I wish I had a £5 note for every time someone asked ‘What’s Pilates about then?’ I’d be driving a Porsche at the very least and those who ever sat in my passenger seat know only too well how frightening that could be. Indeed some of my friends have suggested I use the hazard warning lights instead of the indicators to give other motorists a fighting chance. Very unfair. Anyway, I digress. The Pilates Foundation (2011) describes Pilates as:
‘….an invigorating form of exercise for your mind and body that can improve your strength and flexibility and overall mobility. It helps restore your body into balance, As a result, your posture will change and you will move more efficiently. You’ll achieve a stronger core, develop longer, leaner muscles and improve your overall sense of well-being. And, if you’re a sports enthusiast, Pilates can improve your game…………..’
Really- how? To give, I must stress, a very basic outline- in Pilates we engage muscles that support the spine in its optimal functional position referred to as a neutral lumbar spine. To give one example through one particular movement plane; when lying on our back the lower (lumbar) spine is neither too far flexed bent forwards or extended (bent backwards). Correspondingly, the rib cage and its associated thoracic spine are relaxed with a mild abdominal connection to prevent the ribs ‘popping’ up. Finally the head is positioned the eye-line is looking straight up (perpendicular) to the ceiling. This spinal position is reached by firstly rocking your pelvis backwards and forwards in the sagittal plane until you have a comfortable half-way point in the movement range. Where is the sagittal plane? Imagine you’re stood up and your body is cut into two equal halves (left and right) from top to bottom with a sheet of plywood separating them. The plywood represents the sagittal plane. If those two halves were to bend forward (flexion), then backwards (extension), that would be classed as movement in the sagittal plane.
I use the above example because one of the first Pilates mat work exercises taught is a modified sit–up where the student is encouraged to hold a neutral lumbar spine whilst flexing his thoracic spine (spine that runs along the rib-cage). The act of holding a neutral spine whilst engaging the abdominals to flex forward encourages strengthening of the lower back in its strongest (neutral position) as the muscles of the lower back work to maintain it’s neutral arch rather flattening to the floor when the superficial abdominals start to contract. Also, if someone’s deeper abdominals are weak, or not functioning properly, this exercise helps those dysfunctional muscles regain function, thus giving greater spinal stability, which can reduce back pain.  Frequently some of those core muscles are dysfunctional (misfiring or weak) as a result of previous injury; further, previous injury can be a predictor of future injury.
Postural imbalances are also dealt with by Pilates by targeting tight over-used and elongated ‘stretched weakness’ muscles. These muscles are reconfigured back to their optimal functional length. For example, muscles of the upper back that become weak can create an excessively curved forward upper back (long Kyphosis) and corresponding loss of height. This can cause compensation of the muscles of lower back and neck as the spine tries to optimise its position so its owner can continue to function, albeit with the likelihood of pain and fatigue. I’ve had lots of clients with this condition gain a centimetre in height through regular Pilates practice and begin to operate pain free for the first time in years.
Muscle imbalances can also be caused by muscles performing roles they’re not physiologically suitable for. Muscles that should stabilise a joint are recruited to produce movement and vice versa. This causes tightness and sometimes pain from incorrect and over-usage. Pilates can help re-integrate those muscles back into their most appropriate movement pattern. Unfortunately, we’re all subject to the effects of gravity and modern living; sitting in front of computers and driving long distances, which is detrimental to your postural muscles. With Pilates exercises we can reverse, to varying extents, those effects. However, it does take regular practice and it never ceases to amaze me that people expect their bodies to change within a couple of sessions. I always advise clients to stick with it for at least ten sessions in quick succession. That doesn’t mean over three months incidentally; ideally it should be one to two times per week with personal practice of what you’ve learnt in between.
To finish, I’m going to tell you the ‘Dog on the nail story.’ I’ve had lots of clients tell me of friends who have had chronic bad backs and postural problems and are ‘thinking about’ undertaking Pilates to alleviate those problems. The story is thus: there were two ‘ol’ boys sitting in their rocking chairs on a porch on a cabin in the Deep South of the USA sipping whisky. On the same porch there’s a big old hound howling its head off. One ol’ boy says to the other, “why is your dog howling?” “The other replies, “it’s sat on nail.” “Why doesn’t it move?” his friend asks, “It doesn’t hurt enough,” was the reply.  So if you’re lying on a metaphorical nail either move or stop complaining. Like the criticism of my driving- harsh but fair, harsh but fair.