We talked with Pilates expert Ana Caban and asked her to answer some of the top questions about Pilates.
1. What is Pilates?
Ana: Pilates is a full-body exercise system that uses a series of machines and exercises. It works the entire body, both the right and left sides, in unison. It focuses primarily on what Joseph Pilates called the "powerhouse" or the group of muscles that begins two inches below your navel, goes two inches above your navel and then wraps completely around your front and your back-kind of like a corset. It also includes your buttocks. With Pilates, no matter what exercise you're doing, you are focusing on this powerhouse area.
2. What is a typical beginning Pilates exercise like?
The first exercise you do is "the hundreds" which consists of 10 breaths of 10 counts to equal 100. You lie on the floor, lift your legs up to about a 45 degree angle, or wherever you can hold them, and keep your back flat. While holding your legs in the air you engage the abdominals and lift your head and shoulders off the mat so you are in a scoop. Then you pump your arms by your side, almost as if you were slapping on water, pumping them up and down.
Because both your legs and head are up in the air it forces the blood to go to your heart and pumping your arms back and forth forces the blood through your body. You're getting your circulation going and stimulating your organs making it both an internal and an external workout.
3. How is Pilates different from other forms of exercise?
Pilates is different from most exercises out there because it's non-impact and safe, and it really works on using the body as a whole. You're either lying on your back, on your side or kneeling on the floor where it's safe. When you move the body, you're trying to move it from the powerhouse, using your abdominal wall to protect your back. You're also working the body very evenly and symmetrically, making sure one side is not working harder than the other.
4. What would you say is the key difference between yoga and Pilates?
There's definitely a mind-body connection and a very similar fluidity in both. But one difference is that there's a whole line of equipment in Pilates that doesn't exist in yoga, so it provides a different angle: You're doing exercises with the assistance and resistance of springs and pulleys. The springs may assist you or they may make an exercise more difficult, depending on the exercise.
5. How do I know if Pilates will benefit me?
I can't say that it's great for everyone in every scenario, but in my experience, I've only had clients feel better after doing it. Injuries begin to cause less discomfort or go away completely.
Pilates can help you lose weight, get relief from back pain, tone your trouble spots, or recover from injury. It's also being used more and more as therapy to help people with certain serious illnesses such as cancer [read more about Pilates therapy for cancer patients here].
6. Is Pilates a cardiovascular workout?
Initially the workout is slow moving because everything is being explained to you. Eventually, once you learn the workout and you're going through the motions, it becomes aerobic. You can get a cardiovascular workout when you're on the equipment and working on an advanced level because it's more physical. And some classes and Pilates DVDs alternate classic Pilates moves with sequences of heart-rate boosting exercises for a double-duty effect. You have to work towards it, but Pilates can be cardiovascular.
7. Many claim that Pilates reshapes the body. How does it do this?
Pilates has completely transformed my body and the bodies of most of my clients. I think it comes from using the powerhouse and really focusing on and strengthening the abdominal wall, teaching it to lay flat and be strong. If the stomach is sticking out, you're going to train it to stick out. In Pilates you're always thinking of this inward pull as if the navel is going in towards the spine and then lifting up slightly, pulling all of your abdominal wall very flat.
You also make long, fluid, larger motions that lengthen and stretch the muscles.
If you're consistent with it and make a commitment to yourself, you can see a change in your body.
8. Pilates machines look like torture devices! Why would I want to get on something like that?
Some Pilates equipment can look like some kind of medieval torture device, which is ironic because it makes you feel so good. The most commonly used pieces are the reformer, the cadillac and the mat, but there are several other small pieces of equipment, too.
The reformer is a rectangular frame with four legs and a cushioned mat, or carriage, that slides back and forth on wheels with the resistance of springs and pulleys.
The cadillac is a trapeze-like table that's 26 inches off the floor and has a canopy from which a trapeze, springs and pulleys hang. Because it's elevated, it's nice for older people if they have trouble getting down on the floor.
Finally, there's the mat — the ideal apparatus for Pilates because there's nothing helping you. It's only you, your body weight and your alignment making the exercises fluid, controlled and precise. Get advice here on whether you should do Pilates on a mat vs. on a Pilates machine.
9. What should I look for in a Pilates instructor?
Because Pilates is so hot right now, there are a lot of different organizations claiming to offer certification using the movements of Joseph Pilates. So it's important to use your judgment and really get a feel for an instructor. Become knowledgeable about their certification and education — and their years of experience.
I studied for 600 hours. When I finished those 600 hours of observation, practice and written and practical exams, I had barely scratched the surface.
Also, make sure they have insurance. Ask questions.
10. How often should I do Pilates? Is it like weight training in that you need to rest your muscles for 48 hours between workouts?
Pilates is safe enough to do every day. Initially you may want to do it every day so you get a rhythm and become consistent; then a good goal is to do it every other day. Joseph Pilates used to say to do it three times a week.
11. Can you talk about the six "principles" of Pilates?
1. Concentration. This is the most important principle in Pilates. You must be very mentally present as you do the exercises, aware of every aspect of your body's movement, alignment, sensations, muscle flexes ....
2. Control. Every movement is to be done with control, so you aren't just throwing your body around.
3. Centering, so that you are evenly using your body. Think of a plumb line down the middle of the body working both sides evenly.
4. Fluidity. A smooth transition from one exercise to the next important because once you've learned the routine, it should look something like a dance, where every movement flows into the next.
5. Precision. You try to make each movement as precise as possible; alignment, placement of your limbs, position of each part of your body is paramount and a central aspect of how and why Joseph Pilates designed this system of exercise.
6. Breath. How you breathe is very important in Pilates exercises. You don't want to hold your breath at all. Deep, steady breaths will help you maintain concentration and precision, too.
12. Will my body be sore after a Pilates class?
Feeling sore is a very individual thing. Some people don't feel sore. Pilates is what you put into it. If you're really conscious and making an effort to make every movement count, you'll most likely feel something the following day. It also has to do with your athleticism. If you've been sedentary, you're probably going to feel it more than someone who's very active. It's all relative.
13. How can beginners get the most benefit from Pilates?
Be consistent, especially in the beginning. Don't just try it once. Give it a few shots and do it in succession. Make it your reward, your break from a hectic day. Also, listen to your body and really concentrate — it makes for a better workout.
Someone once told me that you need to "arrive" for Pilates, meaning you have to be there mentally as well as physically. To get the most out of Pilates, you have to be very present. Your body and mind will thank you.