Here at Soho Fitness Lab, we utilise Pilates as a part of each and everyone of our workouts. For us, it is fundamental to excellent PT delivery. Here are some of the main reasons why we feel you need to consider Pilates in your training routine
What is pilates?
Created by PT Joseph Pilates back in the 1920s, it’s a type of exercise that aims to strengthen the body evenly and enhance coordination between the mind and body to promote flexibility, endurance, strength and postural awareness.
It focuses on the abdominal muscles to build a strong core that can support the spine. This not only helps to manage and resolve back pain, but also prevent future problems in this area.
How is it practiced?
Pilates can either be done on the floor using a mat, or with the use of equipment like the Reformer. Regardless of the technique used, pilates always has the same goal of strengthening the coordination between mind and body. It does this by forcing you to pay close attention to your body, focusing on your breath as you work through each movement.
If you’ve never done pilates, you may well be wondering what exactly the Reformer is. Designed specifically for pilates, this machine can be described as a half bed-like frame with a flat carriage that rolls back and forth on wheels. A series of springs and bands provide either support or resistance, depending on the user’s needs and the exercises being performed.
Pilates was originally known as Contrology - literally, “the science of control”. It was based on a series of 34 exercises, some of which were very advanced. The Reformer was later introduced as a way to prepare pilates students for some of the more advanced exercises in this series. Nowadays, mat-based sessions tend to include the original 34 moves broken down into simpler exercises, with gradual progressions.
Mat-based pilates can be done anywhere - all you need is mat and a lesson to follow (there are loads on Youtube). We recommend going to a few classes first to get the hang of it and practising at home in-between!
5 Reasons You Need Pilates
1) Improves and prevents lower back pain
Pilates strengthens your inner core muscles, such as the transverse abdominis (the deepest of core muscles that wraps around the spine for protection and stability), the obliques (located on the side and front of the abdomen) and the pelvic floor (that sits deep inside the bowel shape of your pelvis). It also mobilises your thoracic spine (the area of your spine level with your rib cage and chest). Strengthening the inner core muscles and mobilising the thoracic spine is key to ensure the stability of joints in the lower back and pelvis, thereby helping to reduce the occurence of lower back pain.
2) Improves everyday posture
Thanks to its focus on deep postural muscles, many people notice a near-immediate improvement in their posture when they start pilates and studies show that they stand straighter and sit better than before. The combination of strength and flexibility allows the body to recover its natural, neutral spine position that is all too often compromised as a result of hunching over a desk for hours on end.
3) Improves body awareness
Body awareness is the sense we have of our own bodies. It’s an understanding of the parts that make up one's body, where they are located, how they feel, and what they can do. Try closing your eyes and tapping your nose. Keeping them shut, tap your left shoulder. Now stand on one leg, eyes still shut. Your ability to locate each part without looking is body awareness. It relies on three key factors: strong large muscle groups, strong smaller muscle groups and balance. All of these are improved with Pilates thanks to its focus on slow and controlled movement.
4) Improves breathing awareness
In pilates, each exercise has a prescribed rhythm and breathing pattern.
Some of the benefits of deep breathing are:
- Relaxation of the shoulders, neck and upper back
- Increased lung capacity and circulation
- Improved concentration
- Stress management and relaxation
5) Improves flexibility
When stretching in pilates, the focus is on maintaining correct alignment (this is referred to as active stretching). Regular practice will strengthen joints and muscles, as well as increase range of motion and length, respectively. Examples of pilates stretches are: wall roll down, forward fold, swan (cobra in yoga), mermaid side stretch and saw.
5 Fundamental Pilates Exercises
The key to pilates is precision and control. First, we need to engage the right muscles, which means not just the core, but more specifically the transverse abdominis (corset muscle that surrounds the abdomen and supports the spine) and the pelvic floor. Second, each exercise should be performed with slow and controlled focus.
We’ve listed 5 key exercises that you should aim to master before you venture on to more advanced moves!
Neutral Spine Position
Before we start, we must introduce the neutral spine position:
- Lay on your back on a mat
- Knees bent with feet flat on the floor
- Arms by your sides reaching towards your feet. Palms flat on the floor
- Here, most people have two natural arches in their spine, one in the lower back and one at the neck. These curves function to absorb shock and reduce strain on the surrounding muscles and ligaments. Variations to these curves are what can lead to pain in the back, neck, shoulders and can radiate out to the rest of the body
- Start taking deep breaths, expanding your back and sides, rather than filling your tummy. Aim to feel the side of your ribs and back expanding, instead of your front ribs lifting
1 - Glute Bridges
This exercise builds connection and stability in the core, engages the glutes and improves mobility in the spine.
Step 1. Lay on your back in the neutral spine position, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Step 2. Breathe in, expanding the rib cage laterally. Breathe out, pressing your back into the mat, and lift the pubic bone up and in towards your belly button. Keep exhaling whilst peeling your spine off the mat one vertebrae at a time, lifting the pelvis and glutes off of the floor. Imagine you are peeling your spine like a sticker off the mat, from the bottom to the shoulders - vertebrae by vertebrae.
