In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.
Do you want to destress and improve your balance, core strength, functional fitness and mobility? Pilates might be for you.
A review of a Pilates mat class is long overdue; it is hard to find a facility that doesn't offer some iteration of the tradition. Even studios that don't offer traditional classes usually offer combo classes, such as "yogalates," or incorporate Pilates-inspired exercises into non-Pilates classes – for example, the plank is basically another name for Pilates's "leg pull front."
For this Sweat Test, I dragged my mom, stepfather Adam and friend Leanne to Body Harmonics in Toronto, hoping they would balance out my obvious bias as someone certified in Pilates. My mom, although active, prefers yoga to Pilates. My stepfather's idea of exercise is "going for a steam, then a drink." Leanne is an avid exerciser; she weight trains, runs and spins, but has never done Pilates.
If you're intrigued, check your neighbourhood studios. Pilates is everywhere. When I was last in Halifax, I enjoyed a class at Studio In Essence. The next time I am in Vancouver, I hope to try Line5 Pilates Studios.
Pilates is a series of exercises originally created by Joseph Pilates (1883-1967) to develop strength, mobility, core control, alignment and postural awareness. Exercises are done on machines, including the Reformer, and a mat. According to the Body Harmonics website, Pilates is the "thinking person's" mode of training; one leaves "feeling stronger … especially in the midriff," and more flexible.
What to expect
It is almost impossible to define a "typical" Pilates experience; classes exist on a continuum. I can tell you what Pilates isn't: yoga (a common mistake), mindless strength and core training or high-impact cardio.
Classical Pilates classes are based around Joseph Pilates' original repertoire (think the hundreds and the roll-up). Classes at Body Harmonics fall on the "contemporary" side of the continuum. Contemporary classes are a blend of Classical Pilates exercises, the Pilates principles (awareness, breathing, core control, etc.) applied to non-Pilates exercises and other movement techniques such as the Feldenkrais method.
At Body Harmonics, we cycled through exercises while standing (lunging and squatting), on our sides (leg lifts), on hands and knees (bird-dog variations), on our backs (think roll-up) and on our tummies (variations on the swan). My mom hated this constant movement (it made her dizzy), but it kept Leanne interested. For a relatively stationary, mat-based workout, look for Classical classes (in my experience, teachers trained in the Stott Pilates method will fit this bill). If you like variety, a contemporary class might be for you.
A seemingly silly – but relevant – point is that Pilates does not require shoes. This is a positive for me. I do Pilates on days when it is inconvenient to schlep around my running shoes. Being barefoot would be a negative if you dislike exercising without shoes – for example, if you have plantar fasciitis.
My mom and Adam felt the class was deceptively hard. Adam said, "Even my hair was sweating." Although we didn't find the workout intense, Leanne and I agreed that it was worthwhile; it offered an excellent complement to our intense and repetitive running and cycling. I make a point of doing Pilates weekly. Running (my bliss) is hard on the body, so I use Pilates, like weight training, to ensure my body stays strong, mobile and injury-free. Also, as a "go-go-go" person, I appreciate that Pilates requires me to be fully present. To quote Leanne, the challenge of the class "is the focus."
The trick is to analyze Pilates for what it is. Most runners tell me they don't like Pilates because it doesn't make them sweat the way running does. Well, it shouldn't – Pilates is not running. Leanne said it best: "I went with a specific mindset. I told myself the class should not feel like a run. The class will be a success if it challenges me to focus, increases my mobility and strengthens my core."
If you decide to try Pilates, keep two things in mind.
First, make sure the class matches your goals. For increased strength, consider a machine-based class in conjunction with other strength-based workouts. To manage an injury, consider one-on-one sessions. If your goal is to sweat profusely like you do while running, consider Pilates an "accent" workout that complements your daily main event. For weight loss, focus on your nutrition and prioritize interval and strength training. Again, consider Pilates an "accent" workout.
To destress or to improve balance, core strength, functional fitness and mobility, try Pilates. Adam's mobility increased after just one class. Driving home he said, "I need to do more Pilates to train for driving. Turning my head left just seemed easier."
Second, if you are new to Pilates, consider taking a few one-on-one sessions. My mom and Adam found it hard to follow the class and next to impossible to come up with appropriate alternatives when the moves were uncomfortable or too difficult. If one-on-one sessions are not financially feasible, make sure the class is an appropriate level and talk to the teacher beforehand to request feedback throughout the workout.