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This is how pilates can transform your body and your mind (a beginner's guide)

Long, lean and a lot less stressed.

08 Sep 2019

Fancy flexing your muscles without feeling the burn? Pilates is a gentle way to ease yourself into a workout that stimulates your whole body, but gently. It can help mollify aches and pains (especially if you spent much of your day crunched up at your desk), improve posture and work you abdominal muscles and glutes.

It can help with focus and relaxation, too since attention is paid to precision (the proper way to align your body) but also to breathing deeply (and correctly). Combined, it’ll help to relieve tension and stress – all in roughly 45 minutes.

What is pilates?

Originally created by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, “pilates is a form of low-impact exercise that aims to strengthen muscles while improving postural alignment and flexibility,” explains Gary Healey, Reformer Pilates expert at Frame. “It draws inspiration from gymnastics, yoga, martial arts, zen meditation, and ballet, amongst others,” adds Justin Rogers, Head of Brand at Ten health and fitness.

Its main aim is to strengthen the core (abdominals), although it can work other areas of the body as well, such as the pelvis, spine and shoulder girdle. “Alongside helping to stretch and strengthen the musculoskeletal system, it can improve balance and increase joint mobility,” adds Justin.

Are there different forms of pilates?

Although there are a few different variations on pilates (such as studio pilates, classical pilates and clinical pilates) which vary depending on the class size and the order in which each exercise is carried out, the two main forms of pilates are mat (floor based exercises carried out on a yoga mat), or reformer.

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“The Pilates Reformer is a bed-like piece of equipment that has springs and ropes to support or enhance the Pilates practice,” says Gary. “The carriage can be loaded with a combination of springs that attach to it. When the carriage slides in and out, horizontal resistance is created. A number of ropes and pulleys are also attached to the carriage and frame and it can be used to create more or less resistance to challenge or support during an exercise.
The level of resistance during an exercise can be adjusted by changing the number of springs attached (these are colour coordinated as they have different amounts of tension). One spring would provide the least resistance whereas five springs would normally represent the maximum resistance available on a standard reformer.”

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However a more recent iteration, dynamic pilates, is also proving popular. “It offers similar strengthening, toning, postural and injury prevention benefits to classical pilates, but goes a step further,” says Justin. “Class-based and almost always performed on the pilates reformer, dynamic pilates is – as the name suggests – more intense and dynamic. We add more ‘functional’ exercises, working the core muscles in combination with additional muscle groups, to increase the intensity of the overall movement and deliver cardiovascular conditioning benefits,” he explains. “We focus on duration of the exercises to create greater muscle fatigue, and intensify the movement of the larger muscle groups to create a highly effective and time-efficient full body workout.”

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What are the benefits physically?

“Pilates is one of the best all-round forms of exercise available,” says Justin. “It strengthens the core (the muscles that support the hips, spine and neck) which is really important for anyone who spends hours a day at a desk, or hunched over a laptop or a screen because it improves spinal alignment and reduces the risk of posture-related pain or injury. It improves muscle strength endurance and tone – particularly around the abdominals, lower back, hips and glutes. It improves posture, flexibility and balance – essential for our physical wellbeing but too often lost thanks to today’s sedentary lifestyles. Many exercises are bodyweight based, helping improve bone density, and boosting the circulation and it’s prehabilitative – so it doesn’t just make you stronger and fitter, it also helps prevent injury,” he adds.

It’s also rehabilitative, especially reformer, since “it's focused and low impact, plus exercises can be supportive, so are great for injuries or people who are new to exercise,” explains Gary.

What other benefits does pilates provide?

“It’s low impact, and suitable for people of all ages and abilities, it’s a highly time-efficient workout – ideal for today’s time-poor, working population and it improves posture – strengthening, toning and lengthening your muscles, to help you stand taller and look leaner,” explains Justin. What’s more, the focus on precision, form and control makes it both mindful and immersive (a valuable time-out from the pressures of work and day-to-day life), making it a great way to reduce anxiety and stress,” he adds.

Attention is paid to breathing, too. “Breathing properly encourages effective oxygenation of the blood, relaxes the muscles and helps to avoid tension,” says Gary. “A relaxed and full breath helps to focus the mind and allows concentration on each task. When inhaling we encourage a 3D breath (into the sides and the lower portion of the ribcage) and the ribcage should open out and then close down on the exhale. Exhaling can activate the deep abdominal muscles that will therefore help to stabilise before executing each move.”

“The increased demand for LiiT (light impact interval training) workouts, such as pilates, is something that the fitness industry has seen across all ages and not just with millennials,” says Justin, but, “as a generation, we are better educated about our bodies and our approach to health and fitness has evolved to align with that. The 10 day bikini blitz, crash diet or ‘go hard or go home’ tropes don’t work for an audience who are increasingly looking for a smarter and more aware way to work out. And anyone doing regular high-impact sport will know that it is not sustainable as a 360 approach to fitness.”

“It offers a proactive approach to body maintenance that will keep you fitter, stronger and active for longer, and it will help you to avoid/reduce the impact of future injury,” he adds.

How to get started if you’ve never done it before?

“Go to a class. Don’t try to teach yourself from a video. Many instructors and Pilates providers offer beginner’s classes, which are slower and less intense, making it easier get to grips with the equipment, techniques and exercises. And as everyone else in the class will be a beginner too, you’re less likely to find the experience intimidating,” says Justin.

What do you need?

“Wear comfortable clothing that will allow you to move freely (and to sweat). Usually a T-shirt or vest and shorts or leggings,” says Justin. “You won’t need trainers – you’ll do the class in bare feet or grip-socks.”

What to expect?

“Expect to have a great time. Yes, you will feel a work out, yes you will discover new things about your body you never knew before,” says Gary. “You should be able to switch off from the outside world and treat yourself to an hour of you. The instructor is there to support and guide you through the exercises and has created a programme designed to make you feel great afterwards. You should expect to work all the muscles in the body as well as lengthening your spine – great for those in the office or standing up a lot for their job. You should leave the class feeling taller, lighter and like you've worked hard too.”

How long do classes normally last?

Most classes last for between 45 minutes to an hour.

How often to go?

“That depends on your goals, your exercise history, and what other forms of exercise you do,” says Justin. “Like all forms of exercise the more often you go, the faster you’ll see results. Unlike many forms of high-impact exercise – HiiT for example – pilates is something you can do pretty much every day. But for most people try twice a week as a good way to start. Or, 3-4 times a week if you want to see results faster.”