If you have ever wakened up feeling stiff, or with a sore back or other ache, the chances are the benefits of Pilates will help. Based around the principle of ‘protecting the spine’ by maintaining good posture, Pilates is not merely a series of exercises, but a way of life.
Unlike conventional exercise, the benefits of Pilates is that it employs slow, controlled movements, and you can gradually increase their intensity as you become stronger. It will highlight any areas that are weak, so you can concentrate on improving those parts, thereby preventing injury or rehabilitating existing problems.
First, you need to learn how to engage your ‘core muscles’, the largest of which is the ‘transverse abdominus’. This muscle can be felt by gently pulling in your navel, as though trying to fasten a belt which is just a little tight. The trick is to keep the muscle taut as you go about your daily routine, especially when lifting, pushing or pulling anything. This helps prevent back injury, as well as toning the abdominal area and is one of the important benefits of pilates.
Second, you will learn six postures in which you must keep your spine in its ‘perfect’ place. It is wise to attend regular classes to learn these, and better still if you can find a beginner’s class that will introduce each one methodically so you can practise them slowly. The postures are: standing, lying prone, lying supine, side-lying, being on all fours and sitting. An instructor will assess you in each posture, and you will then be advised how to make any necessary changes, usually over a period of time.
Third, when you are familiar with each posture, you can learn the exercises – and from there build your strength.
The wonderful thing about the benefits of Pilates is you can apply its principles to your daily life so that you hardly know you are exercising – and if you want to spend time doing more formal exercise, it can be performed in the smallest space (only the area of an exercise mat is needed), with no special equipment, for as long or short a time as you wish.
If you want to try a few simple ‘core strengthening’ exercises, try these:
Lie on your front, in the ‘prone’ position, with your arms by your sides. Pull in your navel, as though you are putting on a slightly tight belt. Relax your shoulders, and turn your palms inwards towards your trouser seams. Now imagine your navel is in a four-storey building, in a lift, and bring it gently up, stopping at each floor as you do so, until at the fourth floor it feels as though your navel is as close to your spine as possible. Make sure you keep breathing normally throughout as it is important to never hold your breath. Now gently lower your navel down, one floor at a time, until you reach the ‘ground floor’ again – which is where you originally felt your navel pulling in to tighten your imaginary ‘belt’. This strengthens the transverse abdominus, which in turn helps to support and strengthen the back muscles, and spine. Repeat about four times.
Next, holding in your imaginary ‘belt’ as before, lift one leg just a tiny distance off the floor – about an inch. Then replace, and as soon as you feel the ground again, carefully exchange with the other leg. Repeat a few times. The most important thing about this exercise is not to let go of your ‘belt as you lift your leg!’ This also strengthens the transverse abdominus, as well as your ‘derriere’.
Lie on your back, in the ‘supine’ position, with your knees bent, and your feet hip-distance apart on the floor. Close your eyes. Now pull your navel in again as though you were fastening your belt as before. Try imagining that you are attempting to lift one foot off the floor, but it just will not lift – it’s as though it is stuck to the floor – or far too heavy to lift. Then try the other leg – but it won’t lift either. However, hopefully you can feel your abdominal muscles tightening in anticipation of the lift - (they should always tighten just a fraction of a second before you actually lift, push or pull anything.) If you can’t yet feel this, persevere, as this is one of the most important aspects of looking after your spine. Sometimes it can take several practices!
Now, in the same starting position as 3 above, actually allow one foot to lift, just a small distance from the floor to start with, and alternate feet. Your ‘belt’ should remain in its ‘fastened’ position throughout. If you feel your back arching, you have failed – so pull in your ‘belt’ just a little bit more, and keep the lift low until you are sure you are in control. Again, this strengthens the transverse abdominus.
From here, you can advance to more complex and taxing exercises, but it is important to master the basics first.
Most people who practise Pilates say that (if they haven’t noticed an ‘instant’ change) that although the exercises might appear at first to be ‘easy’ and doing very little, they really notice the benefits they have had if they stop for a few weeks – when their ailments and stiffness invariably return! Why not try it for yourself, and see what a difference it can make in your life?