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Pilates For Optimum Health and Fitness

by Ann Crowther(more info)

listed in pilates, originally published in issue 118 - December 2005

Joseph Pilates said “It is the mind itself which builds the body”. Today, after years of developing and fine-tuning his technique, we have a powerful and exciting approach to health and fitness for life, one that addresses the body and mind as a whole, one that fits with the ethos of the 21st century.

Beginnings of Pilates

Pilates was born in 1880 near Dusseldorf, Germany. He was a sickly, tubercular child who became interested in Yoga, Bodybuilding, Martial Arts and other exercise systems, as possible methods that would improve his health and body shape. He went on to develop a revolutionary exercise regime – a holistic fusion of Eastern and Western philosophies – which he called ‘Contrology’ and which later became known as the Pilates technique.

When World War 1 broke out, Joseph Pilates was in England, instructing Scotland Yard detectives in self-defence; because of his nationality, he was interned. Determined to keep up his fitness regime, Pilates ingeniously devised a means of exercising using the resistance provided by the springs on his iron prison bed – (a modern version of Pilates’ bed, the Reformer machine is still used in Pilates studios today). Taking this bed as the starting point, he devised a series of exercises using pulleys and weights, and performed them daily, along with a group of fellow internees. When Pilates and his exercise group all managed to avoid contracting the fatal flu virus that swept through Britain in 1918, Pilates concluded that his technique also strengthened the body’s immune system. This led him to develop a lifelong interest in creating exercises to aid rehabilitation following illness and injury.

In 1926, Pilates immigrated to the USA where he opened his first Pilates studio in New York. After grabbing the attention of members of New York’s social elite, his technique caught on with professional sports people, actors, actresses, dancers and physical trainers, until it gained the recognition and popularity it enjoys today. Pilates himself stayed in great shape and continued to train clients until he was well over 80.

So what is Pilates?

Often known as the thinking person’s exercise, Pilates is a form of body conditioning with exercises that systematically work the major muscle groups of the body. Great attention is paid to correct breathing, alignment, controlled movements and technique. The very essence of Pilates’ technique, however, is ‘core stability’. This simply means making your centre, or core, solid and strong. It is the key to the effective training of not only the abdominal muscles but also all the other muscles in the body.

To achieve core stability, you need to have control of three essential areas – your breathing, your pelvic floor muscles and your deep abdominal muscles (the transversus abdominis and internal obliques) which play a vital role in correct posture.

Correct breathing is one of the most important aspects of Pilates. Why? First and foremost, because your muscles and tissues need oxygen to work efficiently. Directing more oxygen to the brain improves concentration and co-ordination. Focusing on your breath also helps you to become more centred, giving a whole new mind-body dimension to your exercises. Correct breathing will not only improve your posture; it will also help keep your skin and eyes clear and give you an all-round healthy glow.

Breathiing the Pilates way
From Pilates For You by Ann Crowther ©Andy Kingsbury / Duncan Baird Publishers. 2003.

How to Breathe the Pilates Way

Although we breathe automatically, we often don’t breathe efficiently. Most of us use only a tiny part of our respiratory capacity and we often hold our breath for much longer than we should, for example when we are concentrating or exercising.

In Pilates, we practise ‘thoracic’ breathing – taking air deep into the rib cage so that the ribs expand out to the sides. We breathe into the thorax and not the abdomen because every Pilates exercise involves contracting the abdominal muscles. Don’t be alarmed if you feel light-headed or dizzy when practising thoracic breathing, this just means that you are breathing efficiently and that your brain is receiving more oxygen than usual.

Try the following exercise for correct Pilates breathing. You can practise it at any time of the day but you might find it particularly useful in the morning when you wake up (to give you a boost of energy) and in the evening before you go to bed (to calm you):

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent and slightly apart, and the soles of your feet flat on the floor. Keep your head aligned with your spine, and do not press the spine into the floor. Place the palms of your hands on your rib cage, with your fingertips just touching each other;
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose. Notice how your diaphragm muscle drops and your rib cage opens and expands, allowing you to fill your lungs with air. Note, too, that your fingertips will no longer meet. Feel the rise and expansion of your rib cage beneath your hands;
  • Exhale through your mouth until you have expelled all the air and your rib cage has contracted so that your fingertips are touching once again. Repeat for eight inhalations and eight exhalations;
  • Now stand upright with your feet hip-distance apart and repeat the breathing exercise another eight times.

