Pilates 101

Practicing Pilates

Pilates exercises are meant to build strength, increase flexibility and promote body and mind control. Dynamic tension helps strengthen muscles while elongation creates flexibility. Pilates builds true flexibility -- a freedom of movement created without distorting or manipulating the body.

Every Pilates movement is meant to be made in complete concentration. The Pilates practitioner should focus on the body's proper position at all times and pay attention to how the body feels. This concentrated mind control helps prevent injuries and increases the exercises' effectiveness, ensuring no muscle is forgotten or left out. Pilates movements are also meant to be slow enough to fully engage the muscles the movement was intended for.

Most Pilates exercises are performed on a mat. In 1954, Joseph Pilates wrote "Return to Life through Contrology," a book about the exercise method we now simply call Pilates. The book describes 34 mat exercises: the core movements of Pilates. Some, like the hundred, help warm up the body and aid breathing. Others, like the saw, work major muscle areas such as the abdominal core and help stretch others like the hamstrings. Pilates exercises often work multiple muscles during the same exercise. The push up works the shoulders, chest, arms, and upper back while stretching the hamstrings and shoulders [source: Siler].

For all its versatility and benefits, Pilates does have some limitations and drawbacks. Pilates is not a complete physical training program. It does not provide the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercises. Pilates practitioners should combine the exercises with some form of aerobic activity for cardiovascular health. Because Pilates does not help create bulky muscle mass, it's not a useful system for bodybuilders.

Doctors also caution those suffering from Osteogenesis imperfecta, Osteoporosis, Paget's Disease, Osteomalacia or other bone disorders to practice Pilates only with professional consultation. Some Pilates instructors are trained to modify exercises and work with these disorders.

And because there is no sanctioning body of Pilates to issue official teaching certificates, it's sometimes difficult to know if you're being taught classic or hybrid Pilates. However, there are agencies that certify teachers in certain types of Pilates methods.

In the next section, we'll learn about Pilates equipment.