History of the Pilates Method

Pilates is a method of exercise and body conditioning that has been practiced since the early 1920s. It was developed by German-born Joseph Pilates who, while working as a nurse in England during World War I, experimented with attaching a system of springs to the hospital beds as a way for patients to begin rehabilitation while still bedridden. This new concept produced dramatic results. Combining his experience as a diver, boxer and gymnast with his studies of yoga, Zen and other Eastern techniques, he eventually evolved this practice into his unique method of physical and mental conditioning.

In 1926, Joseph Pilates emigrated to New York where he began teaching his method to members of the dance world, including the companies of George Balanchine and Martha Graham. His method became the conditioning and rehabilitation method of choice for the dance community and remains so today, due in large part to its emphasis on balance and its treatment of the body as a whole. Until the 1990s, the method had been used almost exclusively by dancers and other artists, but with an explosion of media attention, Pilates became more accessible to the general public, with classes popping up in fitness centers around the country. Today, Pilates studios may be found in all corners of the globe.

Photo: CovaTech Pilates Studio, Milan, Italy

Choosing the Right Size Ball

When sitting on the Ball, your knees should be at a 90º angle or just slightly lower than the level of your hips. Following are some general guidelines based on your height; however, you may wish to choose a different size Ball depending on the proportion of your legs to your torso (i.e. longer legs may necessitate a larger Ball). If in doubt, choose a larger size Ball so that you may under-inflate it.

 

 

5’ to 5’6”                     55 cm

5’7” to 6’2”                 65 cm

over 6’2”                     75 cm

Note:  You may find it desirable to under-inflate your Ball in the beginning when it is the most firm. Over time your Ball will likely gain elasticity and become softer. When this happens, you may need to add more air to reach the preferred height while seated.

The Long, Lean Pilates Body

When I first became certified as an instructor in 1995, Pilates was not the household word that it is today. My clients were puzzled, intimidated, even frightened by the strange machines sitting in our studio. Most of these people were used to working out on the standard gym equipment—weight machines and free weights—so the one question I heard on a daily basis was, Why is Pilates better than what I’m already doing? My answer: Pilates is not necessarily better—just different.

One of those differences involves the way in which Pilates strengthens muscles. Traditional weight training typically uses a high amount of resistance, with the goal being to train “until failure,” the point at which a repetition fails due to inadequate strength. This approach will create strong, often bulky muscles, but with the downside of limited flexibility.

For those clients who have physical limitations or are wary of “bulking up,” many trainers offer another technique: using low resistance while performing a higher number of repetitions, usually stopping before the muscle reaches that point of total fatigue. While this approach is somewhat similar to Pilates in its use of low resistance, Pilates differs in that it traditionally entails relatively few repetitions, emphasizing quality over quantity. There are also several other components that set Pilates apart—most notably its dual emphasis on core muscles and flexibility.

Several of the Pilates apparatus—the Reformer, Cadillac (a.k.a. Trapeze Table), and “Wunda” Chair—use springs to provide resistance. These springs come in different levels of strength, but the catch is that a higher resistance does not always make an exercise more difficult. Because you are often working against your own body weight, many exercises become exponentially more challenging on a lower spring setting. No matter the movement, all Pilates exercises target the body’s core muscles, including those smaller muscles used to stabilize joints and fine-tune movement. This has the effect of creating strength without the bulk.

In addition, Pilates emphasizes fluid, lengthening movements rather than short contractions, often working a muscle through its full range of motion. By combining both stretching and strengthening of a muscle within the same exercise, more muscle fibers are given a chance to contract—without sacrificing flexibility. The end result: a fit Pilates body with long, lean, toned muscles.

Photo: Zsuzsanna Bokor, Balance Pilates Studio, Budapest, Hungary

Improve Your Balance on the Ball

There is no better way to improve your balance than by balancing on an unstable surface. With a stability ball—arguably one of the most versatile props—your core muscles are forced to activate, no matter what movement the exercise involves. Here are five of my favorites that can be practiced in the comfort of your own home. In addition to strengthening your core abdominals, these exercises also target muscles in the upper body, lower back, and legs.

One Arm Balance

To Start: Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward until your hips are resting on top of the Ball. Extend both legs behind you, keeping your body in a long, straight line from head to toe.

