The two easiest ways of kidding yourself that you are getting better at pilates are that you are doing more exercises and that it feels like it’s getting easier. Of course, as you improve you will add more exercises and aspects of the training will get more familiar, though, if you do it properly, it will never get “easy”.
How you measure whether you are getting more advanced at Pilates depends where you start from – a stiff 50 year old man is going to look different from an injured female ballet dancer in the way that their physical training will develop. Nevertheless, there are certain more general aspects in common. Pilates Improves Your Relationship With Your Body
When you start training you probably don’t have much powerhouse strength or alignment and we start by working on this and also by beginning to re-establish correct movement in the back. For some people that means the back needs to get stronger to stop slumping, while for others it is about loosening up so it can move naturally.
This initial stage of training will start to create changes in your body as well as alter your perception of your body. You may start to notice a difference in your body shape, become aware of your everyday posture and even get comments from people you know.
When Pilates gets out of the studio and into your body like this it is a sign that you are advancing. This may be that you no longer slump when watching TV, that you have more strength for golf or carrying the baby or that you just feel better and less achy. Pilates Improves the Relationship Between Your Mind and Body
At the basic level we find your power house, at the intermediate level we deepen it and at the advanced level we increase its stamina. However, being advanced is not simply about being physically strong enough to sustain your power house for 55 minutes without interruption. It is as much about progress in the principles of pilates, so that you can keep your mind concentrated in your body for that long.
In terms of the “pilates principles” concentration is maintaining precision
and control from the centre
with increased flow and focus on the breath. This concentration is how the pilates method achieves the mind-body connection.
With increased concentration you become wholly focused on and committed to the present moment, moving without rushing or resting and with no thoughts beyond what you are doing. This “meditation in movement”, as our students will testify, does not have much of the airy float that the word “meditation” often suggests.
This complete coordination of body, mind and spirit is the sign of advanced pilates and when it becomes subconscious and its rhythm carries through to all your movements then you know that you have got better at pilates.
Pilates Works with Bodies That Are Injured
Many people seek out pilates as it has been recommended as an appropriate exercise for people in rehab from injury or recovering after pregnancy. This connection is made especially plausible as some physios have absorbed pilates exercises into their own work.
Pilates has a long record of working with injured bodies, but it does not treat injuries and it is not physiotherapy. Pilates is a way of training the body and mind and its goals are not dictated by physiotherapy. Pilates is corrective exercise, not therapy.
Pilates is Not Therapy
Therapy concentrates on the injury, pilates on training the uninjured rest of the body. Therapy can work with people who are in a great deal of pain and unable to function normally, but if you can’t walk into the pilates studio, then in most cases you shouldn’t be doing pilates right now. Therapy stops when you get better, pilates is the ongoing work of decades. Therapy is something done to a patient, Pilates is something the student does for themselves.
A pilates teacher is no more qualified to do physiotherapy than a physiotherapist is qualified to teach pilates. They are really not the same thing.
Pilates Keeps Your Body Fit
Many of our ongoing clients started pilates because of rehabilitation, whether from pregnancy or serious physical injury. They keep doing it because they have found that it keeps their body working better, reducing their pain and improving their fitness.
To start with it is better to work on the equipment as it gives you an extra set of muscles to support you and help you get stronger before you move to the mat. The mat gives you no support or help – a great challenge, but one that shouldn´t be jumped into straight away by everyone.
Working with Pilates Apparatus
One of the marks of the classical Pilates method is the use of the equipment (traditionally called “apparatus”) that Joseph Pilates designed. He first developed the mat work and then later the use of apparatus to supplement it; mat work can be difficult to do correctly and so you use apparatus to increase the strength, flexibility and control of your body.
If you need that extra bit of help the springs act as extra muscles enabling your body to absorb the pilates way of using the body ("the method") more quickly. Then you can return to the mat and are able to do it more deeply.
Why Work With Pilates Equipment?
