After Shari Berkowitz was injured during a live dance performance on stage, doctors told the actress that one wrong move could leave her paralyzed for life. She had had three herniated discs in her neck, with one protruding into her spine. Months of physical therapy got her out of the danger zone, and then she discovered Pilates.
Although excellent doctors and physical therapists helped her with the initial recovery, she said Pilates gave her “strength and confidence in my ability to move — confidence that I could She said. The exercise led to her full recovery and inspired her to become a Pilates instructor and studio owner. “Pilates has been so transformative for me,” she said, “Whenever I see a client start to develop the same physical and emotional strength, it’s so satisfying.”
Ms. Berkowitz isn’t the only Pilates devotee to talk about the transformative powers of the exercise. Several studios promote a quote attributed to its founder, German boxer and strongman Joseph Pilates, which declares: “In 10 sessions, you feel better, 20 sessions look better, 30 sessions you have a whole new body.”
While no exercise can give us a new body, devotees say that low-weight resistance training can help our existing bodies in important ways, strengthening the core muscles around the spine. Pilates first gained widespread attention in the late 1990s, as celebrities like Madonna and Uma Thurman touted its benefits, and aerobics enthusiasts sought a less impactful option.
But a few years ago, exercise seemed to be in decline. Doomseyers predicted the “world of Pilates,” as newer, more sweaty fitness trends have exploded, like spinning and boot camping.
But thanks in part to the pandemic, many people’s exercise priorities have shifted from intense workouts and burning calories to activities that also enhance mind-body communication, said Cedric Bryant, president and chief scientific officer of the American Council on Exercise.
Once again Pilates thrives. Most market researchers don’t track it separately from yoga, but the International Association for Health, Racquet, and Sports ranked it as the most popular sports activity for women. It now includes a wide range of offerings, from small private studios with one-to-one instruction and National Pilates franchises to application-based virtual classes and a “strength” Pilates enhancement.
So, is it worth trying to incorporate Pilates into your fitness routine? What flavor is right for you? If you’re intrigued by exercise, here’s what you need to know.
What is Pilates?
Pilates is often performed on a mat or on a chair and includes many of the strength and flexibility exercises found in other forms of resistance training. “There is nothing mysterious about Pilates,” said Alicia Ungaro, owner of Real Pilates in New York City and author of many guides on the method.
But there are some elements that make Pilates unique. First, the method encourages participants to focus on breathing and form a mind-body connection, paying particular attention to how all movements stem from the substance. The exercises are repeated in groups that work the muscles strategically without straining them.
Many Pilates exercises also include special equipment, including spring-based resistance machines designed to support the spine and target specific muscle groups. The most common machine, called the “reformer”, looks like a small bed frame with a sliding platform attached to a system of springs, ropes and pulleys.
While no exercise can give us a “whole new body,” scientific research supports a host of wonderful health benefits. Studies show that Pilates may help improve muscle endurance and flexibility, reduce chronic pain, and reduce anxiety and depression.
Who Can Benefit from Pilates?
The short answer is: everyone. truly.
Pilates exercises can be tailored to a range of fitness goals, ages, and abilities – professional dancers, athletes, pregnant women, and older adults looking to improve their balance.
“Anyone can do it,” said Carrie Samper, director of Pilates education for moderation. “You don’t have to be 25 and be a Cirque du Soleil dancer. You can turn 85 and start doing Pilates.”
While doing Pilates will bring rewards on its own, some people approach it as a supplement to other physical activities. “She really taught me how to move my body,” said Chris Robinson, martial artist and owner of Pilates and Sports studio in San Diego. “And I found that I could apply this teaching to anything.”
Doctors and physical therapists often recommend Pilates as a way to rehabilitate people recovering from an injury. “It can act as a bridge back to more normal activity,” Dr. Bryant said. It can also help reduce one’s odds of getting injured, he said, due to its ability to improve core stability, balance, flexibility and posture. “We know that when these are not enough, you increase your risk of suffering a variety of musculoskeletal and joint injuries.”
Pilates can also benefit pregnant or postpartum women by safely strengthening the heart and conditioning the pelvis. It’s a great way to strengthen your pelvic floor without doing hundreds of Kegels,” said Sarah Clampet, M.D., a physical therapist and head of clinical operations for Origin, a Los Angeles-based health company. “Anyone with pelvic floor problems or functional impairment will benefit from Pilates exercises.”
what or what I can not Pilates do?
Traditional Pilates is not a cardiovascular exercise. “The more advanced a person is, the more like the heart is,” said Ms. Berkowitz, who now trains trainers through her online studio, The Vertical Workshop. “But you never get to the point where it really challenges your cardiovascular system.”
It doesn’t equate to lifting heavy weights either. “There are limitations to the amount of strength it builds,” Ms. Samper said. “It’s different than doing deadlifting barbells or bench presses. You won’t build the same muscles, because you never do Pilates until exhaustion.”
Nor is it the best exercise to catch up with a friend or watch TV. “You have to be really present and pay attention to where your body is in space and what it’s doing, and not everyone wants to do that,” Ms Samper said. Without this level of focus, you likely won’t reap many benefits — and you may even risk injury.
How many times you should do it
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises adults to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two days of strength training per week. Pilates will fall last.
But while you’ll see benefits from doing Pilates once or twice a week, exercise experts agree that three times a week is the ideal. Ms. Samper said that this is a “beautiful place”.
Is there such a thing as too much Pilates? Not really, if you mix up the way you exercise. “If you find this is the thing that floats your boat, there is nothing wrong with doing it five or more times a week,” Dr. Bryant said.
What type of Pilates is best for you?
Not all exercises that call themselves “Pilates” are created equal.
Experienced Pilates instructors generally recommend starting with small individual or group training sessions, so you can learn the basics. “The ideal situation would be to be in the studio,” Mr. Robinson said. “You have all the equipment to help you and a coach to guide you.”
But for many people, he said, that’s not possible. Individual courses often start at $75 or more per session, while virtual classes can be a fraction of that. “There is still a lot to gain by default, if that’s all you can do,” said Mr. Robinson. “You know, some Pilates is better than no Pilates.”
How you communicate can depend on your specific goals and needs. said Carrie Lamb, head trainer for National Pilates Balanced Body and physical therapist in Golden, Colorado. But if you’re recovering from an injury or dealing with chronic pain, you may benefit from a more intimate environment.
For folks looking for an exercise that helps them achieve cardio and build muscle goals, consider checking out the newer hybrid Pilates offerings that speed up the classic moves and promise to stimulate your core.
Finding the right coach is crucial.
To get the most from Pilates, look for a “well-trained and qualified instructor” who puts clients’ safety first, said Dr. Bryant.
As Pilates exercises become more popular, more people with very little training are marketing themselves as Pilates instructors. “There are some people who will tell you they teach Pilates and have gone to a weekend class,” Dr. Lamb said, while others have “go through extensive training and spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars learning.”
Bryant said before signing up for any form of Pilates, check the instructor’s credentials, and find someone who has completed a certification program that requires at least 400 hours of training plus continuing education.
Ask a potential coach how they can help you achieve your specific goals. Dr. Bryant said, Find someone who listens carefully and understands you as an individual, “Rather than being the expert who will tell you what you need.”
Danielle Friedman is a New York City journalist and author of Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.