Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
I first did Pilates years ago, when I got a nasty neck injury. Ask any professional dancer and they will tell you, if they are injured and can't dance, they will turn to Pilates to keep "dance fit" - so that's what I did. I was able to exercise all my muscles on the Reformer bed, with my neck safely cradled, and was subsequently able to go back to dancing with no loss of strength.
Fast forward to today, and I've just arrived home after a year in England. For various reasons, I didn't do any dancing during my visit, in fact I didn't get much chance to exercise - and I ate too much English food! So on my return, I felt horribly flabby.
I've only been doing Pilates for two weeks. I haven't measured myself but already I can see a difference in the mirror - my tummy is more lifted and the flab is tightening back into shape. I can feel it too - everything feels more "zipped up" and I'm standing taller. However, before you head off to the gym you should know: I'm not doing floor exercises!
Real Pilates isn't done on the floor, it's done on a bed
People think Pilates is mainly floor exercises, because "Mat Pilates" is what is most taught in gyms. In fact, it's a second-best alternative for when you can't use the proper equipment, in much the same way that someone who normally does weight-training will do push-ups and squats when they're on vacation.
The proper equipment for Pilates is the Reformer bed. It's the core of the entire Pilates system. Without it, you can't get the full benefits. It's the secret to how Pilates creates those smooth toned muscles.
Few gyms have enough space for Reformers so it's hard to find Reformer classes. Luckily, these days it's possible to buy an affordable version for home use.
On the Reformer, you'll do many of the same exercises as on the mat, but against resistance. Instead of metal weights, the reformer uses springs and your body weight to create dynamic resistance. Add Pilates technique, and you get strength - but with long, lean muscles instead of bulk. That's why so many dancers use Pilates - they want a sleek elegant line to their bodies, not bulging muscles.
Why Don't Gyms Have Reformers?
As I've said, there are two reasons why Mat Pilates has become the norm, even though it's less effective - cost and space. A heavy duty, commercial-grade Pilates reformer costs several thousand dollars, so even specialist studios may have only two or three machines. And they take up space - a full-size reformer is over 8 foot long! Few gyms have room to leave Pilates machines permanently on the floor, and traditional reformers aren't easy to set up and dismantle.
So, when Pilates first became popular in the 90's, gyms opted for the next best thing - matwork. You can't get much resistance in matwork, so the benefits are far more limited than a full reformer-based Pilates workout. You can still strengthen your core but only if you do the moves with the utmost precision and concentration.
Now you understand the importance of training on the reformer bed, the next question is - how?
Correct technique in Pilates is super-important. You may have heard weight trainers talk about the important of "form" - it's even more crucial in Pilates. So hopping on your Reformer and watching a DVD or online class won't do the trick.
I recommend you have at least one private lesson with a Pilates instructor. And I don't mean with an instructor at your local gym - I mean at a proper Pilates studio which has its own Reformer beds. If you're not used to being aware of your muscles, you may need two or three classes to get the idea. Unfortunately studios are usually more expensive than a regular health club, but it will mean that when you get back home, you'll be doing the exercises so effectively that it will more than pay off in the results you get.
Buying a Reformer
I've given my recommendation for a Pilates bed already, but of course you'll need to buy one that meets your own needs.
You can pay up to $4,000 for a home Pilates bed. The more expensive models often have an attractive wood frame, so if you've got a home gym and can have the bed set up permanently, that might be appealing.
If you're going to have to pack your reformer away between workouts - which most people will - you'll need a lighter weight reformer. The AeroPliates model fits that bill, but If that's still too expensive, be very careful when looking in the cheaper price ranges: "lightweight" can often mean "flimsy"! You're going to be putting your whole weight on it, so you want to be certain it's well-engineered. Also make sure it's suitable for your height - "compact" models may be made with a shorter platform, and if you're tall you won't be able to do a lot of the exercises.
- The Australian - Hard Corps
The Australian Ballet and how their dancers use Pilates
- Pilates and Dance
An interesting article by Jillian Hessel on the differences and similarities between dance and Pilates
- Riding Longer and Better with Pilates
How Pilates can help equestrians improve their performance
- Pilates for Triathletes
Hayley Sain gives advice on how to tailor a Pilates workout for triathletes
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
John from India on August 05, 2017:
Very useful article. Informative for fitness enthusiasts
bodybuilding.com coupon codes on November 07, 2010:
Great Informative Hub. Pilates is quite beneficial in many chronic muscular pains and many trainers are available who can show you the right way to practice pilates.
Laura Izett-Irwin from The Great Northwest on July 12, 2010:
Great hub! I have Rheumatoid Arthritis and Pilates is the best exercise for me. The more I move my joints with the least amount of impact the better and pilates is fluid whereas yoga is not. A strong core is the best benefit of pilates. Thanks again for a great hub. I think pilates should get way more recognition than yoga.