The apparatus gives shape to the body as well as supporting and strengthening the work of the power house which helps you progress faster. Only apparatus built according to the original designs of Joseph Pilates will do exactly what he wanted it to do, because he designed both the exercises and the apparatus together and therefore all substantial changes to the apparatus change the exercises to some degree.
These modified machines may still be used for physiotherapy, but whenever a major change is made to the apparatus some element of the original system is lost. Many of the “improvements” made by some manufacturers make it impossible to do the exercises Joe Pilates invented in the way that he taught them: you can´t do Pilates on them.
How to Work With Pilates Equipment
The most import thing to understand about how to work with pilates apparatus is that the emphasis is always on what the body is doing, not what the apparatus is doing. The apparatus does not do the work of increasing the strength, flexibility and control of the body for you: it helps you do it by encouraging correct body position through the shape of the apparatus and by encouraging correct use of the power house through the resistance of the springs.
However, if your body is not working correctly within the apparatus then very little is gained and the Pilates method is not being taught. The apparatus gives shape and structure to the body as it moves by providing strategic support for the body, encouraging correct alignment and helping develop particular muscle groups and patterns of movement. Unless these things are taught with precision, nothing is gained from using apparatus.
The Prestige of Reformer Pilates
For many people doing pilates on equipment, normally the reformer, is seen as better than doing “just mat” and there are reasons for this. Joseph Pilates invented the reformer to re-form the body and it absolutely can help you to learn Pilates faster.
However, there is also a “glamour” element to pilates on the equipment, the idea that somehow this is “doing the real stuff” and doing mat classes is a second rate option. This balances nervously on the truth that you certainly will
get more from an individualized program using all the apparatus under the trained eye of a good teacher than you can from large group mat classes with a teacher who doesn´t understand the pilates system in depth. The Truth About Reformer Classes: Safety and Crowd-Control
However, simply using a reformer will not teach you pilates. The reformer is not a jelly mold - just lying on it will not change your shape. In fact, many group equipment classes do little more to teach you pilates principles than a circuit class at the gym.
The reason for this is that, as a teacher, it is impossible to watch so many bodies at the same time, especially when they are beginners who need showing the basic shape of the movement. The result is that precision
goes out the window.
In a group reformer class most of the teacher’s attention is (or ought to be) on safety and making sure that people don’t hurt themselves: it is not for nothing that teacher insurance for working with equipment is much higher than mat. This is why group mat classes work: the safety aspects are significantly easier to control and so the teacher can spend most of their energy on teaching Pilates.
Learn Good Quality Pilates Wherever You Can Find It
Doing pilates on a reformer will not automatically mean you are learning more or getting a deeper benefit. If your teacher is trying to keep 8 or even more people safe on a reformer at the same time there is a very real possibility that your particular issues will simply not be addressed and, without the individualized corrections which make Pilates valuable, the class will be giving you much the same benefit as cardio circuits or “Stretch and Tone” at the gym.
There is nothing wrong with doing cardio circuits at the gym (or indeed on a reformer), but it does not give you the body-specific, targeted, corrective exercise which what gave Pilates its reputation in the first place. You will find more of that in a decent, small pilates mat class
or group equipment class
than you will in a reformer class of the same size.
If you understand the principles of what you are doing and know how you need to correct your own body you can do more pilates with dumbbells in the gym than someone else who is simply going through the motions on a reformer.
Classical Pilates is a system which uses equipment, but it is also possible to study it with mat based exercises, and indeed, in the UK, this is what most people think of when you talk about pilates. What can you get from doing mat alone and what do you miss out on?
What You Can Get from Mat Exercises
Any good Pilates teacher will use the exercises to teach you the principles and priorities of how to use your body which we call the “Pilates Method”. The idea is not simply to go through the movements so you feel a little out of breath or a little stretched, but to start to change your body in a more fundamental way.