Movement: Lift one hand off the floor and extend your arm straight forward. Try to hold your balance for at least 10 seconds. Repeat about 10 times, alternating sides.

Skier

To Start: Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward until your mid-thighs or knees are resting on the Ball. You should be in a long, straight line from head to toe.

Movement: Tuck your knees toward one shoulder, rolling the Ball forward on a diagonal. Keep your shoulders still and let your torso twist at the waist. From there, straighten your legs, rolling the Ball back to the starting position. Repeat about 10 times, alternating sides.

Twist

To Start: Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward until your mid-thighs or knees are resting on the Ball. You should be in a long, straight line from head to toe.

Movement: Twist your body at the waist, so that your hips are square to the side. Keep your shoulders still and your legs straight. From there, roll back to the starting position. Repeat about 10 times, alternating sides.

Side Leg Lifts

To Start: Lie sideways over the Ball with your legs together, so that only your feet and one hand are on the floor. Place your other hand on the Ball to help keep it still.

Movement: Keeping both legs straight and in a parallel position, lift and lower your top leg. Repeat, about 10 reps per side.

Side Sit-Ups

To Start: Lie sideways over the Ball with your feet supported against the base of a wall. Only the side of your hip should be resting on the Ball, not your ribcage. Keep your knees and inner thighs together, with the bottom leg straight and the top leg bent (the top foot will be behind the bottom one). With your hands behind your head, lean out so that you are in a straight, diagonal line from head to feet.

Movement: Bend at your waist to raise your torso up to a vertical position, then lower back to the diagonal. Keep your hips still, so that the hinge happens at the waist. Repeat, about 10 reps per side.

If you suffer from an injury or other health condition, or have any questions regarding the suitability of stability ball training, please consult your doctor before attempting these exercises.

Back on the Ball

Back pain affects an estimated 80% of the population at some point in their lives. I know I’ve had my share of aches and pains: pushing my body to its limit during my days as a contemporary dancer, struggling as a new mom to hoist my young son plus stroller onto the city bus, and over the years spending far too many hours sitting at the computer. But worst of all was a sacro-iliac joint sprain when I was a Pilates instructor. This injury dragged on for several years and was excruciatingly painful to even walk. Once I finally figured out the cause of the pain, I was able to target certain muscle groups to stretch and strengthen. There were a few Pilates exercises that felt especially good—shoulder bridge and side kicks come to mind—but it was the stability ball that played the greatest role in my recovery.

While both Pilates and stability ball training are effective methods for increasing strength and flexibility, I give the Ball an edge up for its “fun factor.” Plus, it can address back pain in ways that other techniques are lacking.

  • The Ball’s main advantage is that it is an unstable surface. During any exercise, it automatically forces the body’s core muscles—the abdominal and back muscles that support the spine—to work in order to maintain balance.
  • Both slouching and overarching can lead to increased pain by placing added stress on the back’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, discs, and joint structures. Used as a chair, the Ball can help you find perfect posture, or “neutral spine,” which is the alignment of the spine that maintains its natural, healthy curves.
  • Sore muscles need gentle stretching. Since the Ball allows for fluid motion rather than static positioning, the body is able to roll into the precise spot that will provide the optimal stretch.

To help ease the aches and pains in your own back, try the following six Ball exercises. (Please note that the Superman is a tad more advanced and should not be done if you have an acute back injury. It is, however, a great exercise for strengthening back muscles as part of your recovery.)

1. Shoulder Bridge

Lie on your back, resting your legs on top of the Ball with your knees bent. Rolling through your spine, one vertebra at a time, slowly press your hips up toward the ceiling. From there, roll your spine back down to the floor. (For more challenge, place your feet on top of the Ball, with your legs straight. Or try performing the exercise with your arms raised off the floor.)

2. Quadruped

Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands and feet on the floor. Raise your opposite arm and leg into a horizontal position. Hold your balance for 5–10 seconds (or longer). Repeat on the other side.

 


3. Flat Back

Sit on the Ball. Slowly walk your feet forward until your shoulders and head are resting on top of the Ball. Press your hips up in line with your knees and shoulders, reaching your arms overhead. From there, reach your arms forward and walk your feet in, bringing yourself back to a sitting position.

