February 10, 1999
— by Phyllis Palone Sturman

Pilates exercise techniques concentrate on quality of movement

San Jose Mercury Feb 1999SANTA CLARA marketing consultant Monique Parker used the Pilates workout to rehabilitate a strained hamstring. John Klimp, a Palo Alto business owner and member of the Stanford Masters Swimmers Program, gave the method a try to improve his swim technique.

Based on the teachings of Joseph Pilates (pronounced pa-LAH-teez), this versatile workout uses the body weight for resistance, along with specific equipment, to simultaneously strengthen and lengthen the muscles. Easy on the joints, yet challenging to the muscles, dancers have used the method for decades to stay in peak condition and to rehabilitate injuries.

But the benefits from Pilates-based exercise are not just for dancers.

"Pilates improves alignment and posture and balances muscle development, which is important in injury prevention and recovery,'' says Karen Matison, owner of the Balanced Body in Menlo Park. "Developing abdominal strength and spinal stability are key elements in the process. Much focus is on using the deep layers of muscles, or core muscles, of the body to work from the inside out.''

Quality of movement (not quantity), breathing and mind/body integration also are essential components of Pilates-based movement. Because Pilates-style exercise takes concentration, you won't hear piped-in music or see exercisers with headsets on for distraction. The studio environment is quiet, the mood calm and meditative. Participants, usually a few people at a time, focus on the flow of movement on the equipment.

Strength and StabilityThe most commonly known apparatus, but not the only piece, is the Universal Reformer. The Reformer resembles a wood-frame single bed with a sliding carriage that uses an adjustable springs-and-pulley system for upper and lower body resistance. The prototype for today's apparatus and the original movements were created by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s.

A sickly child, Pilates became a professional boxer, self-defense expert and all-around fitness buff. When he was interned in England (because of his German heritage) during World War I, he shared his fitness prowess with his fellow internees. To help bedridden and deconditioned soldiers exercise, he devised resistance equipment using springs and cables attached to their beds.

In 1926, Joseph Pilates and his wife, Clara, moved to New York City, where his methods quickly became known in the dance community. Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were among devotees, who used his techniques to strengthen and rehabilitate their dancers.

Movements familiar

Matison, who discovered Pilates through her interest in dance, says a typical one-hour private session begins on the mat.

"Mat work allows new clients to become familiar with the principles of the method: to develop a controlled, fluid motion, to find the center of the torso and press the sacrum into the floor, and to breathe fully into the chest while pulling the belly into the spine," she says.

During mat work, clients also learn the "vocabulary," or individual movements. Many of the movements, which may look familiar from yoga and traditional exercise routines, transfer to the apparatus. Pilates believed that a person had the technique within, and the apparatus was a way to offer support, Matison says.

After the mat exercises, a client performs leg and footwork and upper body work on the Universal Reformer. One-on-one instruction from an instructor is recommended because the Pilates-based technique is subtle and requires a client to visualize the movement.

"Pilates is conscious movement. When you visualize what muscles will do the work and hold that thought as you move through the exercise, you work efficiently and effectively from the start," she says. Matison cites the example of a person who executes 100 crunches, and often uses momentum to get through the first 80 repetitions. Then for the last 20 repetitions, the muscles are engaged to do the work.

"Performing a few (about 10) really good movements rather than pumping the muscles through numerous repetitions also contributes to the long, lean muscles that dancers need to maintain and that others want," she says.

Because Pilates-based movements are gentle and predominantly done lying down, it is a natural rehabilitation method for injured dancers and non-dancers, male or female. Mercy Sidbury, a former dancer with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and now a dance medicine specialist in the Dance Medicine Division of the Center for Sports Medicine at Saint Francis Hospital in San Francisco, rehabilitated a dance injury using Pilates-based exercises.


"Dancers with fractures get a full workout with a cast on and stay in condition," Sidbury says. Sidbury, who liked Pilates-style exercise for its rehabilitative properties, has come to appreciate Pilates methods for its broad use and adaptability.

"In addition to non-dancers who suffer groin, hip and knee injuries, we now apply Pilates technique to a more complicated population. We've found that people who can't tolerate other forms of exercise can handle the gentle method applied in Pilates," says Sidbury.

Tom McCook, owner of Center of Balance in Mountain View, says about 25 percent of his Pilates clients are rehab referrals.

"A routine can be created for any level of rehabilitation or (athletic) training. It's a low-risk, high-benefit training regime,'' says McCook.

Matison says that although about 33 percent of her clients come to her for rehabilitation, most continue to incorporate Pilates methods into their regular workout routine because of the added benefits, such as improved posture.

No noisy gym

"Pilates has helped me correct and balance my posture — which is great because I can spend 10 hours a day at the computer plus a couple more hours driving," says Santa Clara high-tech marketing consultant Monique Parker.

An avid exerciser, Parker continued her training after she rehabilitated her hamstring. She practices Pilates twice a week in the studio plus home workouts along with yoga. She gladly forfeited the noisy, gym environment and the pounding workouts that didn't accomplish her goals.

"I've always wanted a balanced, lean look. With Pilates I've gained strength, flexibility and muscular stability in a symmetrical way," says Parker.

Symmetry and balance is an underlying theme in Pilates-style exercise. Muscle imbalance can put a person at greater risk for injury in daily activities such as lifting a child or items from the trunk of a car. Favoring one side of the body out of habit or compensation for a previous injury can hinder athletic performance and improvement.

In 1994, when John Klimp of Palo Alto asked a swim-team teammate about her improved technique and time, she credited the Pilates-based method. That was enough to get Klimp to attend Matison's studio.

"My shoulder movement and kick are more efficient, and I've gained back and hip flexibility. Overall, my posture has improved, too. Pilates teaches you to make specific adjustments and pay attention to the small muscle groups,'' Klimp says.

More than exercise

Pilates-based methods have been around for 70-plus years. Why the popularity with the mainstream exercise population now? One-time body builder McCook, who also teaches yoga at his studio, says people want workouts that benefit mind and body.

"People are bored with the big-muscle approach," says McCook. "People are now thinking more about function than simply aesthetics, and Pilates provides a stress reliever that benefits all areas of health. People learn to use their body to self-regulate stress. Pilates has more depth than just exercise.''

Phyllis Palone Sturman is a Bay Area freelance writer.