Studying mat alone with a good teacher will give you much of the benefit of the method: you will start to even out your “box”, you will find your powerhouse and you will begin to get control of your body.
Mat is especially excellent for strengthening the stomach and it’s portable. Just doing mat alone will make a real difference to most people’s bodies.
What is Missing If You Only Do Mat Exercises?
However, if Joe Pilates thought that the mat was all that people needed he would never have invented the rest. Exactly what else you need depends on your body type, but almost everyone can benefit from using the apparatus, even if it is only a shorter term exposure.
One of the senior teachers who trained me in Holland is a short ex dancer and her training of choice is to do mat 3 or 4 times a week. The apparatus doesn’t help her that much as it is too large for her and she has a loose body that needs to stay strong. For some people just doing mat is ideal.
The Advantage of the Equipment
However, for most people the apparatus has a number of solid advantages. It was invented by Pilates to get the movement in the body faster, and helps you to feel your box and your power house in a deeper way.
If you are stiff you also need the apparatus more, as it helps stretch you out more than is easily possible with the mat work. If you have special needs (a very bad back, pregnancy, etc) then mat classes are not the thing for you either as so much has to be omitted that you may as well not bother.
There are parts of the body which are worked less thoroughly with the mat – the legs and upper body are more systematically trained using equipment – and there are also certain movement patters which don´t happen on the mat.
Group and Private Classes
Studying the mat alone is not the same as only taking group classes, though for most people the two things are linked. Group classes often involve the use of small bits of apparatus, so the work is not exclusively mat: wall exercises, hand weights and the magic circle are easily incorporated. A group class is not simply mat work only.
Something that we are asked fairly regularly is whether we do pilates for pregnancy and whether we have a pregnancy certification. Naturally you want to make sure that your teacher knows what they are doing, but specialization in itself may not actually be what you are looking for.
Comprehensive, Classical Teacher-Training Means You Can Teach Everyone
The classical pilates system which the teachers at Kinetic Pilates studied with Romana’s Pilates does not break the knowledge of pilates down, as though you could be competent to teach mat exercises and people with foot problems, but not able to teach any of the equipment or people with shoulder problems. A classical teacher-training means you are comprehensively trained in the full pilates way of exercising and able to teach pretty much anyone who walks through the door.
This traditional “apprenticeship” style of learning takes much longer than the contemporary “modular” style with its certification in mat or pregnancy, injury or reformer. The traditional way is to learn the nuts and bolts of how to teach pilates across the different tools (mat, reformer, chairs etc) and adapt it to everyone.
Don’t Confuse Specialization With Depth
The hard work in learning to teach pilates is (1) to “read” (be able to analyze by sight) the body of the person you are teaching. This means the teacher can see what the student needs. (2) To understand the exercises in enough depth, and to have seen them on enough different bodies, to be able to adapt them to the person you are working with. This means that the teacher can give the student what they need.
Of course there are general “rules” we learn about, for example, foot positioning for people with knock knees, but these are always of secondary importance and are to be ignored if they don’t produce results for an individual. What matters is the trained eye and the skillful application of the principles to your body.
This takes a lot of time, effort and dedication, and cannot be learnt in a weekend workshop. It takes years of dedicated practice and many thousands of hours of training and teaching. Many people don’t have the commitment, patience or freedom to do it.
Are You Certified to Teach One Legged People?
When faced with a traditional training which can cost many thousands of pounds, take a full year out of your life and even mean moving country to study with the best person, it is tempting to conclude that hyper-specialization is a marketing gimmick, enabling the teacher trainers to keep adding new modules that you “need” to have and teachers to boast of more and more niche markets that they can service.
Training comprehensively in the first place means that, though there will always be skills to improve, there are not gaps to fill.
Joe Pilates didn’t teach levels, he taught people. The division of the method into basic, intermediate and advanced levels is more recent and slightly artificial, but that’s not to say that it isn’t useful.
The levels are a template or guide, not a competition. They are made up of developmental goals and a way of moving rather than exactly what exercises you do.
