Looking for a low-impact workout to strengthen and lengthen every part of your body? Look no further. Here’s your five-step introduction to pilates – the exercise renowned for building strong bodies.
People who do pilates rave about it incessantly. They go on and on about how strong they feel, how loose their muscles are and how injury-resistant they’ve become. But if you’ve never done it before (as with lots of things), the idea of heading into a pilates studio can be a daunting one.
It really is worth getting to grips with the fundamentals of pilates. Pilates is renowned for improving core strength and function, improving posture, strengthening the pelvic floor and decreasing back pain, and preventing injury. It’s also been shown to reduce period pain, improve mobility and have profound benefits on mental health, with one study concluding that pilates improves sleep quality in people under 40.
In other words, no matter what your regular sport or workout regime looks like, we could all do with adding a little pilates into our week. One week is all it takes to get started, and award-winning pilates instructor and founder of Pilates PT, Hollie Grant, has a five-step introduction that’s perfect for beginners.
Prepare to get seriously strong. If you complete the challenge and feel like you need more from Hollie, you can check out her classes online.
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Hollie’s five-step intro to pilates
Step one: find a neutral position
“You’ll get so much more out of your muscles if you work correctly,” Grant says. In yoga and pilates classes, you’ll often hear instructors say ‘find a neutral pelvis’ or ‘make sure that your spine is in neutral’, “but if you don’t know what neutral is, that’s really difficult!”
Grant explains that a ‘neutral posture’ is really the ideal posture type and while few (if anyone) has a perfectly neutral spine or pelvis naturally, we can aim to get into as neutral a position as possible, and to work in neutral as much as possible in class.
“We don’t have a flat spine, they’re supposed to have curves which help us to balance out the weight of our head and make sure that we’re comfortable. The curves also help us to move! The curves should be relatively gentle, but because of our modern-day lifestyles (things like driving, texting, sitting at a laptop all day or because of pregnancy) those curves might change shape. We want to try to get back to neutral posture where we can,” says Grant.
So what does neutral posture look like? A neutral pelvis involves:
- Keeping the hip bones roughly in line with the pubic bone
- Not allowing the ribs to be sticking out
- Maintaining eye line at eye level
- Flattening the shoulder blades (not allowing them to be pulled forward or backwards).
- Keeping the knees soft – neither locked out nor bent.
Step two: nail the pilates breath
One of the most common issues many people have while practising pilates, Grant says, is the breath. While you don’t have to get the breathing technique perfect, “you need to be breathing because muscles require oxygen.” Concentrate on it enough and, eventually, it will become a habit.
The ‘pilates breath’ is all about making the most of what happens to the muscles of the body when we breathe. Grant explains that when we breathe in, our diaphragm pulls air into the body. When it contracts, it pulls down and flattens and air is sucked in.
“As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back to a dome shape as air is pushed out of the lungs. When that’s happening, we want to breathe as deeply as possible because the body requires oxygen. If we don’t breathe deeply, we will need to breathe fast and shallow, which puts the body under stress. We don’t want to be in that state. The deeper breaths calm the body down into the rest and digest state.”
While the diaphragm is working, other muscles are having to move. “When we breathe in, the pelvic floor at the bottom of our pelvis lowers and the abdominals soften. When we exhale and the diaphragm moves upwards, the pelvic floor lifts and the abdominals draw in.”
Breathing properly exercises the abs and pelvic floor – muscles we need to work together to keep us stable.
- Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, as deeply as possible.
- When you exhale, notice how the abdominals engage.
Step three: core function
Pilates isn’t just about core strength – it’s actually a full-body workout that strengthens every muscle. Saying that, the core is a key part of pilates because you need to engage the core in order to stabilize the spine.
Core strength doesn’t mean working on building a six pack. The core is made up of different muscles. The four main abdominal muscles include the transverse (which wrap around the trunk), the rectus (those front abs), the external obliques (that help with rotation) and the internal obliques (stabilisation). Those four muscles “work together to cause movement of the spine. They allow us to crunch, rotate and flex – that’s why abdominal work isn’t as simple as just doing crunches!” Grant says.
The core also includes the pelvis, spine and rib cage. If any of these core muscles is stronger than the other (eg you do lots of crunching but never work on the lower back) you’re going to risk ending up with dodgy posture.
Correct your core by:
- Adding 10 minutes of core exercises to your workouts
- Don’t just do crunches and sit-ups but try bridges, pelvic tilts, lying leg lifts and cat-cow stretches.
Step four: focus on the spine
If you see a GP or physio about back pain, they’ll probably suggest that you try pilates. “This is because, often, the root of back pain can come from muscle imbalances causing tension,” Grant explains. Those imbalances cause changes to your posture, which can also cause tension and injuries to your spine.
“What tends to happen due to our modern lifestyles is that some of the natural curves in our spine end up deepening and changing shape,” and our posture changes as a result.
At the top of the chain, we have the cervical spine. We can move our skulls in various directions, extending and flexing the neck and rotating the head.
We then have the thoracic spine which we can flex, extend, rotate and laterally flex.
As we move lower down the spine, the movement becomes more and more reduced. We can move the lumbar spine but by the time we get to the base of the bone, there’s not much movement and we only have a little in the hip bones.
Our spines are designed mainly to move in flexion (bending forwards – we do a lot of that leaning over laptops, cooking dinner, picking up children), extension (we don’t do a lot of this except for in yoga), rotation and lateral flexion (again, usually at the gym). But we should do more of the latter two to avoid getting stuck in one shape.
- Take two breaks a day to sit cross-legged on the floor and rotate from the hips – rotating to the right then the left.
- Try one back bend a day. You don’t have to go far to reap the benefits. Take it slowly and carefully by kneeling on the floor. Place the right hand on your right heel before reaching back with the left hand to grab the left heel. Push up from your hips and look up.
Step five: perfect posture
Pilates is all about finding imbalances and understanding what each part of the body feels like. Where do you feel tight, loose, strong, weak?
The body tends to change shape because of muscle imbalances. When muscles aren’t equally as strong as each other, they start to pull on our bodies and change our posture.
“If we think about modern-day posture, many people sit at a desk all day or in a car and we find that we are always in hip flexion,” says Grant. “We will notice that the hip flexors are in a shortened position and they will get tight.”
Because we don’t use our glutes as much as we should, they get weaker. Sitting hunched over a laptop for eight hours a day pulls our spines forward so that the muscles in the front of the body get tighter and shorter, and the back of the body gets weak and long.
- Taking regular breaks from your desk, bed or kitchen table when you’re working
- Concentrate on stretching and strengthening the front and back body
- Try to keep your screen at eye line so that you’re not hunching down to see your screen
- Have a go at pilates or a mobility class to lengthen and strengthen weak or tight muscles
Ready to get seriously mobile? Check out Emma’s 15-minute mobility workouts in the Strong Women Training Club video library.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.