The term Pilates comes from a system of exercises put together by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s.
There are two main types of Pilates class: Classical Pilates and Contemporary Pilates.
Classical Pilates closely follows Joseph Pilates’ original work, and can be mat-work or using Pilates machines.
Contemporary Pilates is based partly on Joseph Pilates’ work but with modification to the exercises so that they fit with modern research, with a heavy influence from physical therapy and biomechanics. Much has been learned about the human body since Joseph Pilates first developed his techniques.
Clinical-style Pilates is a type of Contemporary Pilates designed to take into consideration muscle weaknesses, back conditions, functional stability and sedentary posture. It has more modifications and adaptations than other Pilates types. It is usually slower with emphasis on breathing, body awareness and muscle recruitment.
It is important if you have a back (or other) injury or condition, that you find the correct Pilates for you. Pilates is now a generic term and therefore covers all Pilates-type exercises and classes. This means that even a fitness class with fast and strenuous exercises that are based on Pilates’ exercises, can still be called a Pilates class.
Classical Pilates contains many flexion exercises (rounding of the spine) which would not be suitable if you already have a rounded upper back posture or have a disc bulge.
There are many different Contemporary types of Pilates – some slower, some fast, some with small equipment, some without.
If you are new to Pilates, returning to fitness, looking to strengthen because of a back condition, or improve functional fitness (have easier movement daily) then I would recommend starting with Clinical style Pilates. This will give you the basics at an easy to follow pace, and time to learn great technique. Once you have these then the choice is yours! I have to say that in twenty years of teaching and attending classes, I have gained more from Clinical Pilates than I have from attending any other style of Pilates. And once you have mastered the techniques, Clinical Pilates is deceptively hard work! Small, controlled movements seem, at the time, to be doing little to test us, but are often felt much more the next day.
Getting started with Pilates:
The first thing to work on is breathing and core activation. In my experience, most people starting Pilates often over-emphasise the breathing, completely changing their natural rhythm and breathing more forcibly. Breathing in such an unnatural way means that they actually become short of breath, causing them to breathe at the wrong time, or hold their breath.
Your breathing pattern should be relaxed and calm. As soon as we relax, we breathe better. We are looking for diaphragmatic breathing. This doesn’t mean that you force your stomach out as you breathe in, or that you do bigger, more forceful breaths. We just don’t want your breath to be up in your shoulders. Shoulders should be relaxed, air coming gently down into the body allowing movement of the ribs and abdomen. Yes, your abdomen should gently move in and out. Slow, gentle, easy breath. Slow in, slow out.
Engaging your core is not about sucking your abdomen in. Or holding it in. Engaging the core starts from the pelvic floor muscles between your legs. Imagine gently lifting up between your legs as if you are pulling up through the very centre of your body. This gentle pulling up, should result in a tightening feeling low down in your abdomen - you are now engaging your core muscles. Imagine now drawing that tension up behind your navel. Can you feel more of your abdominal muscles working? This is correct core recruitment.
Please remember that we are ‘flexing’ your core when we do this. You core is already working if you are sitting up or standing. It is already working to hold you up. We are just adding tension to this support system.
This flexing or engaging of the core can be felt best when in better or optimal posture.
So, what is good posture? What is posture, for that matter? And does it matter?
Posture, I would describe as our default position – the position we return to the most. We have fabulous movement capacity and are designed to move. When we stop moving we all have a way of ‘holding’ ourselves. This is your posture.
Optimum posture focuses on alignment of joints. This means that joints are in a position where if they were to move, they would move with ease and with the least amount of wear and tear of the structure.
Does posture matter? I have read, and heard other trainers say that posture isn’t important as, as soon as we move, we are no longer in that position and so therefore it is irrelevant; how we hold ourselves statically doesn’t relate to how we move.
But consider what happens if we keep holding a position throughout every day, over many days, weeks and months. If you have a seated job, and sit in poor alignment, holding this position will become difficult. We are meant to move, not sit in chairs! Staying seated for long periods of time will shorten and/or tense some muscles, lengthen and/or weaken others, and cause tissue restrictions where more support is needed. Your body will have adapted and become better at being in that seated position.
What happens with this changed and fixed, adapted to sitting posture, when you want to walk with your family or play a sport? There are imbalances, weak points and more wear and tear on your joints than there would be if you stayed in better alignment.
Pilates aims to increase awareness of posture. This is an important first step to building better habits of posture.
In Pilates we start every movement in our best version of optimum posture and finish in the same alignment. Many of the movements are designed to strengthen the optimum posture by challenging it. This may involve muscles around your shoulders, and around the hips, as well as your core abdominal muscles.