Often thought of as a ‘gentle’ style of exercise, true Pilates can be tough and challenging and offers you real results you can both see and feel as long as you are dedicated to your practice – lengthening, strengthening and defining your body shape.
The Pilates mat repertoire designed by Joseph Pilates consists of 34 exercises and can be found in his book Return to Life, published in 1945 – using your own body weight, these classical exercises link together with focus on breath, co-ordination and awareness of working from our ‘centre’ or ‘powerhouse’ – the core.
Most of us who ‘do’ Pilates, have usually started out on the mat. Taking time to practice in order to really understand each exercise and perform each one with precision and control so it is truly ‘in’ the body is when the results appear. Also knowing why pilates is so good for you, why we do a particular exercise and what we are ‘working’ helps us become more aware of the sensations and feelings each move creates. Pilates is a whole-body workout with that mind body connection we often hear about. If you want to improve tone and definition, you need to stay focused and disciplined!
In the gym we may pump, grunt and grind our way through a workout lifting heavy weights mindlessly which can bulk up our muscles or we can run endlessly on the treadmill to strip body fat, but ask many tough gym bunnies who participate in their first Pilates class just how challenging it can be to maintain stability and ‘neutral alignment’ whilst doing a push-up correctly or how difficult it is to ‘roll like a ball’ allowing the breath and the abdominals to control the movement.
Pilates, apart from sculpting the body changes how you perform your other workouts – you become more mindful about alignment and inner strength – whether it be those gym workouts, with heavy weights. running, swimming, playing tennis or using the TRX straps.
Mr Pilates said ‘You’re only as young as your spine’ and therefore his exercises are designed to move the spine in all its directions – flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation, to improve mobility and joint flexibility and hopefully longevity. Consequently our posture improves and once our posture improves this can immediately effect our body shape – we look and feel taller, the chest is more open, the abdominals are naturally gently drawn in and up and we move with more self-confidence, ease and grace.
Think of beautiful ballet dancers or gymnasts – how incredibly strong AND flexible they are. Pilates is also great for pain management too and if the body is in less pain or even pain-free due to your practice, we feel more open, the joints have the sensation of space and there is a natural flow and ease within the body.
Pilates exercises also show up any imbalances we may have – we are often stronger on one side than the other and we may have less or more control when performing certain exercises on the right or left side for example. No two bodies are the same and you may even feel different from one day to the next so just by exploring our bodies and movements a little bit more deeply each time helps us maybe care that little bit more about how we practice and perform each move and that by remembering we are working from the inside out in turn enhances how we actually look on the outside.
Pilates also helps reduce stress – focusing on each breath with each movement, we don’t have time to think about what may be keeping us overly busy or worried about in everyday life. Reducing stress lowers our cortisol levels (the body’s stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands) which may in turn help reduce any extra stubborn weight around the midsection and along with the camaraderie we experience in a Pilates class, our spirits are lifted – all contributions to how we feel about ourselves and our bodies.
There are other factors also that contribute to a more defined body shape as well as regular Pilates classes, namely a good healthy, well-balanced and nutritious diet and some HIIT (high intensity interval training) thrown in to the mix. If you also get the chance to workout on the Pilates equipment – either at a Pilates studio or in a reformer pilates or tower class – in my experience you’ll become stronger and more quickly defined as you can then work progressively with the springs – resisting the springs and working slowly with control.
Finding the motivation of a good teacher will help you return each week and using small pieces of Pilates equipment like the soft ball, the Swiss Ball, bands or the Pilates ring all help to tone the body, enhancing breath control and offering variety. Putting in mindful effort, being consistent in your practice – say three times per week in my view – will certainly enhance and improve your shape.