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Pilates: Your Ticket to a Longer, Leaner Look

Pilates, an old exercise regimen made fashionable in recent years by athletes and movie stars, builds strength and flexibility without adding bulk.

Unlike conventional weight training, which emphasizes repetition on one muscle group at a time, Pilates focuses on a series of precise, controlled movements that work muscles in several positions. The result: a longer, leaner look such as that seen on such Pilates converts as Madonna and Julia Roberts.

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The low-impact exercises concentrate on strengthening the abdomen, lower back and buttocks. They are done on floor mats or by using several pieces of equipment that look like medieval torture devices but are actually gentle on the body.

A Brief History of Pilates

The basic tools of the system brought to the U.S. in the 1920s by its German immigrant creator, Joseph H. Pilates, use springs and pulleys to vary resistance. The most common, called a Reformer, consists of stirrups for either hands or feet and a bed-like platform that slides along a track. The Cadillac, or trapeze table, is surrounded by a metal frame and includes a push-through bar, a trapeze bar and leg straps.

Pilates had a lifelong interest in body conditioning. As a frail child determined to get stronger, he worked to become an accomplished skier, diver, gymnast and boxer. He developed the exercise method while he was detained in an English internment camp for German citizens at the onset of World War I.

Pilates opened a studio in New York City in 1926. Because many of the exercises focused on posture and body alignment, Pilates' approach quickly drew the notice of dancers, who also enjoyed being able to develop strength and flexibility without adding bulk.

In recent years Pilates has become the rage at health clubs. In addition to professional performers, housewives, grandparents — even pregnant women — are benefiting from the technique.

Cancer Survivor Becomes "Pilates Powerhouse"

Michele Aryant, a 46-year-old designer and educator in New York, took up Pilates while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer a number of years ago.

"I had read that you increase your chances of surviving (cancer) by exercising three to four times a week," she says. "I had also hurt myself doing a lot of other kinds of exercise. I was radically underweight and I wanted to build myself back up while I was in the process of doing the therapeutic tearing down of chemotherapy."

Now cancer-free, she says she looks and feels years younger than her 20-something design students at New York's Parsons College. "I have physical endurance in my day-to-day life that I would attribute to Pilates. My core muscles are astonishing. It's what they call the 'Pilates powerhouse.'" (The Pilates powerhouse is the area between the pubic bone and the ribcage, front to back. It includes the lower back muscles, stomach and the upper buttocks.)

Sean P. Gallagher, who bought the official Pilates Studio, based in New York, in 1992, says the poor posture of most Americans contributes to the epidemic of baby-boomer back problems.

"You can't have your head two inches off your center and not have some of the soft tissues overworking to hold you in place," he says. "You have to be able to sit with that idea of a good posture and a good alignment, but also have the endurance to hold it for a period of time, otherwise you'll just slouch as soon as you get tired.

Resistance and Short Repetitions

"The Pilates method teaches you to stabilize your spine, and once you isometrically stabilize the spine, you're eccentrically and concentrically working the extremities." Seventy to 80 percent of the exercises are isometric, intended to build endurance to hold the torso in good posture.

Whereas weight lifters typically do a dozen or more repetitions, the Pilates workout comprises more kinds of resistance work, but only three to eight repeats. Pilates, Gallagher says, thought that building up lactic acid in the muscles, a result of hard weight repetition, was detrimental to the muscle. But the heart rate is elevated during the roughly hour-long workouts.

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You can benefit from working out on any of the Pilates equipment, Gallagher says. "A basic program is the mat and Reformer together, but once you learn the system, you can do just the mat, which is what I do when traveling."

One example of a mat exercise is the "Hundred." Starting on your back, pull your knees up to your chest. Then straighten your legs up to 90 degrees (if you can't, keep them bent). Then bring your head to your chest and straighten your arms. Lift the arms 12 inches off the floor, and then pump your arms six inches up and down for five breaths in and five breaths out. Repeated 10 times to equal 100.

The Pilates technique has several core concepts:

  • Concentration. You have to think about what you are doing. You're working your whole body in every single exercise.
  • Centering. Focus your energy on the physiological center of your body — the abdominals. It's your power source, the place where you need to be connected.
  • Precision. Focus on doing the work correctly — quality over quantity.
  • Flow. Eventually you go through your mat and apparatus work with a sense of flow and connection.
  • Breathing. The breath is not extraneous; it supports the movement. It also helps you connect deeper in your abdominals.
  • Control. Whether it's on the mat or the apparatus, there is always some part of your body that serves as the stabilization point, allowing the rest of the body to be in motion while getting the most out of the exercise.

How to Find a Pilates Instructor

Pilates instructors are certified through the New York City-based Pilates Studio, although similar studios have sprung up in recent years to capitalize on the regimen's popularity. Most large health clubs have a program.

The certification program costs $3,200 and requires 70 hours of preliminary sessions. Instructors then need to take 12 days of seminars to learn basic exercises before embarking on a 600-hour apprenticeship program.

A key advantage of Pilates over other exercise programs, Aryant says, is that she never completes a workout hurting. "I had tried yoga and other exercises, and always felt like I needed to go right into the hot tub. I work out three times a week, and that's what makes the difference for me."

As a New Yorker, she says she is amazed at the ways women obsess about their appearance, yet those women aren't willing to do something simple like Pilates. "I really feel like most of the time people are so worried about cosmetics and having their faces lifted, having their nails done, and that's it. And I want to say, `Why don't you just exercise and stand up straight. You'll look about 20 years younger.' And it's true."

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