N.B. Be careful not to arch your back, but instead keep your abdominals tight, and your pubic bone tilted up towards your belly button. Hold this position for 3 seconds while you breathe in again.
Step 3. Breathe out as you roll back down, again articulating through the spine, until you all the way back to neutral position. Repeat 10 times.
2 - Single Leg Lifts
This is a great exercise for training your core muscles to provide stability to the lower back and pelvis.
Step 1. Lay in neutral spine, with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms down by your sides. Pelvic floor muscles* engaged - to do this on your next exhale try to stop passing urine. You should feel a lifting sensation around your lower abs. This is your pelvic floor.
Step 2. Breathe in to prepare and flatten the back into the mat. Breathe out and bring one leg to a table top position (90 degrees), keeping the abdominals flat, no doming.
Step 3. Breathe in to hold the position. Breathe out and lower the leg back down to the start position, again keeping the abdominals flat and spine in neutral.
Step 4. Repeat on other leg. Repeat 5 times each leg.
One you have mastered this, you can lift the second leg to table top before lowering the first one, so both legs will then be at table top position. Then lower one leg at a time.
*The pelvic floor is quite literally the floor of your torso. It is a group of muscles that needs to be strong in order to support our vital organs, stabilise the pelvis and help the abdominal muscles to create stability in our core.
3 - Chest Lifts
Similar to sit ups, but slower and with more control. The aim is to avoid any doming around the stomach by breathing into your back and sides.
Step 1. Lay in neutral spine position. Hands behind your head with the fingers interlaced, relax your head back into your hands. Check shoulders are down away from the ears. Pelvic floor gently engaged throughout the exercise.
Step 2. Breathe in to prepare. Breathe out and slowly lift the head and shoulders off the ground, until the shoulder blades lift - don’t go any higher than this.
N.B. Keep the head heavy in the hands to avoid straining the neck muscles.
It’s very important that the stomach is pulled flat and not pushing out. Focus on breathing into your back and sides rather than filling the front of your abdomen.
Step 3. Breathe in to hold the chest lift. Breathe out to slowly lower down - vertebrae by vertebrae. Repeat 10 times.
4 - Chest Lifts with Rotation
Time to work those obliques!
Step 1. Begin in a chest lift, but with arms outstretched, palms together and pointing between your knees. Be sure your pelvis is still in neutral and pelvic floor is engaged.
Step 2. Breathe in to prepare. Breathe out and rotate your chest and ribs so that your hands are now reaching just past the outside of one of your knees. Don’t cheat by moving your legs or just your arms! Think of you ribs rotating around your spine to do the movement.
Step 3. Breathe in and return to the start position.
Step 4. Repeat on the other side. Repeat 5 times on each side.
Tip: If your neck begins to feel strained whilst doing this exercise, put your hands behind your head and relax the head back into your hands.
5 - Lumbar Twists
This is a rotation exercise for the lower spine. However, it is also about control and working the lower core and obliques.
Step 1. Start in neutral position. Lift one leg up to table top (90 degrees), followed by the other leg. Knees squeezed together and pelvic floor engaged. Arms are out to the side on the floor about 45 degrees from the body.
Step 2. Breathe in and move the both knees together slightly to the right, to between 1 and 2 o’clock. The left side of your pelvis should be lifted off the ground, the knees should still be exactly beside one another, and the left shoulder blade glued to the floor.
Step 3. Breathe out and pull the belly button in to help drag the legs back to the start position.
Step 4. Repeat to other side. Repeat 5 times on each side.
Tip: If you’re finding it difficult to hold the legs at table top to do this movement, you can keep the feet on the floor or on top of a fitness ball if you have one. Just be sure to still keep your knees together and beside one another when you rotate to the side.
- Better Health, 2018, “Pilates and yoga - health benefits”, URL: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/pilates-and-yoga-health-benefits
- Body Harmonics, 2014, “8 Ways to Improve your Pilates Clients' Body Awareness”, URL: https://www.bodyharmonics.com/8-ways-to-improve-your-pilates-clients-body-awareness/
- HFE, “A Beginner’s Guide to Reformer Pilates”, URL: https://www.hfe.co.uk/blog/a-beginners-guide-to-reformer-pilates/
- Merrithew, “The Basic Principles: Breathing”, URL: https://www.merrithew.com/stott-pilates/warmup/en/principles/breathing
- Mundell J., “Engage your pelvic floor: Part 1”, URL: https://jessiemundell.com/engageyourpelvicfloorpart1/
- NHS, “Pilates video for beginners”, URL: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/nhs-fitness-studio/pilates-for-beginners/
- Sam Harris-Hughes, 6 Fundamental Pilates Exercises, URL: https://www.doyouyoga.com/6-fundamental-pilates-exercises-23948/
- Study, “Body Awareness: Definition & Explanation”, URL: https://study.com/academy/lesson/body-awareness-definition-explanation.html
- Telegraph, 2017, “I tried pilates to cure my bad back - here's what happened next”, URL: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/tried-pilates-cure-bad-back-happened-next/
- Very Well Fit, 2017, “Pilates Stretches to Increase Flexibility”, URL: https://www.verywellfit.com/pilates-stretches-2704728