Kelly Kline Burnett from Fontana, WI on May 26, 2010:
Great Hub! Targeting the right muscles is absolutely correct - you need a great instructor. The muscles are the key.
gramarye from Adelaide - Australia on April 05, 2010:
Really good hub. I recently started pilates as I was feeling "old". 10 weeks later, people are suddenly commenting on how good I look. Apart from that, body pains in back and shoulder have vanished and my balance has improved. I can't believe how good I feel. However, I agree that one must be selective about the instructor and doing the exercises correctly.
fdoleac from Hollis, New Hampshire on March 28, 2010:
Great article. I recently started Pilates and have found new muscles being exercised and a focus on breathing. You are correct in how precise the form must be to obtain the most benefit.
Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on February 14, 2010:
Pilates is wonderful!
tal g mel on January 22, 2010:
I'm Addicted to Pilates
beginner-pilates on October 11, 2009:
I love Pilates! I've always had a little pooch belly and Pilates is the only exercise that's ever made my stomach flat. My muscles also get more definition that you can't get from most cardio work. I prefer Pilates to Yoga, too, Lissie, though I don't know why. Maybe because it's more active. Great hub!
Anne on October 09, 2009:
Great hub. Some might not resonate with pilates or the breathing or the effort to focus on certain muscles, but I think it really is for most every body. I'd say for the people that get driven nuts but constant cues and direction...go in and just move with control. You'll really enjoy it. Most people who try the reformer are hooked the first time.
Suzie Parker on October 02, 2009:
The reformer bed looks very cool. Pity that is so big, though...
scottie on June 17, 2009:
I do pilates with at home dvds and a mat, its fantastic!
Jasmine Tmasse from Singapore on February 13, 2009:
I think the key is in what Joseph Pilates called his method - "Contrology" - ie: learning to move with control. This is why done properly is has great results because you are learning to move with Control, unlike going to the gym where your body just reinforces all your bad habits, as Paul Chek says normal gym training "de-trains you"
Yes desert blonde it is expensive, but definantly worth it. With the growth of Pilates over the past few years, you can find more affordable places.
desert blondie from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen on September 26, 2008:
Just found this column! Very interesting to learn 'the secret' to Pilates. Now realize why one on one so important to the benefit of these exercises. Also, obviously, the reason the one-on-one trainer/trainee sessions so expensive! Compared to a gym membership or Curves or something...but does sound like something I'd get a lot out of, if I can locate extra dollars somewhere!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on June 03, 2008:
Excellent point, Patricias! We have a Health Club here in Sydney which won't even allow people to join their PIlates classes, unless they have a one-on-one session first. It's a very worthwile investment because, as I said, if you do PIlates incorreclty you may as well not do it at all.
2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on June 03, 2008:
I would suggest that anyone completely new to Pilates should start with a one to one session with a qualified trainer. THen, joining in classes because you will (or at least should) get things right! I find the total concentration required very relaxing.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on November 26, 2007:
Zsuzy, Pilates is not for everyone. The need to concentrate on every little muscle either turns you on or drives you nuts!
Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on November 26, 2007:
Marisa! great article! I tried but I prefere Steps which I've done for a couple of years now, so it's probably just out of habit. You know ...old dog (me) and new tricks...
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on November 26, 2007:
Thanks for all thepositive comments! Ink, what you say about muscle burning fat is true - however, if that's your goal, you will build muscle faster with weight training than with Pilates.
Whitney from Georgia on November 26, 2007:
Thank You! I've heard a lot about pilates, but wasn't 100 on what it was. I appriciate the great info!
ink on November 26, 2007:
Good article. As you mention, there is some fat loss benefit though, which is what most people want. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body has to burn just to maintain them. If your calorie intake remains constant, your body will take the extra it needs from fat stores.
Diet sensibly at the same time as stimulating muscle growth and the body will burn even more fat. However, if you starve yourself, your body will go into survival mode and burn the muscle first, saving the energy stored as fat because it's a necessity to keep your basic functions working, while extra muscle is not.
Also, although you burn less calories overall when exercising slowly, your body takes a higher percentage of those calories from stored fat than from food.
Ashok Rajagopalan from Chennai on November 26, 2007:
Thanks, I learnt something new!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on November 26, 2007:
Lissie, I agree it has the potential to be better than yoga for most people. Just be sure that it's feeling easier for the right reasons! If it's feeling easy, it's often because you don't have your core switched on and/or you're not using the muscles or breathing correctly. Which means you're not getting the full benefit.
Personally, I find the equipment based workout easier because it supports you better.
Elisabeth Sowerbutts from New Zealand on November 25, 2007:
I found it better than Yoga for the less-flexible of us - it didn't seem so hard as even beginners yoga has me trying to stretch X when I can't even get that stretch because bit Y is too stiff! I also found the equipment based workout easier to do than the floor based exercise again because of my (non) flexability!