I’ve always been suspicious of “new age” activities. I steered clear of Yoga and turned my nose up at meditation. I always figured if you’re not sweating, you’re not working hard enough. This led to one very, very uncomfortable and rather inelegant encounter with Bikram Yoga. I always felt the spiritual element was a bit forced and that I was better off just sticking with “real” activities like running, cycling or boxing. I could not have been more wrong.
Developed in the early part of the 20th Century by Joseph Pilates, the practice of Pilates is growing with startling speed. Performed either on a mat or more commonly a “Reformer” (a device that bears a startling resemblance to a medieval torture device or some sort of kinky sex contraption), and with a focus on the strengthening of the core muscles, improving posture and creating a lean and toned physique, Pilates is becoming more and more popular with celebrities and athletes around the world. Tiger Woods and NBA star Jason Kidd are vocal boosters of the edge that Pilates has added to their games.
As a pretty average athlete, I’m always looking for any possible advantage I can find. I first tried Pilates for the first time about a year ago, and am absolutely thrilled that I did. I wanted to try and improve my core strength and increase the flexibility in my hamstrings (great for cycling), and gained both of these in addition to a noticeable increase in my upper body strength.
Classes consist of a series of stretches and controlled movements (often with resistance provided by a series of springs), with the abdominals, glutes and stabiliser muscles constantly engaged to provide a stable platform and correct posture. The key to successfully performing Pilates movements is precision. You need to concentrate fully on your breathing, engagement of your core and moving with control at all times. I’ve found this focus on correct technique to be invaluable in my other activities, particularly swimming. In fact, there was a study of the benefits of this focus on sufferers of Parkinsons Syndrome that seemed to show a real improvement in the symptoms of those sufferers who regularly practised Pilates.
While I’ve seen real improvements in my strength and mobility since starting Pilates, I genuinely believe that regular sessions have kept me injury free. Whilst the sessions provide a deep stretch in my legs, arms, chest and back, I think it is the increased strength in my core that has led to me staying fit and healthy. With a stronger core my posture is better, my running stride is smoother and I’m able to hold my form longer. I’m convinced this is the reason that I no longer get regular knee and ankle pain, despite increasing the volume and intensity of my training.
Don’t just take my word for it. Give Pilates a try, and I believe you’ll be as convinced as I was. Most gyms include Pilates classes in their group fitness timetable and you can easily do a class in your lunch break.