The levels are most obvious in a mat class as in private sessions the work is customized to you.
Basic Beginners, no matter how fit, need to attend Basic Mat classes. These classes teach you the basics of the method through a series of simple, challenging exercises. The goal for this level is to find your “power house”, to begin to find “lift” in the body and to even out the alignment of the torso. You will start to feel the benefits of Pilates.
Intermediate When your body has absorbed the basics of Pilates you are ready to take intermediate level sessions. The aim of this level is to strengthen and deepen the power house. Some new movement patterns are introduced for the first time (e.g. back bends), and other patterns already present in the basic level are deepened
What makes you intermediate is not how long you have studied, but how much your body has absorbed.
Advanced At the advanced level the focus is on increasing the stamina of the power house. More upper body exercises are introduced with the aim of working the upper back and connecting it more deeply with the rest of the power house. The advanced level is where complete flow and synchronization with the breath take place.
There is nothing to be gained by trying to rush ahead in your progress. Impatience means that you will simply not get as much from your classes as you could. If you have an injury or illness it is advisable to have private sessions first before you join a mat class to ensure your needs are properly addressed.
The marketing of some pilates groups claims that classical pilates is too difficult for normal people. Here is a typical example:“The ´classical´ Pilates exercises that he [Joe Pilates] developed may take many years to perfect and may well be beyond the capability of the average person”.
It is certainly true that the exercises DO take many years to perfect: if you could do them perfectly in a month there would be little point in doing them at all and little motivation to continue. But is it true that the system that Joseph Pilates developed (“Pilates”) is beyond the average person’s ability and that most people can do no more than “base” their training on his work?
I’ve seen classical pilates taught usefully to a 76 year old with a recent knee surgery, a client with Multiple Sclerosis, and another who had broken their spine. All
competent teachers modify the exercises to work with injured people
. This is part of the “classical” system, not a contemporary improvement.
Classical pilates starts where you are and gives you progressively more demanding exercises as your body strengthens. We don’t throw you in at the deep end and hope that you somehow manage to float rather than drown, but we do make you work hard. Pilates should never be 'easy': your body won’t improve while you are still in your comfort zone.
In fact, as you improve Pilates keeps getting harder and harder because you are able to work deeper and deeper. You will always feel that you are getting a workout no matter what your ability or limitations are. This means that classical Pilates holds the attention and continues to challenge year after year, giving even the most experienced person a challenging workout.
Joe Pilates worked with “average” bodies. Not everyone will be doing advanced training and we won´t be standing on anyone´s stomach, but the idea that only certain people have the potential to do the classical work is a sales pitch which sells you short.
If you are going to entrust your body to someone else then you want to know that they are up to it. Here are three key things to look for:
Their Teaching Style
Does the teacher look at what YOU are doing and adapt to how your body is reacting? Or does everyone do every exercise the same?
Are the teachers´ instructions normally easy to follow? (We all have days when we confuse left and right). Do they use their hands to teach as well?
You should be looking for a teacher who is watching what is happening to your body and correcting it clearly and physically if necessary. You don’t want someone who is just repeating a script from the corner of the room. You may as well buy a DVD. It’s cheaper.
The Effect Of Their Teaching On Your Body
This one is easy. Does your body normally feel good as a result of their class? We all have off days (teacher and student alike), but if it usually takes you several days to feel OK again after a class then something is wrong. If you normally walk out of your class feeling amazing you know that whatever that person is doing works.
The Teacher’s Own Competence
Ask how long their training took. If it was only a month long then you need to wonder how much they actually learnt. Does your teacher keep studying? Do they regularly take classes? Do they keep developing their teaching skills? Can they practice what they preach?
A trainer who did their mat certification over four weekends and now prefers to do yoga or Zumba to keep fit is going to be quite different from someone who did a year long, full apparatus certification of 1000 hours and trains in Pilates 3 or 4 times a week.