If you’ve never been in a Pilates studio, you might wonder why anyone would spend their time contorting themselves on an array of torturous-looking machines. But if you give the workout a chance, you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
“Pilates is an exercise method that can apply to all of the movements you do in life,” explains Lynda Salerno Gehrman, Pilates director and founder of Physio Logic Pilates & Movement in New York City. “Its principles lie at the root of all activities and is one of the most effective disciplines you can do to look, feel, and move more efficiently every day.”
And while it’s true that Pilates has become the go-to workout for dancers and models, that doesn’t mean the rest of us should take a pass. “Pilates is a highly effective workout,” maintains Alycea Ungaro, owner of Real Pilates in New York and the author of several books on Pilates. “It’s highly adaptable, and there are so many variations and positions that there’s almost no one who can’t do some form of this movement.” Ready to give it a try? Here’s what to expect when you walk through the door.
Know the lay of the land. Most Pilates group classes at the gym are done on individual exercise mats (and therefore dubbed “mat classes”), but a Pilates studio will also feature several pieces of equipment that are entirely unique to this type of workout.
Namesake Joseph Pilates first created the exercise program during World War I when he rigged springs to hospital beds to help bedridden patients retain their strength. You’ll find the roots of this invention in the Reformer, the most commonly used Pilates apparatus. Reformers typically use a wooden or metal frame and a sliding platform (aka the carriage) for you to lay, sit, stand, or kneel on; a bar and straps are attached to a series of springs and pulleys that allow you to vary the tension, adding resistance or assistance to each movement. “Most of the exercises on the Reformer offer two-way resistance, which means you’re working against the resistance when you push or pull but then also have to control the movement on the way back,” explains Ungaro.
Other Pilates apparatus include:
Find your power. All Pilates exercises centers around your body’s core, or what instructors often call the “Powerhouse.” Think of this as the whole midsection of your body. Many of the movements start in a V-stance, with your heels together and toes apart. From here, squeeze your glutes and then think about scooping or drawing your abdominals in, says Ungaro. “You’re working from this Powerhouse position in every Pilates exercise, even if you’re also working your arms, legs, or other body part.”
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Grippy socks. Although many Pilates classes are done barefoot, if you’re not comfortable showing your toes, you can also wear socks with some texture along the sole. These help give you some much-needed grip for some of the exercises, without interfering with the machines.
Comfortable clothing. Avoid anything with zippers or hooks, cautions Ungaro, since they can tear the upholstered machines. Since you’ll be lying on your back, tummy, or side, make sure there’s no bulky strap or bulge that will dig into your skin, and wear something that’s comfy to move around in but not so baggy that it rides up.
Move in a whole new way. “Pilates is great at uncovering all of the cheats and bad habits that we’ve developed in our bodies,” says Ungaro. Most of the exercises will work on helping you gain more symmetry, so one side of your body or muscle group doesn’t dominate over the other.
Share an instructor. One-on-one training with a Pilates instructor can be pricey, so many studios also offer small group classes (usually no more than 12 people) on individual Reformers. These classes usually blend in some mat exercises with the equipment. Pilates teachers say it’s worth getting at least one private lesson to get familiar with the moves, but you can also see if your studio has teacher training, which offers supervision at a fraction of the cost.
Leave feeling great. Pilates enthusiasts say you’ll feel a difference in your body after the very first workout. “You get a much greater sense of how you move and your body’s alignment, and that carries over even after you’ve left the studio,” says Gehrman. “You simply start to stand and walk your tallest and feel more in control of your body.”