Pilates – what is it?

Pilates as I will teach it to you is a form of exercise that optimises muscle function by developing control and stability of muscles. It aims to create a stable platform (your back, stomach, pelvis and scapula predominantly) from which your arms and legs can function effectively and efficiently. It involves both static (not moving) and dynamic (moving) exercises which put you in positions that challenge your stability, therefore enabling your brain and body to activate and create smoothly controlled and stable muscle programs and patterns.

Need more explanation? Read on…

What is of relevance to you?

Control and stability is the first relevant part. We need to have good control of our “core” trunk muscles (back, stomach, pelvis & scapula muscles) in order to make us stable so that we can move effectively and without discomfort. Your brain and body are designed and need to function in smooth, fluid, dynamic (moving) movements via automatic movement patterns that require many muscles to work simultaneously and all in different ways.

What are these ‘movement patterns’ all about?

Our brain contains and can develop programs (often called engrams) which code for our muscles to work in groups to produce a movement – this is how our brains work best. For example, your brain has a pattern that tells it how to pick something up off the floor. This program or pattern doesn’t know what every single muscle is doing at every point in time; it merely has a pattern or a number of patterns which allow you to execute that movement largely unconsciously. Controlled and skilful movements are achieved through proprioceptive feedback (sensing the position, orientation and movement of the body) sent via nerves to your brain which causes these automatic movement patterns to kick in and create a controlled and stable platform for the resultant movement. These patterns of movement should be so automatic that you aren’t actually aware of them happening – you’re just aware that you move. You shouldn’t need to think to activate your stomach muscles and you shouldn’t be able to feel them burning. The odd reminder to them is OK but they ultimately need to be switched on automatically by correct movement patterns.

It’s not about bracing and rigidity and getting stronger…

Think of any activity that you do – getting up from a chair, picking something up off the floor, twisting round in your chair to get something from behind you. How often do you require your core i.e. your stomach and back muscles, to not move at all from the beginning to the end of the activity? Never. Some of these muscles will be stationary for parts of the activity but all of them will be required to move through a range of movement for some or all of the activity. You can pump iron in the gym to make your muscles stronger but how often in life do you need to stand totally still and just bend and straighten your elbow 12 times to the point where you’re knackered and can’t bend and straighten it anymore? These kinds of exercises are fine if you want to build big muscles but our brains are not that great at recognising and working with isolated single muscle movements and these movements are almost totally irrelevant on their own in our functional everyday lives and in just about every sport that you’ll do.

Why is it not about strength?

We have two types of muscle fibres: Type I and Type II.  Type I muscle fibres are SLOW endurance muscles, they switch on early under low load, generate low forces and they have a fine control and postural role e.g. transversus abdominus (a trunk muscle). Type II muscle fibres are FAST, they contract fast and tire fast, respond and recruit to a high load, generate high forces and have a rapid and powerful role to play e.g. biceps.

Our core muscles (those around our back, stomach and pelvis) are slow Type I muscles and need to be capable of switching on and off constantly throughout the day to produce a stable platform but only with small low level contractions i.e. the tiniest movement or thought of a movement needs to cause them to act a little bit. They don’t need to be contracting to high, strong levels – your brain shouldn’t even be able to feel them working as if it can you’re over-recruiting and forcing them to act more like fast Type II muscles. This only serves to confuse your body and brain and develop incorrect movement patterns.

Some Pilates principles:

  1. Concentration – on the group(s) of muscles being exercised and reinforcing a low load and endurance concept NOT high effort, wobbling, shaking and burning.
  2. Centering – developing stabilisation in the ‘central’ pelvic, trunk and scapula (shoulder blade) areas.
  3. Control – of all movements & postural control and enabling slow and low background muscle activity.
  4. Flowing Movement – smooth & efficient working; power and strength are not the aims.
  5. Precision – work smarter not harder.
  6. Breathing – should be co-ordinated with sub-maximal abdominal activity and movement. Don’t rely on breathing out for stability, as has been traditionally taught. The effort part of the movement should involve a sub-maximal level of abdominal activity i.e. your abs aren’t’ working as hard as they possibly can and this effort part should be performed with an ‘in’ breath.


So Pilates will make you stronger but that’s a mere side effect. It will more importantly make your brain and therefore your body work more effectively by developing and improving your movement patterns. As your movement patterns improve your movements will become more controlled and more stable. From here the way to improve and get better is to increase the challenge to your ability to control and stabilise movements by putting you in positions that require more control and stability, NOT more strength.

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