4. Superman

Lie with your stomach on the Ball and your feet supported against the base of a wall. Keep your legs bent just slightly to avoid locking the knees. With your hands behind your head, raise and lower your torso. (Do not raise higher than the point where you are in a straight line head to toe.)

5. Back Stretch

Sit on the Ball. Slowly walk your feet forward until your lower back is resting on the Ball. Straighten your legs, allowing your body to lie back and drape over the Ball. Reach your arms overhead, or else place your hands behind your head to support your neck.

6. Side Stretch

Lie sideways on the Ball with your legs straight, your top leg in back, and your top arm overhead. Repeat on the other side. (Try rolling into the Back Stretch position as you transition from one side to the other.)

 

My book Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates contains these exercises plus many more, including variations on the exercises and tips for proper form and alignment.

If you suffer from an injury or other health condition, or have any questions regarding the suitability of stability ball training, please consult your doctor before attempting these exercises.

Budapest: Hungry for Pilates

This piece was written for Pilates Style following my visit to the studio in 2005. However, due to a change in editorial staff, the article was never published. Facts contained within are current as of 2005.

Little more than a decade after the fall of Communism, an enterprising trio of pioneers has broken new ground with Hungary’s first Pilates studio. After completing the Stott certification program in 2003, professional ballet dancers Zsuzsanna Bokor and Krisztián Mélykúti opened the Balance Pilates Studio in downtown Budapest, and were soon joined by Vladka Mala, a Czech-born contemporary dancer who is also certified by Stott.


Zsuzsanna’s husband, Gabor, remains equally involved with the studio. An orthopedic surgeon specializing in back problems and sports injuries, he has brought to the group a high level of technical expertise, as well as a number of patient referrals. To meet the growing demand, Balance Pilates Studio has launched an instructor training program licensed by Stott Pilates. The hope is not only to foster extra teachers for their own practice, but to encourage the growth of additional studios throughout Hungary. Instead of regarding this as potential competition, their vision is what Gabor describes as “critical mass,” the point where Pilates awareness is so broad that everyone in the field benefits from its established reputation.

So far, the studio’s main challenge has been an economical one. Although private sessions are inexpensive by American standards (they cost about US$25), many Hungarians cannot afford this luxury. In order to accommodate more equipment for semi-private sessions, the group recently relocated to a larger space. Even as the business expands, Zsuzsanna, Krisztián, and Vladka strive to create a comfortable atmosphere where clients feel like family. It is in this environment, the trio believes, that their students are most likely to succeed…and to then spread the word about Pilates. For more information, visit www.pilates.hu.

Milan: Pilates in Vogue

This piece was written for Pilates Style following my visit to the studio in 2005. However, due to a change in editorial staff, the article was never published. Facts contained within are current as of 2005.

In Italy the Pilates realm belongs to just one woman: Anna Maria Cova. Since leaving her career as a professional ballet dancer, Cova has built an empire of over seventy Pilates studios, an intensive teacher training program, and a complete line of equipment.

Cova opened her first studio in Milan in 1989 after three years of training with Romana Kryzanowska in New York. Worried that the method might eventually lose its integrity, she established exclusive rights to the Pilates trademark throughout Italy. When the U.S. courts abolished the Pilates trademark in the year 2000, however, Cova decided to follow that spirit of generosity and allow other Italian studios to operate using the name Pilates. In order to distinguish her own style of training, she then launched the brand “CovaTech,” which encompasses her teaching method as well as her personally-designed reformers, cadillacs, and other apparatus.

In addition to her extensive network of studios in Italy, Cova is branching out into Europe with studios in Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and Croatia. Her instructors go through a 400-hour certification that emphasizes injury protocol and rehabilitation. Though her teaching adheres to the classical style taught by the Pilates “elders,” Cova has added a few of her own innovations, such as “Meridian Stretching” (a technique based on the meridians of Shiatsu) and a mat program called “Mat4Me.”

Despite the demands of running an international business, Cova continues to teach daily at her rainbow-colored studio in downtown Milan. There is nothing, she says, that gives her greater satisfaction than being able to help her clients achieve their goals – the way she has achieved her own. For more information, visit www.covatechpilates.com.