Pilates is a gentle, non-aerobic exercise method that can be performed by people of all ages and abilities. It emphasises precision of movement rather than strength and endurance. Pilates also helps lengthen and strengthen muscles and improve posture but without unduly stressing either the joints or the heart.
Physiotherapists, Osteopaths, Chiropractors and Doctors all recommend Pilates as one of the safest forms of exercise available and all of our Physiotherapists at Principle Physio are trained Pilates teachers and incorporate Pilates in their therapy and rehabilitation activities.
Pilates is a highly accessible and very adaptable form of exercise, which means it is ideal for people returning to exercise after illness or for those who may have limiting injuries or problems that make other exercise systems difficult or impossible to practice.
That is not to say that Pilates is not challenging. In fact, it is the ability to structure progressive programmes built around an individual’s specific needs that makes it so appealing to a broad spectrum of people. From those living with chronic pain to professional athletes at the peak of performance – Pilates has something to offer everybody.
Where It All Started
Joseph Pilates was born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1883. His Greek father had been a prize winning gymnast and his German mother, a naturopath. As a child he was quite sickly and found himself the butt of other childrens’ jokes and taunts. He quickly became determined to overcome his physical disadvantages and began to self-educate himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics and martial arts.
He soon achieved an impressive physique and at the age of 14 he was posing as a model for anatomical charts.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Pilates was living in England working as a circus performer, boxer and self-defence instructor. Interned with other German nationals for the duration of the war, Pilates developed his physical fitness system and taught it to his fellow internees to maintain their physical and mental well being.
During this period he also served as a hospital orderly on the Isle of Man, where he worked with patients unable to walk or get out of bed. By attaching springs to the hospital beds to help support the patients’ limbs, Pilates created a resistance training apparatus that enabled these patients to exercise and rehabilitate themselves. This apparatus formed the basis of the ‘Universal Reformer’ and ‘Cadillac’ equipment, the first of many pieces of innovative apparatus Pilates created to help make his exercise system accessible to a wide range of people.
After the end of World War I, Pilates emigrated to the USA with his wife Clara. Together they further developed their exercise method. They opened their ‘body-conditioning gym’ in New York in 1926 which featured much of the apparatus Pilates had designed to support his hospital rehabilitation work.
The studio gained popularity quickly – particularly among the dance community, who liked the Pilates system as it both helped improve dance technique and aid recovery from injury. Many of the major celebrities of the day visited his studio including famous dancers such as Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Martha Graham, as well as the actor Jose Ferrer and the author Christopher Isherwood.
In 1932 Pilates published a booklet called ‘Your Health’ and then followed this in 1945 with another called ‘Return to Life Through Contrology’, as he had by now called his exercise method.
Better known today by it’s inventor’s name, Pilates has become one of the most popular exercise systems in the world with an estimated 9 million people practicing Pilates in 2017 in the USA alone.
Pilates' Core Principles
Joseph Pilates grounded his system in six core principles:
Pilates exercises are sourced from the Centre, the area between the lower ribs and pubic bone. Anatomically, our Centre connects several large muscle groups and the musculature located deep within the abdominal area. From our Centre we support our spine and major organs, strengthen our back and control alignment and posture. With a properly developed Centre we are less vulnerable to fatigue and lower-back pain.
The mind-body connection is at the core of Pilates and concentration is a key enabler to exercising correctly. Focusing on careful, precise and slow movements made with full-body awareness enables us to maximise the benefits of the exercise.
Every Pilates exercise is done with complete muscular control. Over-extension or exertion of the muscles is not part of Pilates as movements performed without control can lead to injury but exercises performed with control produce positive results.
In Pilates each movement has an appropriate placement, relative alignment and trajectory. Each movement has a purpose and every cue or instruction is important to its success.
Conscious breathing and specific breathing patterns assist movement by focusing attention and direction of the body and by delivering oxygen to the muscles being used. Most Pilates exercises coordinate with the breath and using the breath properly is an integral part of the exercise
Pilates exercises are done in a flowing manner. They are fluid movements and that flow through the body in an even way with a defined beginning and end and a seamless, controlled progression.
