A Pilates Primer

Once associated with dancers and elite athletes, Pilates is now recognised as a mind-body conditioning method for people of all ages and fitness levels, as practitioner and physio Kate McGillivray explains.

Pilates offers total body conditioning. Specific exercises employ the use of dynamic tension, or self-resistance, to improve body awareness, strength, flexibility, coordination and stamina. Pilates also aims to achieve efficient, graceful
movement by simultaneously engaging the body and mind. The foundation of all Pilates exercises is correct functioning and
strength of the deep muscles of the abdomen, back and pelvis, known as the ‘core’.

The core muscles form a corset-like support around the lower trunk and comprise the transverse abdominus, multifidus and pelvic floor. Transverse abdominus lies underneath the ‘six-pack’ muscles, multifidus is a deep muscle of the back, and the pelvic floor muscles line the base of the pelvic bowl. Improved core strength results in improved stability throughout the entire torso, which is why Pilates has proven effective in the treatment of back pain: as the trunk is correctly stabilised, stress on the joints of the spine is reduced. The result is a powerful combination of improved posture, reduced tension and enhanced understanding of correct body mechanics which assists in injury prevention and an overall feeling of wellbeing.

The fundamental principles

All Pilates exercises are developed according to six
fundamental principles:

1. Concentration
Joseph Pilates strongly believed that
a body movement originates from the mind, and that
concentration enables a person to isolate muscles and
finetune movements.

2. Centering
Pilates described the lumbar spine and pelvis as
the ‘powerhouse’ of the body, believing that having a strong
centre allows efficient movements of the limbs. Core stability
or core strength are common terms for ‘centering’ today.

3. Control
Pilates maintained that the control of each
movement is of utmost importance in avoiding injury and
producing positive results.

4. Precision

“Correctly executed and mastered to the point
of subconscious reaction, these exercises will reflect grace
and balance in your daily routine activities,” Pilates said.

5. Flowing movement
Pilates insisted that movement be
performed smoothly and efficiently.

6. Breathing
Pilates believed in full inhalation and full exhalation
to expel stale air and replenish your body with fresh air. Breath
is used in clinical Pilates to assist intra-abdominal control

Scientific research and the Pilates principles work very well together to create a holistic and rehabilitative method treating
the body and the mind.

What are the benefits?

The Pilates method is appropriate for a wide variety of people of diverse age groups and fitness backgrounds, as exercises
are customised to make a workout safe and challenging for a person at any level. It is ideal for elite athletes, dancers,
pre- and post-natal women, pre- and post-surgical patients, and those recovering from injury. It is particularly beneficial for those aged 45–plus, in the first instance because both the equipment and floor-based exercises involved are low impact. Further, the Pilates regime combines low-impact exercises with resistance training and weight-bearing exercise; all of these components are crucial for building and maintaining joint health and bone density, preventing the development or progression of osteoporosis
and degenerative joint disease. Many medical experts believe that when the body is balanced with good posture and good core muscle support, the involuntary body functions such as breathing, digestion and bowel function also benefit. Hence Pilates can help poor posture, poor circulation, altered sleep patterns, lack of energy, incontinence and weight gain associated with increasing age. In summary, the benefits of Pilates for the more mature include:

• increased strength, flexibility and muscle tone
• a strong yet supple and well-supported spine, reducing the
likelihood of disc injury of the spine
• improved balance and reduced risk of falls
• enhanced arthritis management – stimulates the production
of joint lubricants (synovial fluid)
• better posture – helps eliminate tension, reducing
headaches, neck and back pain
• increased motivation and self-awareness, improving
mental outlook
• better stress management
• ideal for pre-optimising body condition prior to surgery
• improved breathing techniques resulting in increased lung
capacity and better delivery of oxygen to the body, boosting
energy levels
• low risk of injury due to the precise, controlled nature
of exercises.

Pilates as rehabilitation
Pilates is increasingly being recognised by the medical community as an effective form of rehabilitation and injury management.
For example, recent research has confirmed that Pilates, through its focus on improved deep abdominal control, reduces the incidence and recurrence of lower back pain.

A Pilates rehabilitation program is designed in a studio setting, following a thorough physical assessment. Such a program
will address both muscle imbalance resulting from surgery or injury, and managing and reducing pain. Because rehabilitation programs are individually designed according to assessment findings, each patient’s rehabilitation needs can be specifically addressed with exercises to stretch over-tight muscles, strengthen weak muscles and restore correct muscle activation patterns, thus improving overall function.

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