Pilates refers to an exercise regimen that emphasizes stretching and balance. A series of specific movements is performed while breathing in a focused way. In contrast to more vigorous workouts such as aerobics, Pilates does not need to be strenuous to the point of sweating. Nonetheless, Pilates is a strenuous activity that increases flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular capacity.
Pilates is named after its originator, Joseph Hubertus Pilates. In the decades prior to World War I, he studied the physical aspects of yoga, Zen, and exercises practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. During the war, when he and other German nationals were interned in a camp in Lancaster, England, he taught other detainees these exercises. As well, he incorporated these exercises into an original series of exercises that were done while lying on the floor. Pilates called these exercises "contrology"; today, they are called "matwork."
Later in World War I, Pilates was transferred to another internment camp on the Isle of Man, where he helped in the medical care and physical rehabilitation of sick and injured detainees and soldiers. He modified his exercise regimen for those who were too infirmed to get out of bed by using bed-springs to create devices that offered resistance when pulled.
Today, Pilates is done essentially the same way. Instead of bedsprings, participants use elastic cords that can be gripped and slipped over the feet to provide resistance in the stretching movements.
The resistance-based exercises that form Pilates are directed first at the core area of the body, which include the muscles in the stomach, buttocks, lower back, and thighs. These muscles are strengthened before exercises that involve other areas of the body are introduced, the idea being that a stronger core will enable the expanded series of exercises to be done with a lesser risk of injury.
Pilates consists of a flowing series of connected movements. Although different from tai-chi in execution, Pilates is similar in that movements are rarely held for long. Rather, each movement should flow gracefully into the next. Pilates is also similar to tai-chi in that correct form is essential to attain the benefits of the exercise.
In each Pilates exercise session, the core muscles are worked on first, followed by exercises directed at other muscles in the arms, legs, and neck. Movements are performed slowly, always with the emphasis on maintaining form.
Focus is on the abdominal muscles. When done correctly, the abdominal muscles are pulled slightly upward toward the navel and slightly inward, and the spine is kept straight. This posture is maintained while breathing, which is done by expanding the rib cage rather than the stomach. This style of breathing can be challenging for those beginning a Pilates program, requiring concentration. Once mastered, however, the concentration required in rhythmic breathing pattern, combined with the flowing exercise movements, can be meditative, providing an added benefit to the exercises.
Resistance is another key of Pilates. Instead of modified bedsprings, a device called the Reformer is now used. The Reformer, which is similar in appearance to a low table, uses various cable, springs, pulleys, and sliding boards to provide the resistance. Pushing and pulling will move the sliding platform in a motion similar to that of a conventional rowing machine.
Another piece of equipment resembles a half barrel attached to a short ladder. By positioning the feet under a low rung of the ladder and lying at an angled, stomach-down position on the barrel, the back can be gently arched forward and backward. A large air-filled ball called a Swiss Ball can also be used to achieve the same effects.
Smaller exercise balls can be positioned between the feet and the groin while sitting on the floor. By pushing against the ball, gentle resistance is provided to the inner muscles of the legs and the groin.
Another, more exotic, piece of equipment is called the trapeze table (or Cadillac). A low-slung table forms the base for a horizontal end supports and vertical parallel bars. Springs and supports positioned on the horizontal and vertical bars permit a variety of acrobatic stretches and movements to be done.
A device called a Chair resembles a bench with handles positioned near the ground. Users press down on the handles while in a sitting or lying position, to stretch muscles on the sides of the body.
When done correctly, Pilates is claimed to restore the proper equilibrium between various muscle