In the 1980’s Moira Merrithew (nee Stott), a principle ballerina with the City Ballet of Toronto, retired from performance and was prompted to study Pilates with Romana Kryzanowska, one of Joseph Pilates’ original pupils.
In consultation and research with physical therapists and sports medicine experts, Stott went on to modernise the original Pilates system, bringing it up to date with better information on postural alignment and exercise sequencing.
She also incorporated additional apparatus into Pilates to improve the scope and range of exercises that can be performed and help with fluidity of movement.
Stott met and married Lindsay Merrithew and they opened their first Pilates studio together in Toronto in 1988. Thirty years later, the Merrithew company is now a major force in mindful movement and mind-body education.
STOTT PILATES®, as Moira’s system came to be known, is one of Merrithew’s core brands and is now part of a portfolio of movement programmes developed by Merrithew that include ZEN•GA®, Total Barre® and Core™ – all products of Merrithew’s continued investment and innovation in their exercise systems.
How then does STOTT PILATES differ from classical Pilates?
STOTT PILATES embraces all of the six principles first set out by Joseph Pilates. The two main innovations made in STOTT PILATES are about the use of neutral spine techniques in addition to imprinted spine favoured by Pilates and recognition of the shoulder girdle as a core area of development alongside the classic Pilates’ Centre.
In his book “Return to Life Through Contrology” Joseph Pilates said that “spine should be flat like a newly-born infant even throughout adult life.” His original system emphasised spinal ‘imprinting’ as a foundation for the exercises – using an ever so slight posterior pelvic tilt and using the abdominals to draw the lower back slightly toward the floor. Pilates believed this would create a strong core and benefit spinal posture.
Moira Stott, with her background in dance training, felt the spinal imprinting counter-intuitive and that ‘neutral spine’ was the more natural state for the spine to be in. She also knew that the shoulder girdle was hugely important to promoting stability and flexibility and that this needed to be developed alongside the Powerhouse musculature. Her theory proved to be right on both counts and with advances in bio-mechanics we now know that the C shaped neutral spine provides important shock cushioning areas. Stott continued to develop her adaptation of Pilates’ original system and incorporated several advances in postural alignment that are used in STOTT PILATES and which are also acknowledged in most other contemporary Pilates systems.
That is not to say spinal imprinting is not important. It is still used in all exercises where both feet are elevated off the floor and unsupported as this makes it is easier to activate the oblique muscles and the lower back is more supported, making it the preferred, safe method for tabletop and similar Pilates exercises
STOTT PILATES Equipment
When most of us hear the term Pilates we will often think of the mat based methods of exercise used in classes up and down the country. Pilates was also a great innovator in the use of equipment to help in stabilising the body to enable it to perform exercise in a controlled fashion.
Merrithew continues this tradition and have built upon and enhanced Pilates’ original equipment to provide a range of highly configurable, sophisticated exercise equipment.
The ability to configure these machines to an individual’s personal needs makes them ideal in enabling people of differing abilities to perform the same essential exercise in a group setting, which is more difficult to achieve with mat based Pilates.
The configurable nature of the equipment is also advantageous when trying to mobilise people that have injuries or other issues that mean they would otherwise be unable to perform an exercise without the additional support that the machine provides, which makes them ideal for use in therapy settings.
This leads to the inevitable question of whether classic or STOTT PILATES is better for you? The answer is that well taught Pilates of any description is good for you and better than no Pilates at all. Clinical studies have shown though that for people with chronic back pain, for example, that machine enabled Pilates is effective more quickly. In addition to the support the equipment provides it is thought that the the feedback from the equipment helps internalise the Pilates principles more effectively.
At Principle Pilates a lot of of our classwork is based around the Reformer because we know that it delivers great results and that we can tailor our exercise strategy very tightly to the individual circumstances of our clients. We do incorporate mat work and use other equipment in our classwork as well though in order to give a well-rounded and blended approach to Pilates. We believe this produces better results than focusing on one modality alone to the exclusion of others.