Joseph Pilates (pronounced pie-LAH-tes), the founder of the Pilates method (also simply referred to as “the method”) was born in Germany in 1880. As a frail child with rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever, he was determined to become stronger.
He dedicated himself to building both his body and his mind through practices which included yoga, zen, and ancient Roman and Greek exercises. His conditioning regime worked and he became an accomplished gymnast, skier, boxer, and diver.
While interned in England during World War I for being a German citizen, Pilates became a nurse. During this time, he designed a unique system of hooking springs and straps to a hospital bed in order to help his disabled and immobilized patients regain strength and movement.
It was through these experiments that he recognized the importance of training the core abdominal and back muscles to stabilize the torso and allow the entire body to move freely. This experimentation provided the foundation for his style of conditioning and the specialized exercise equipment associated with the Pilates method.
Pilates emigrated to the United States in 1926 after the German government invited him to use his conditioning methods to train the army. That same year he opened the first Pilates studio in New York City. Over the years, dancers, actors, and athletes flocked to his studio to heal, condition, and align their bodies.
Joseph Pilates died at age 87 in a fire at his studio. Although his strength enabled him to escape the flames by hanging from the rafters for over an hour, he died from smoke inhalation.
He believed that ideal fitness is “the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily preforming our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”
It is an engaging exercise program that people want to do. Pilates promotes a feeling of physical and mental well-being and also develops inner physical awareness.
Since this method strengthens and lengthens the muscles without creating bulk, it is particularly beneficial for dancers and actors. Pilates is also helpful in preventing and rehabilitating from injuries, improving posture, and increasing flexibility, circulation, and balance.
Pregnant women who do these exercises can develop body alignment, improve concentration, and develop body shape and tone after pregnancy. According to Joseph Pilates, “You will feel better in 10 sessions, look better in 20 sessions and have a completely new body in 30 sessions.”
Although Pilates is often associated with dancers, athletes, and younger people in general who are interested in improving their physical strength and flexibility, a simplified version of some Pilates exercises is also being used as of 2003 to lower the risk of hospital-related deconditioning in older adults.
A Canadian study of hospitalized patients over the age of 70 found that those who were given a set of Pilates exercises that could be performed in bed recovered more rapidly than a control group given a set of passive range-of-motion exercises.
A session generally begins with mat work and passive and active stretching. In passive stretching, the instructor moves and presses the client’s body to stretch and elongate the muscles.
During the active stretching period, the client preforms the stretches while the instructor watches their form and breathing. These exercises warm up the muscles in preparation for the machine work. The machines help the client to maintain the correct positioning required for each exercise.
There are over 500 exercises that were developed by Joseph Pilates. “Classical” exercises, according to the Pilates Studio in New York involve several principles.
These include concentration, centering, flowing movement, and breath. Some instructors teach only the classical exercises originally taught by Joseph Pilates. Others design new exercises that are variations upon these classical forms in order to make the exercises more accessible for a specific person.
There are two primary exercise machines used for Pilates, the Universal Reformer and the Cadillac, and several smaller pieces of equipment. The Reformer resembles a single bed frame and is equipped with a carriage that slides back and forth and adjustable springs that are used to regulate tension and resistance.
Cables, bars, straps, and pulleys allow the exercises to be done from a variety of positions. Instructors usually work with their clients on the machines for 20-45 minutes.
During this time, they are observing and giving feedback about alignment, breathing, and precision of movement. The exercises are done slowly and carefully so that the movements are smooth and flowing. This requires focused concentration and muscle control. The session ends with light stretching and a cool-down period.
Once the basics are learned from an instructor, from either one-on-one lessons or in a class, it is possible to train at home using videos. Exercise equipment for use at home is also available and many exercises can be performed on a mat.
A private session costs between $45–$75, depending on the part of the country one is in. This method is not specifically covered by insurance although it may be covered when the instructor is a licensed physical therapist.
The Pilates method is not a substitute for good physical therapy, although it has been increasingly used and recommended by physical therapists since the mid-1980s. People with chronic injuries are advised to see a physician.
Research and general acceptance
As of early 2004, several physical therapists and gerontologists have done research studies on the Pilates method, although much more work needs to be done in this area.
The appeal of the Pilates method to a wide population, coupled with a new interest in it on the part of rehabilitation therapists, suggests that further studies may soon be underway. Dancers and actors originally embraced the Pilates method as a form of strength training that did not create muscle bulk.
Professional and amateur athletes also use these exercises to prevent reinjury. Sedentary people find Pilates to be a gentle, non-impact approach to conditioning. Pilates equipment and classes can be found in hospitals, health clubs, spas, and gyms.