your bottom on the floor as you perform 5-10 moves on each side. •

from the January-February 2009 issue

Pilates draws on martial arts, eastern philosophies and physical training methods to create a series of exercises that focus on balancing muscular strength, increasing flexibility and giving a 'total body awareness'.


Ready to take the Pilates plunge?
That’s great as long as you make sure the person teaching the class is qualified, warns Moira Stott-Merrithew, creator of Stott Pilates. Some questions you may want to ask a potential instructor include:

• How much training have you had? Simply being “certified” may not mean much—some programs allow instructors to be certified after only a few days of training. Ask how many hours of training the instructor has had, and what type of training it was (Did the teacher actually participate and instruct during that time or did she just watch other instructors?).

• Are you certified in the full form of the exercise (meaning that she knows how to use the equipment in addition to teaching mat work)?

• Do have you an anatomy background or have you taken classes in anatomy? This will give you an idea of how qualified the instructor is.

• If you’re injured, ask whether the instructor has worked with clients who have experienced the same injury and whether she’s been taught what to do for your injury.

• Ask whether she programs specific routines for individuals. “People have different body types,” says Stott-Merrithew. “If you want to get the full effect, it’s very important that the instructor has learned how to program from essential to intermediate level.”

Also, it’s important to feel comfortable with the instructor and that he or she is responsive to any questions you may have. If you’re looking for an appropriate class or more information about Pilates, check out the following websites:
• Pilates, Inc.: www.pilates-studio.com
• Polestar Pilates: www.polestareducation.com
• Stott Pilates: www.stottpilates.com
• The Method Pilates: www.the-method.com