Pilates 101

By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

Looking to lengthen and tone your muscles from the inside-out? Adding Pilates to your fitness regimen might be just the ticket! This workout will have you stretching, strengthening and standing up straight (it's a terrific posture picker-upper). Read on for the scoop!

The Basics
Originally created by Joseph H. Pilates in the early 1900s for rehabilitative purposes, this system of exercises targets the deep muscles of the body, particularly the abdomen and spine (i.e "the core"), instead of the large superficial muscles. Breathing is coordinated with the moves to help facilitate relaxation and proper execution. Though Pilates can be very strengthening, it doesn't develop bulky muscles (one reason dancers and models often favor this workout). The goal with Pilates is to always feel length throughout the entire body, even while performing moves that work specific body parts. There is also an ever-present mind-body element which makes it appealing to people looking to develop that connection. The exercises can be performed both on a regular exercise mat (known as Pilates mat workouts) and on spring-based machines developed by Mr. Pilates referred to by names such as "The Reformer," "The Cadillac," and "The Chair."

The Physical Benefits
The pluses of Pilates are plentiful! According to Rael Isacowitz, author of Pilates (Human Kinetics, April, 2006) and a master of the Pilates method whose students include Olympic skater Sasha Cohen and diver Wendy Williams, a Pilates regimen develops strength, flexibility, coordination, speed, agility, endurance, body awareness, balance, proprioception, focus, correct posture, good body alignment and more! Plus, most of the moves are non- impact, making it a great fitness activity for pregnant women as well as the aging population, out-of-shape individuals returning to exercise and athletes recovering from injury.

The Results
With Pilates mat classes, students will work to increase the strength and mobility of the spine, according to Kimberly and Katherine Corps, founders of New York City's Pilates on Fifth and the Cardiolates workout. "Plus Pilates encourages you to keep your belly button pulled to the front wall of your spine at all times - - instead of pushing it out - - so your stomach gets super flat," says Kimberly. Pilates equipment work uses spring resistance to challenge muscles in both concentric and eccentric phases of contraction. "Thus the entire muscle is targeted so the result is the appearance of lengthened muscle instead of bulk concentrated at the belly of it," says Katherine.

The Equipment
To the neophyte, the Pilates exercise equipment can look like torture devices complete with springs, boards, ropes and chains, but rest assured that each piece was developed as a tool to help students learn proper body mechanics. Because it can be intimidating, however, it is important to learn proper technique which can probably best be done privately with an instructor. For the floor exercises, all that is needed is a cushioned mat. Technique is still important but can be learned in a class or by watching a good DVD.

The Cost
Pilates can be expensive or economical depending on how you approach it. "Private Pilates lessons can be a bit pricey, but they are the best way to start off right," says Kimberly. "With Pilates, you get what you pay for, so investing in a few privates before going at it on your own or buying a DVD may be better for your body in the long run!"

The breakdown:
1. Private session = $55-$100/hour. Usually involves exercises on all different pieces of equipment and enables students to learn how best to adapt the moves for their body type.
2. Group equipment classes = $25-$40/hour. Just make sure the class isn't too big. Beginners may be lost and thus reap little benefit if the class size is too large.
3. Mat classes = $15-$22/session. You might find these for free at your gym.
4. Pilates DVDs = $14.95 to $24.95. Will probably teach some mat basics with no equipment or possibly use of the Pilates "magic circle."

The Burn
Initially beginning students should not expect to use Pilates as their primary calorie burning activity. It's more about learning proper execution of the exercises, which is vital in order to reap the full benefits. However, once familiar with the moves, Pilates can be considered a calorie-burning exercise similar to other low-impact exercise regimens (approximately 170 calories/hour for a 150-pound female). Keep in mind, however, that positive fitness benefits are not just measured by calorie-burning potential. The muscles you develop with Pilates can help you look taller and leaner!

Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a certified fitness instructor and health and fitness writer whose work has appeared in Prevention, Women’s Health, Weight Watchers, and Fitness magazines.

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