So I attended a Pilates class as a student a few weeks ago. It was well planned, well executed, and definitely hard work. But, and I hate to admit it, I really didn't enjoy it that much. I'm a Pilates instructor. I love Pilates both professionally and personally, and I relish being challenged. So what gives?
When the class started, I couldn't believe the pace. We squatted. We lunged. We did press up after press up. We did planks. Then squats again. Then lunges. Then a short break for downward dog. Back to squats. Etc. Etc. You get the idea.
It was like a bootcamp or circuit training, full of traditional calisthenics disguised as Pilates exercises. You can perform any movement with Pilates principles in mind, of course, but it was so fast that it was hard to remember to engage my core. My back started to hurt at one point, which hasn't happened in years.
I personally find this kind of exercise class both boring and a little scary. My knees and my back are still a little vulnerable to injury, and this kind of class doesn't give me the time to be careful in my movements.
I've been to plenty of Pilates classes and I know there are lots of different styles out there. Each teacher also brings their own experience, training, and particular emphasis to a class. But now I understand why some people tell me, "Oh, I am not fit enough to do Pilates." I love Pilates because it emphasizes functional strength in unique ways. I like to teach all ages and all abilities - people recovering from an injury, people looking to gain functional strength in their everyday movements - indeed, people much like me!
Joseph Pilates had some guiding principles that I always try to use in my classes. Quality not quantity is one, and I truly believe that it works. That's why people generally do about 8 reps of an exercise in my class. It's so much easier to do an exercise well when you only do a few reps. And you gain more benefit from the ones you do- without the back ache. It also keeps boredom at bay (mine and my clients) because we can do lots and lots of different movements in an hour!
Control is another principle that I really focus on in my classes. I find it hard to control my body when moving so fast from one thing to the next. Moving slowly and carefully (on most exercises) means the muscles are worked throughout the range of movement, not just at the start and end of a movement. Take, for example, a basic curl. If you move slowly, the abdominals work evenly from a flat position all the way up to the flexed and curled position.
Ultimately the goal is to apply your Pilates-based body awareness to day-to-day situations. I try to explain how each Pilates exercise can help you when performing an everyday movement such as bending or lifting. Then, the next time you bend or lift, you'll remember and squeeze the right muscles to help you. Over time, it becomes automatic. That's a major reason why your back feels better once you practise regularly. It's not just gaining the strength - it's also learning how and when to use that strength.
If you have ever wondered if you could cope with a Pilates class, the answer is YES YOU CAN. Exercises can be tailored to any fitness level. That's exactly why my classes are small: so I can offer modifications and help my clients learn how to do each exercise well.
I'd love to hear from you in the comments - do you like bootcamp-style classes? Or are they not your thing? Why or why not?
Diane Archer, Pilates Instructor from the UK now living back in Canada. Blog of tips, thoughts, home challenges.