1. How does Pilates strengthen abdominal muscles?
Pilates is well known for strengthening your core or abdominal musculature. There are a variety of ways this is accomplished through the practice of the Pilates method. First off Pilates is based on efficiently contracting your abdominal muscles with every exercise in the repertoire therefore when you are performing an upper body exercise on the equipment or on the mat the abdominals will also be contracted improving the endurance of the abdominal muscles. For example, during the seated arm series on the reformer the abdominals must stay contracted to hold the spine stable, upright and in proper alignment to correctly perform the exercise. Throughout a Pilates session or class clients are constantly reminded to “pull in your belly button” or “ engage your powerhouse” to ensure constant contraction of the abdominals.
Secondly Pilates focuses on strengthening the abdominals from the inside-out targeting the deeper abdominal muscles such as the transverse abdominus as well as the superficial muscles such as the rectus abdominis. Working the abdominals in this matter provides enhanced abdominal strength and improved stability to the spine. These deep muscles are often underdeveloped and not working equally with the oft-overworked surface muscles, such as the famous rectus abdominis Pilates utilizes a series of exercises that will strengthen the upper and lower abdominals, the internal and external obliques and the deep transverse abdominals to help create a balanced and chiseled appearance of the midsection. Pilates exercises tend to be more complex requiring the recruitment of more than one of these muscle groups at a time.
Examples of these exercises are Reverse Abdominals on the Reformer, the Series of 5 performed on the mat and Spring Assisted Roll Downs on the Cadillac.
Lastly Pilates emphasizes correct alignment and proper form when performing the exercises thus providing efficient and effective contraction of each muscle group. Most abdominal strengthening programs overwork the upper abdominals leaving the lower abdominals, obliques and deep abdominals weak and poorly recruited. It is very easy to over recruit the hip flexors instead of the lower abdominals if you are not properly trained in how to correctly contract your lower abdominals. By maintaining proper contraction of the abdominal muscles during exercise vs. using compensation to perform the exercises clients can be certain they will be enhancing the aesthetic appearance and strength of the abdominal wall.
2. How does Pilates increase back muscle strength?
Pilates is less known for strengthening back muscles but does so quite efficiently as well. Pilates utilizes a variety of positions during a class or session from supine to sitting to kneeling and standing. In every position Pilates emphasizes co – contraction of abdominals and back muscles to properly stabilize the spine during each exercise. It is crucial for people to have adequate strength of back muscles (specifically the paraspinals, quadratus lumborum and mutifidus) to maintain stability of the spine while allowing disassociation of the extremities. In order to function normally and without risk to our spine we must be able to move our arms and legs freely without always causing movement of the spine. In order to accomplish this you must increase not only the stability of the abdominals but also the strength of the spinal stabilizers of the back.
Pilates will also increase active strength of the back muscles by performing of variety of safe spinal extension exercises. Examples of this are Swan on the mat or Reformer, Pulling straps on the Reformer and Swan on the Barrel.
3. How does Pilates prevent injuries?
Pilates helps prevent injuries in a variety of ways.
• Improving Flexibility…Whether you perform Pilates on the Mat or using the apparatus you will undoubtedly improve your flexibility. When we improve our flexibility we decrease the risk of injury by allowing you more freedom of motion. For example if you are able to increase your hamstring flexibility by 10 degrees you will be less likely to hurt your back when you bend down to pick the pencil up off the floor.
• Increasing Strength…Increasing strength while doing Pilates, especially the abdominal muscles will decrease risk of injury. Improved strength has also been linked to improved dynamic control of movements helping to minimize the risk of injury. If your abdominals, arms and legs are stronger you will be less likely to injure yourself when trying to lift something heavy or performing recreational activities.
• Improving Balance: Pilates helps to improve ones balance by incorporating exercises that include unilateral stance or being able to control the moving surface of the reformer while stabilizing yourself on the carriage. Improved balance will decrease risk of injury by improving the neuromuscular system, decreasing ones fall risk and being able to perform daily and recreational activities in a more efficient way.
• Improving Overall Body Awareness: Practicing Pilates on a regular basis helps clients improve their body awareness because the method emphasizes and requires precision, forcing one to THINK about how the muscles are working while doing the exercises. Being able to control your body will decrease your risk of injury by having a more efficient movement pattern reducing stress on joints, tendons, muscles and ligaments.
4. How does Pilates help increase flexibility?
Pilates is a form of exercises that requires movement in several planes of motion unlike traditional exercises that generally tend to work in the sagittal plane. Pilates sessions move the spine and joints from flexion to extension, internal rotation to external rotation and sidebendng allowing an increase in range of motion throughout the body. This exercise routine also works at the end range of motion in the muscles creating a lengthening effect on the muscles. Improving flexibility will decrease risk of injury, reduce low back and joint stiffness and allow for greater ease of motion during functional activities.
5. How can Pilates be used as a form of cross training for athletes?
In recent years many amateur and professional athletes have turned to Pilates as an adjunct to their regular strength and conditioning program. Pilates has many benefits for athletes and can improve athletic performance in a variety of ways. As mentioned earlier Pilates works to enhance ones body awareness through challenging positions that require optimal postural alignment. There are exercises that challenge alignment in a static position but others that challenge maintaining proper alignment while moving which helps athletes have improved alignment while performing their individual sport thus minimizing risk of injury and allowing for more efficient use of their muscles recruiting only the muscles necessary to perform a specific task.
Pilates also works to develop muscular symmetry, which is important for athletes who play rotational sports such as golf or tennis. Pilates helps to correct imbalances and works to strengthen weaker muscles and stretch tighter muscles to create more fluid movement patterns and decrease the risk on injury placed on unstable structures.
If you are a runner and triathlete Pilates improves athletic performance in a variety of ways. The following are examples of how muscle tightness and weakness can contribute to injuries and decrease performance.
Tight quadriceps will:
– Decrease your distance per stride in running and decrease the extension at the hip
– Limit your range of motion in your freestyle kick making kicking difficult
– Increase the arch in your lower back, which can lead to low back pain
– Increase the risk of knee pain with running and cycling
Tight hamstrings will:
– Cause your lower back to be more rounded on the bike, which increases the risk of injury and decreases the power on the bike
– Decrease stride length in running (causing one to have to take more strides during a race and require higher energy consumption)
– Cause a higher chance of hamstring tears
In general a consistent Pilates routine will ensure that proper stretching and stabilization become an integral part of an athletes training program. The core muscle groups will work synergistically together to make the spine more supple. The tight muscles will lengthen and promote healthy blood circulation and lubrication to your joints. This will not only improve range of motion, but will also better prepare your joints to manage the repetitive stresses your joints must handle during the countless hours of training.
Christa Gurka, MSPT, PMA®-CPT