This classic exercise method can help you strengthen key muscles, but proceed with caution if you’re a beginner

Pilates: benefits, cautions, and misconceptions: this classic exercise method can help you strengthen key muscles, but proceed with caution if you’re a beginner

Pilates is a method of exercise and physical movement that actually dates back to the early 1900s. It’s designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body through the systematic practice of specific exercises coupled with focused breathing patterns.

Pilates is gaining in popularity as more and more older women look for workouts that are more gentle on the joints than high-impact aerobics, and focus on the important “core” muscles–the abdominals, buttocks, thighs, and hamstrings–to improve posture, stability, balance, and to tone abs.

Pilates mat exercises can be done in a group class in a health club, or at home (with a video). However, home exercise is more affordable and accessible than gym programs that require special Pilates equipment.

Pilates perks

Doing Pilates exercises regularly and with proper form can strengthen the deep abdominal muscles that support the spine as well as the muscles of the pelvic floor, explains Elizabeth Larkam, director of Pilates & Beyond at Western Athletic Clubs in San Francisco and a Pilates spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Some Pilates mat exercises also help strengthen the muscles around the shoulder “girdle,” which can improve posture.

Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Alabama, found in recent research that certain Pilates abdominal exercises–The Hundred (above), double-leg stretch, criss-cross, roll up, and teaser–activate the abdominal muscles to levels that exceed the activation from a non-Pilates abdominal crunch.

Some cautions

However, these exercises may not be appropriate for mature women, especially if they are new to Pilates, notes Larkam. “These exercises involve flexion (bending) of the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spine; done incorrectly, they can cause injury to the neck, shoulders, and back,” says Larkam. “If the moves are not modified, they are very demanding on the neck musculature. The head is heavy. And most of the exercises use the head as a weight to challenge the abdominal muscles to activate. So, a woman who is new to exercise or deconditioned might experience neck pain or cervical discomfort before she gets the appropriate abdominal tone.”

There are several other reasons that a mature woman needs to proceed with caution in a Pilates mat exercise program. “Another consideration is postural. If someone has a tendency for round-shouldered posture and performs an unmodified conventional Pilates program, that rounded, slumped posture will actually be enhanced,” says Larkam.

Anyone with bone loss (osteopenia or osteoporosis) should avoid exercises that involve forward bending, side bending, and rotation, stresses Larkam. A number of the original Pilates moves emphasize forward bending, so if you have bone loss, you need to work with an instructor who knows how to modify the exercises appropriately (as has been done for the exercises below).

Modifying the moves

Olson agrees that “a Pilates instructor should be able to demonstrate modifications for all movements, and a good teacher won’t try to impose a classical routine on a beginner.” She adds that, despite its many potential benefits, Pilates cannot make muscles long and lean. “Muscles can’t be made to grow longer. However, the tendons and ligaments surrounding the joints can become more pliant while following a Pilates program. This often gives a feeling of ‘elongation’–being more stretched out–but this is not due to the muscles undergoing any change in actual length.”

Nor will Pilates improve cardiovascular conditioning or help you lose weight, especially at the beginner level. Olson’s study, reported at the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Summit and Exhibition in April 2005, showed that a basic routine burned as many calories as a session of moderate stretching; intermediate workouts burned as many calories as basic stepping, whereas advanced workouts were equivalent, from a cardiovascular standpoint, to speed walking at about 4.5 miles per hour.

Choosing an instructor

In August 2005, the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA) began offering the first nationally recognized certification exam for Pilates instructors. However, because the exam is new, the number of certified instructors is limited. You can find an instructor in the PMA member database: tmemb.html

Larkam notes that the home exerciser should choose a Pilates DVD with beginning and intermediate exercise progressions, and options that include support for the head and the neck. “Instructions should be very detailed, and exercises should proceed at a slow to moderate tempo,” says Larkam.


To safely do Pilates, ask these questions of a potential instructor:

* Were you trained or certified in a comprehensive training program?

* Did that training program require a written and practical test, lecture, observation, practice, and apprentice hours? How many hours did you log?

* How long have you been teaching Pilates?

* What is your studio’s philosophy and specialty?

* Are you able to work with people who have medical conditions, such as joint problems, or who have just completed rehab?

* Do you teach the full repertoire of Pilates on all pieces of apparatus?

* For more information, see the web site of the Pilates Method Alliance: www.pilatesmethodallia

Source: Pilates Method Alliance.


Here are four exercises to get you started with Pilates. They have been modified from the classic Pilates exercises with older women in mind, so that you can begin and progress comfortably and safely. All benefit the muscles of the core and spine, and can help improve balance. Be sure to use an exercise mat for cushioning.

Single-leg stretch 1. Lie on your back with arms at your sides, legs outstretched. 2. Inhale, then exhale; bend one knee, and pull your thigh toward your chest (the opposite hand holds the shin just below the knee; the same side hand holds the shin just above the ankle). Tilt your pelvis up, pressing your lower back (lumbar spine) to the mat. 3. Inhale, then exhale and lift the other leg about 45 degrees, aiming the foot up to where the ceiling meets the wall. 4. Inhale and draw thigh closer to you; exhale and slowly switch sides. Do eight changes, or four moves per side. Unlike the classical Pilates exercise, keep your head, neck, and shoulders on the mat. This is safer for the neck and cervical spine.


Single-leg circle 1. Lie on your back with arms at your sides and legs outstretched. 2. Inhale, then exhale and lift one leg up toward the ceiling, keeping the knee bent enough so that your hips and low back are comfortable. (Note: This is a modification. In the original, the leg is straight.) Tilt your pelvis up, pressing your lower back (lumbar spine) to the mat. 3. Inhale and move the extended leg across the midline of the body toward the opposite shoulder (rotate in a counterclockwise direction); exhale and continue the movement around and back to the starting position. Now, rotate in the opposite direction. 4. Make four circles in each direction, then change legs. Keep your pelvis and spine steady while you do the circles.


Side kick 1. Lie on your side, stacking hips one on top of the other. Keep the knees bent so that they are directly in front of the hip joint (Note: This is a modification. In the classic Pilates exercise, the legs are extended in line with the torso). Extend the arm closer to the floor over your head, keeping the arm bent. Rest your head on your hand. (This has also been modified for older women: In the original exercise, the arm is extended along the floor.) Bend the other arm, placing the palm on the floor in front of the chest for balance. 2. Inhale, then exhale and hover the top leg a few inches above the bottom leg, parallel to the ground; inhale and bring the top leg forward, keeping the pelvis and spine steady. 3. Exhale and move the top leg back. 4. Do eight repetitions forward and back for each leg. To advance, straighten the leg.


Swimming 1. Lie face down on the floor, arms stretched in front of you with elbows slightly bent for comfort. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears; don’t hunch. 2. Inhale, then exhale, drawing the navel to the spine and hovering one arm and the opposite leg two or three inches above the mat. Inhale and put the arm and leg down; exhale and switch to the other side. 3. Do eight repetitions on each side, 16 in total. To advance, increase the tempo.


Marina Terletsky, Source: Elizabeth Larkam

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