Pilates. Everyone's doing it. At least they think they are. Meanwhile, a faint moan echoes from underneath Joe Pilates' headstone. Listen carefully, and you'll hear him cry, "Look what they've done to my exercises, Ma." Yes, things have changed since the late 19th century, when Pilates developed his technique. Some safety modifications were necessary. Others stray far from the primary purposes of the original Pilates exercises.
In the Begining
Joseph Pilates, born in 1880, suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Fortunately, he perused anatomy books, and studied yoga, martial arts, ancient Grecian and Roman regimens, and boxing. Observations of animal movements further enhanced his insights. His research yielded a new conditioning method called Contrology. It required concentration, precision, specific breathing patterns, flowing, continuous movements and meticulous postural alignment. The 34 original exercises transformed him into a super athlete.
Finding the Core
Joe was way ahead of his time in his concept of "the powerhouse," which is now called "the core." Powerhouse engagement is necessary in every exercise, not just the ab series. During the side kick, performed in the side-lying position, as your leg swings forward, your pelvis must remain stable. Abdominal contraction enhances stabilization. Pilates uses a breathing system to engage the powerhouse muscles. The exhalation phase receives special emphasis. When you breathe out, your deeper core muscles compress the diaphragm to expel the air.
Powerhouse in Action
Since your powerhouse stabilizes your pelvis, exhalation during Pilates exercises occurs when your spine is in the most most vulnerable position. Take, for example, the double-leg stretch. Performed supine, with your head and shoulders lifted from the floor, it involves bending your knees toward your chest, then straightening both legs. Your lower back will try to arch. Exhaling during the extension phase engages your core, and helps you press your back into the floor.
The Yoga Influence
Despite yoga's influence on Pilates, distinct differences exist. Pilates students never pose. They stay in motion and keep their abdominal muscles engaged. The original series features variations of the yoga shoulder stand and plow, but go beyond spinal stretching to strengthen different muscle groups. The bicycle places the body in a shoulder stand, with your spine lifted from the floor and your legs reaching toward the ceiling. Your legs perform pedaling movements to work your quads, hamstrings and glutes. The rollover brings your body into the plow, with your feet overhead. Once you reach the position, you carefully roll down, using your abdominal muscles to control the pace, so each vertebra articulates into the floor.
The Original Apparatus
As a German citizen working in England during the outbreak of World War I, Pilates was placed in a British internment camp. During his imprisonment, Pilates rigged the hospital bed spring to enable injured internees to perform resistance exercise. These innovations inspired the creation of the spring-based Pilates apparatus. He called his first piece of equipment the Cadillac, and adapted some of the original mat exercises to the device. The springs added resistance to the exercises, while helping the student clarify which muscles to engage.
"The hundred" is an iconic Pilates exercise. You lie supine, with your legs lifted and extended, your head and shoulders off the floor, and your arms extended by your sides. Your hands perform pumping movements, as you breathe in for five counts and out for five counts. Perform the sequence 10 times. There's actually a method to the madness. The hundred supposedly teaches you to make the connection between your abs and lats. Your instructor might tell you to "pull up in the front and down in the back." It's still pretty vague, but performing it on the Cadillac will enlighten you.
Mat Exercises on the Caddy
The Cadillac helps clarify the purpose of some of the exercises. For "the hundred" you reach overhead for two pulleys, which are attached to a set of springs. As you press downward against the resistance, the engagement of your lats, which run down the sides of your back, becomes obvious. The springs resist and assist during exercises like the neck pull. This straight-legged situp performed with your hands behind the head is easy on the roll down, but difficult on the way up. Holding the springs provides resistance on the roll-back phase and assistance as you curl from the floor to an upright position.
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.