Core Stability – what is it and how to achieve it

It is the deep abdominal muscles that are crucial to Pilates’ technique. As well as controlling posture, they are the major stabilizers of the back. If, over the years, you have fallen into the bad habit of slouching in chairs, your deep muscles have probably become deprogrammed, so that you may find maintaining a correct upright posture difficult, requiring great effort and extremely uncomfortable. So how then do we reprogramme these muscles and regain good posture? The answer is simple – by achieving core stability, which you attain by learning to breathe correctly, to pull up your pelvic floor muscles, and to hollow out the deep abdominals as if you are drawing them back towards your spine.

Here’s how to visualize the core and achieve stability:

  • Try to imagine the centre of your body – your ‘core’- as a hollow cylinder. The top of the cylinder is the diaphragm, the bottom is the pelvic floor and the walls of the cylinder are the deep abdominal muscles;
  • Now take a deep breath – into your ‘thoracic’ or ribs area – feel your diaphragm lower, compressing the top of the cylinder;
  • Lift your pelvic floor, and as you do so, imagine the bottom of the cylinder becoming more solid. Then, draw your abdominals in and upward, so that the walls of the cylinder are pulled in;
  • The cylinder is now solid and strong, forming an effective brace for your spine. With your core stabilized in this way, all the movements and exercises that you do with your limbs become more powerful and controlled.

Switching Headlights
From Pilates For You by Ann Crowther ©Andy Kingsbury / Duncan Baird Publishers. 2003.

Now try the following exercise, which will teach you how to align your core muscles and switch your ‘headlights’ to full beam!

  • Stand sideways in front of a full-length mirror with your feet hip-distance apart. Place your fingertips on your hip bones and your thumbs at the base of your ribs;
  • Next, imagine you have headlights on your hip bones and that you are going down a dark country road. You will notice that your ‘headlights’ are dipped down toward the road. This means that you can’t see ahead. Tilt your ‘headlights’ slightly up toward the ribs by drawing your navel back toward your spine. Now they are on full beam and you can see!
  • Release, and turn to look at yourself in the mirror. Repeat the action. Notice how it corrects your whole body posture, even though it is only a very slight movement;
  • Notice, too, that your buttocks have tightened slightly, which means that you have raised your pelvic floor. This is core stability! Try to remember always to switch your ‘headlights’ to full beam when you stand up or walk.

Core stability takes practice and patience to achieve. However, once you’ve learned the technique and make a conscious effort to practise it, you’ll find that you become accustomed to having good posture and will adopt it automatically.

The Benefits of Pilates

Whilst it’s important to realize that performing Pilates exercises can be challenging and demands commitment, the benefits are manifold. They include gaining muscular strength without bulk, developing correct structural support for the spine, and learning controlled breathing. Pilates will boost your energy levels, release both physical and mental tension and leave you feeling refreshed and calm with a more positive self-image.

Pilates is for everyone, male and female, young or old, at any level of fitness – from the total beginner to the top athlete or sportsperson. If you begin when you are young, you will be giving yourself the healthiest start in life. If you are older and less fit than you would like, Pilates will help to reverse this ageing process, transform the way you look and feel and give you Pilates power in body, mind and spirit.

Invest in your health and wellbeing…:
‘Whatever you can do, or dream, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. BEGIN IT NOW’
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832)

Further Information

Readers wanting to purchase Pilates For You should go to


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About Ann Crowther

Ann Crowther trained in Pilates in California, and later in Exercise and Health Studies at the University of East London, followed by specialist training in Kinesiology, Nutrition and Stress Management, Ann draws on over 20 years of experience as a fitness trainer and has won extensive praise for the development of her own highly successful Pilates system. She is the author of Pilates for You, Duncan Baird Publishers, and several fitness DVD/book sets. She may be contacted via ;


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