Pilates - What's it all About?

November 22, 2005

After researching and writing my first article on Pilates, I became fascinated by the subject matter and decided to do some further investigation. Learning and writing about a new form of exercise can be interesting, but nothing beats going out and doing it. So I began private sessions with Melissa Pope, a certified trainer who I had interviewed for the article. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived for my first session eager but apprehensive. Now, nearly 2 months after starting the training, I believe that this is one of the most effective and satisfying fitness programs I have experienced. In other words, I haven't felt this good since putting away my ballet shoes a long time ago.

Melissa uses a combination of traditional Pilates moves along with a few more recent enhancements. She believes that although the original movements have their place, adding a few changes to a 70-year-old program makes good sense.

Torture or Stretching?
We start the session on the reformer - a long table with cords and straps reminiscent of torture tables used in days of old. Although it may look menacing, the reformer is a clever device that helps to successfully work and stretch nearly every muscle of the body.

My routine usually begins with some lower body stretches where I do a series of leg extensions focusing on proper form and correct breathing. I work in both turned-out and parallel positions trying to keep the proper alignment between the hips, knees and ankles. Initially, my trainer helped by inserting a small ball between my knees in order for me to properly engage the muscles of the inner thigh. At first, and only after a few attempts, the ball dropped between my knees and onto the floor below. This was all the proof I needed that my body alignment was slightly off. After a few sessions however, I was able to keep the ball in place for 8 or more repetitions, which gave me a terrific sense of accomplishment.

The Long and Short Box
There are two boxes used to enhance the exercises of traditional Pilates: the long and the short box. The boxes are approximately 1 foot in height and are placed on top of the reformer. One set of exercises to strengthen the abdominal muscles involves folding the arms across the chest while seated on the short box. The feet slide into the straps, and using the correct upper body placement, the student leans back using abdominal strength to maintain the position. There are several variations to this series which involve placement of the arms or use of a pole.

Another exercise that was recently introduced to me is called Climbing the Tree. This is also performed while seated on the short box with one foot hooked into the strap while the other leg is extended up and in front of the body. The student leans back dropping the head all the way while the extended leg remains in place. She then returns the upper body bringing the chin up to the extended leg by using a climbing motion with the hands. This is a most extraordinary stretch if not, at first, a bit frightening. After a few attempts, I was able to do the exercise without fear of falling off the box.

Upper Body Workout
Cables are also adjusted to either add or reduce resistance depending on the level and the strength of the student. Adding or releasing a cable is similar to adding weight to an exercise machine. Pilates works the muscles of the upper body by using various resistance and movements that resemble lateral raises, triceps extensions and upright rows. The exercises are surprisingly challenging: Skeptics take note!

The Beauty of Stretching
Towards the end of the session we work on a series of stretches including forward and sideways splits, hip flexor stretches and spinal stretches. For the forward splits, one leg presses firmly against the base of the reformer while the other slides back until the student feels a complete stretch. I can now, for the first time in years, do a forward split on both sides.

When I finish my session I don't feel exhausted or sweaty, but revived and refreshed. I walk into the session measuring 58 and I swear I leave an inch taller. I remember using similar words when writing my first article, although they were only words at the time. Now several months later, I can understand all the praise Pilates has received from people tired of the more traditional forms of exercise. Pilates may not be for everyone, but for those anxious for a change of routine, its most decidedly worth a try.

By Devra Swiger

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