Pilates is a fitness technique which was invented by Joseph Pilates in the 1960’s in a more crude and rudimental form. Back then it was much less evidence based, but Mr Pilates was on to something which would help shape an entire industry over the following six decades and beyond.
His technique was to focus on specific muscular activation, and use this to finely control specific body parts, including the spine. This is still very much the case, but we’ve dropped some of the less conventional techniques, and now focus predominantly on strength, mobility and balance by working with multi-joint positions and exercises.
Pilates is used heavily by physiotherapists now to try and activate the postural muscles which help provide the human body with significantly more control and support. This in turn protects the joints, (most notably when talking about Pilates, the spine) and helps to reduce pain and the speed with which our joints and spine suffer the effects of wear and tear, or osteoarthritis.
A lot of what I do as a physiotherapist is to re-train muscular systems which are designed to look after our joints. When people are suffering from lower back pain especially, one of the first exercises I give is a simple pelvic tilt. When performed correctly, this helps activate the trans-abdominals, the main player in core strength and stability. Simply activating this muscle, which so often becomes weakened in our everyday lives, can provide fantastic pain relief effects on the lumbar spine (lower back).
I advise people of all levels, ages and backgrounds to have a go at Pilates, whether they have a history of spinal pain or not. The only thing to be careful of is to make sure you don’t choose a class which is so large that the instructor is unable to keep an eye on technique. It is always advisable to learn the basics with an experienced instructor who can show you the basics one to one. This can then be transferred into a class setting once you are confident with the basics. This ensures that you are always aware of how far to push, as if in a large class, it can be very easy to over-do it and start to actually stress the spine more, rather than improve the stability of it.
The main principles of Pilates are:
Breathing- ensuring you’re not holding your breath whislt exercises, maintaining good oxygen delivery to all parts of the body. Try to breathe out on exertion, and in on relaxation- something I try to teach all beginners to exercise.
Concentration- You must focus on the feel of the exercise, and ensure the correct muscles are working as they should. This is where being shown properly as a beginner becomes helpful, as you can be shown what you should be focussing on for the exercises.
Control- Hand in hand with Concentration, focus on the correct muscles and performed controlled purposeful movements, activating the correct muscles.
Centering- Ensuring you are generating the power from movements from the core muscles of the back, hips, buttocks and thighs- the powerhouse muscles
Flow- Elegant transition from one posture to another with the muscles activating and relaxing with smooth motion and control
Precision- Ensuring movements are as efficient as possible, activating the correct muscles with control and precision
Relaxation- Learn how to properly relax muscles that arenot required for certain muscles, especially if they are firing to compensate for weakness elsewhere
Stamina- Able to maintain postures and movements without rushing due to the efficiency and stamina of the muscles involved