Cardio machines leave you sweating and give your heart a great workout. But, if you want to reshape your body, you are going to have to work out a little smarter.
Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez) is a mind-body workout created in the 1920's by Joseph Pilates. It involves stretching and strengthening exercises done on mats and special equipment.
Your first Pilates class can be hard even if you are in great shape. Even if you walk and strength train often, you may find yourself struggling.
Cues like "draw core in and up," "press back into mat," and "lengthen the neck" seem to make sense on their own, but it can be a lot for your body to focus on at once. The moves are not hard, but they require a focus on our bodies that is new to most of us. The mat exercises also work on areas often missed by other routines.
The machine exercises are even more unfamiliar. Pilates machines can be found at most fully-equipped studios. Machines help with resistance and support. Machine routines are taught by a trainer so that you learn proper form.
For many trainers and students, the lessons are simple: I can change my body with these exercises. And a great workout does not have to hurt.
Pilates is a hard workout, but people who are new to it should not worry about injury or stress. The moves are low-impact and low repetition. Over time, they even help correct imbalances created by poor posture and alignment. This is why many people turn to it to ease muscle pain.
Barbara turned to Pilates after teaching aerobics classes for a decade. "I was tired of the gym grind," she says. "I wanted to try something new and build strength." She began working with a Pilates trainer twice a week. "I felt taller and leaner from just a few sessions. In three months, I totally changed my body." Without changing her healthy diet, she had lost inches, dropped a few sizes, and stopped having hip pain.
Raoul started working with Barbara after having knee surgery. A few months of twice-weekly sessions eased his back pain and helped strengthen his core. "Crunches can only do so much," he says. "But every exercise in Pilates works your center. I can feel the different compartments of my abdominals now."
How does being aware of your body translate into a fitter, more graceful form? "Most people cannot separate their muscle groups unless they are properly trained," says Barbara. "They use their hip flexors for abdominal work or their shoulders to move their arms. But Pilates teaches you to separate movement. That is why dancers look so poised."
Pilates will make it easier to enjoy the other sports you may do. "In general, Pilates is more applicable to sports than conventional exercise," says Joan. "Banging out miles on an aerobic machine does not train the body to perform any better."
Here are some ways she says it helps give you an edge when playing sports:
People get tired when their muscles cannot keep up with their activities. Pilates can help by strengthening the body from the core and building out from there. This can improve endurance and let you enjoy activities longer.
You focus on movements as you go through the exercises. This will make you more aware of how you move when doing things like swinging a tennis racket or hitting a golf ball. It is a transfer from a focused mind to the body.
Pilates trains you to know where you are in space. Dancers and golfers understand this (where is my weight? how is my body placed?). These are not connections you are going to make on a treadmill or in spinning class. All athletes can benefit from a better understanding of body placement.
Training often causes imbalances. Single arm rotation in tennis or pushing harder on the dominant leg in cycling can leave some muscles more developed than others. A Pilates trainer can find these imbalances and help correct them.
Pilates will also give you better flexibility. This happens as your muscles and joints stretch. This also improves range of motion.
"I am lucky to play tennis once a week, but I progress, while others at the club who play daily stay at the same level," says Joan. Why? You learn more about your body by changing your workout. This helps you improve.
Dancers have turned to Pilates for decades. It is also used by celebrities whose careers depend on sculpted bodies. Athletes are also taking notice as more have found that it helps them perform and lowers the risk of injury.
If you want to try Pilates, you can do an online search for classes in your area. The cost for group mat classes depends on the fitness center. Private machine sessions are also an option if you would like one-on-one help. If you want to exercise at home, there are also online classes that guide you through mat exercises.
American Council on Exercise
The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports
Canadian Academy of Sports Medicine
The benefits of Pilates. Balanced Body website. Available at: https://www.pilates.com/pilates/benefits-of-pilates. Accessed July 5, 2021.
Benefits of Pilates exercises. Dummies website. Available at: https://www.dummies.com/health/exercise/pilates/benefits-of-pilates-exercises. Accessed July 5, 2021.
Pilates and yoga—health benefits. Better Health Channel website. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/pilates-and-yoga-health-benefits. Accessed July 5, 2021.
Last reviewed July 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 7/5/2021