Spine Health

Develop Your Powerhouse with Pilates

Pilates is a physical fitness system that focuses on lengthening, strengthening and improving the flexibility of the “core” muscles responsible for the support and alignment of the spine, which may help prevent and alleviate back pain.

What is Pilates?

Pilates (pronounced pih-LAH-teez) is an exercise discipline that focuses on developing the body’s core postural muscles to promote the proper support and alignment of the spine. Developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th Century, the exercise regimen is designed to lengthen, strengthen and improve the flexibility of these muscles, which may help prevent and/or alleviate back pain.

The Pilates system involves a series of precise movements which, to be effective, must be executed in a specific sequence and in a smooth, controlled manner, with a great deal of attention to form. Pilates exercises train several muscle groups at once, and all movement flows from the core muscles of the back and pelvis-or “powerhouse”-which anchor the body and keep the spine properly aligned through everyday movement. The goal is to create an awareness of “neutral” spinal alignment-neither perfectly flat nor overly arched-to promote spinal health as well as total body conditioning.

The Pilates regimen in built on seven “Pilates Principles,” which include:

  • Proper Alignment
  • Breathing
  • Centering
  • Concentration
  • Control
  • Precision
  • Fluidity of Motion

Joseph Pilates believed that by following these principles, practitioners of the system, which he originally called Contrology, could reap the rewards of increased flexibility, strength, body awareness, energy and improved mental concentration.

Today, there are a variety of Pilates-based workouts practiced all over the world. One of the most popular formats is Stott Pilates, created by a professional dancer Moira Merrithew and a team of sport medicine experts. The Stott method incorporates many of Joseph Pilates’ original exercises and routines, but in a modified version that provides more support to the neck, back and spine, making it a good option for those who might have difficulty with the original Pilates movements, such as beginning exercisers, people with back injuries or the elderly.

How Are Pilates Exercises Done?

Pilates is an extremely flexible system. Many exercises are designed to be performed on a soft mat on the floor; others must be done on specialized resistance equipment that both challenges the body and provides support. Exercises may be done either in a group setting or alone, and the movements may be modified to account for varying fitness levels, or to avoid injury or for rehabilitative purposes. Movements are performed in a specific sequence; only a few repetitions of each are required, with an emphasis on proper breathing, transition and form. Novice students typically learn the basics, adding new exercises as their abilities and stamina develops.

Most Pilates classes, particularly those offered in local gyms and fitness studios, focus on “mat work,” which consists of about 40 different movements performed while lying on your back, side, or stomach, or while kneeling or sitting. Most mat exercises involve holding your torso tightly in place while moving your arms and legs in different directions, working the core muscles of your body while using your own weight for resistance. Some Pilates mat classes incorporate extra equipment such as hand weights, medicine balls or exercise bands into the movements for additional resistance.

Pilates equipment incorporates springs, straps and pulleys to create resistance and work the body. A device called the Reformer is the principal piece of equipment in the Pilates system, and it consists of a frame with a sliding platform at one end anchored by springs. Reformer exercises involve lying on the platform and moving it up and down the length of the framework, either by pulling on ropes or straps or pushing off from a stationary bar. The challenge is to move the platform while maintaining balance at the same time. Other Pilates equipment includes the “Cadillac” and the “Wunda Chair,” both of which also include a platform and frame with various bars, springs and straps attached.

Until recently, it was difficult to find this equipment outside of a specialized Pilates studio. Today, because of Pilates’ growing popularity in recent years, more health clubs are starting to carry it, as well. Or, you can buy your own.

What Are The Benefits Of Pilates?

Practicing Pilates regularly-and correctly-may yield a variety of benefits, including:

  • Increased lung capacity
  • Improved circulation
  • Better balance and coordination
  • Improved flexibility
  • Increased “core” body strength
  • Lean and toned muscles
  • Better posture
  • Reduced stress levels

For best results, Pilates should be practiced 2-3 times weekly, in approximately 45-minute to 1-hour sessions. When partnered with a healthy diet and regular cardiovascular fitness routine, Pilates also may make it easier to achieve and maintain your optimal weight.

Is Pilates Different From Yoga?

Pilates and yoga are similar in that both focus on breathing and the precise execution of controlled movements; both also build strength and flexibility. There are several differences, however, both in philosophy and practice:

  • Pilates mainly concentrates on cultivating core strength in the body and lengthening the spine. Yoga aims to work the body equally and unite the body with mind and spirit.
  • Yoga tends to incorporate more statically held poses, where Pilates involves more movement and repetitions.
  • Breathing and concentration are fundamental to both practices; however, the difference is that Pilates instructs one to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth; while in yoga, one is taught to inhale and exhale through the nose only.
  • Yoga has many different styles, but all are generally performed in a group setting on a yoga mat with the aid of a yoga instructor. Pilates has a full complement of mat work, but also incorporates work on the Pilates machines.

Where Can I Find A Pilates Class?

Local gyms and health clubs. Because Pilates has become so popular in recent years, many health clubs and fitness centers now offer Pilates classes. Before signing up, however, find out whether the cost of the class is included in your membership or involves an additional fee.

Yoga studios. Many yoga instructors are also Pilates instructors and offer Pilates classes at their yoga studios.

Local government recreation programs. Most U.S. cities and counties offer government-sponsored recreation programs. Check the government “blue pages” in your phone book under the “Recreation Department” or “Parks and Recreation” headings.

DVD/VHS. There are a variety of Pilates workouts available on DVD or VHS that you can do at home. These are an economical option and great for those who need scheduling flexibility but, because there’s no instructor present to monitor your form and make sure you’re doing the movements safely, should be used with caution and ideally only as a supplement to proper Pilates instruction.

Are There Any Risks Associated With Pilates?

One of the primary risks associated with Pilates is that of improper instruction by an unqualified teacher. A qualified, thoroughly trained teacher is crucial to ensure you are doing the exercises properly. Inappropriate positions can create or aggravate medical conditions, and a qualified teacher will monitor your form and keep you from pushing yourself too far too quickly.

To help you find a qualified Pilates teacher or program, here are some general guidelines, questions and information to consider

  • Are the instructors trained through a comprehensive training program?
  • Did that training program require a written and practical test, lecture, observation, practice and apprentice hours?
  • How many total hours were spent in the training program? (The Pilates Method is a knowledge based method of exercise and training. Time spent in certification training produces qualified teachers.)
  • Does the instructor have any other movement related teaching experience?
  • How long have the instructors been teaching Pilates?
  • What is the instructor’s/ studio’s philosophy and specialty? Are they able to handle special needs, injuries and rehabilitation?
  • Does the instructor or studio teach the full repertoire of Pilates on all pieces of apparatus?

As with any exercise regimen, check with your doctor before enrolling in your first Pilates class, particularly if you are suffering from back pain or have a spinal condition that has already been diagnosed. Your doctor can determine whether Pilates is an appropriate form of exercise for you, and it’s critical that you rely on his or her judgment.

The materials on this Web site are for your general educational information only. Information you read on this Web site cannot replace the relationship that you have with your health care professional. We do not practice medicine or provide medical services or advice as a part of this Web site. You should always talk to your health care professional for diagnosis and treatment.

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