Pilates: Power and Motion

Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez) may not be the fountain of youth. But with its promise of long, limber muscles, increased strength and flexibility, and reduced stress, it's one of this country's fastest-growing forms of exercise.

This balanced fitness program stresses a full range of motion and increased power without adding a lot of muscle bulk. Pilates focuses on building muscles in the abdomen, lower back and buttocks.

The Pilates workout includes about 500 well-defined exercises done on a mat or special equipment. Classes feature a dynamic series of movements using a low number of repetitions (as few as three or four for beginners) and often last 45 minutes to an hour.

Pilates' pull

A host of celebrities has embraced Pilates, and that has helped fuel its popularity. Its converts include Danny Glover, Melanie Griffith, Madonna, Patrick Swayze and Vanessa Williams. But Pilates can benefit just about anyone, especially those seeking a choice besides high-impact exercise.

"Anytime you are moving while standing, you are putting more stress on the body because of gravity," says Marjolein Brugman, a certified Pilates instructor. "Most of [Pilates] work is done lying down, without any weight on the joints."

Pilates also differs from some other exercises in its total body approach and emphasis on mental focus.

"It works the whole body as one unit," Ms. Brugman says. "We're so used to isolating muscle groups when we work out, but that can create imbalances in the body. With Pilates you never have to worry about that because it always works opposing muscle groups."

Fatima Bruhns, a Pilates teacher, says beginners must adjust to the demands on the mind as much as on the body. Pilates "is really a philosophy that requires an awareness of the way the body is working," she says. "We've all seen people on treadmills watching TV or listening to music. They are not aware of their body at all. We don't have music during our classes."

Pilates' low-impact approach makes it ideal for many senior citizens, pregnant women or people recovering from injury, particularly to the joints. Because it restores muscular balance, Ms. Bruhns says, it's a good complement for people who do repetitive motion sports, such as running, tennis or golf.

If you're thinking of giving Pilates a try, Ms. Brugman recommends you do some research to find a guild-certified teacher.

Pilates training

"There are people hanging shingles out there who have studied Pilates in a one-day seminar," says Ms. Brugman, who was certified after 600 hours of study and testing. "You can't learn Pilates in a day."

Ask whether an instructor is certified, by whom and the extent of his or her training. There is no governing body that regulated Pilates certification programs. However, various reputable training institutions are available throughout the US and Canada.

Many classes and videos focus only on mat work. The mat, Ms. Bruhns says, is just one of several pieces of equipment crucial to Pilates. Others include special chairs, wall springs and supports.

Try the hundred

You can sample one key Pilates exercise, "the Hundred," using only a mat or blanket. But talk with your doctor before trying any new exercise.

Lie on your back with your spine on the floor and your palms flat at your sides.

Keep your back relaxed, bring your knees toward your chest and lift your feet so your legs are straight at a right angle to the floor. Can't straighten your legs? Keep your knees close to the chest.

Bring your chin to your chest. Don't lift your upper body higher than the base of the shoulder blades.

Keep both arms rigid; lift them to the midpoint of each thigh.

Inhale for five counts, pumping your arms down and up on each count.

Exhale for five counts, continuing to pump your arms.

Repeat until you do 100 arm pumps (10 inhales and 10 exhales). If you can't do the full 100 counts, stop when you can no longer keep proper form.

Lower your legs and arms slowly and relax.

An unlikely fitness guru

Joseph Pilates, who devised the exercises bearing his name, was an unlikely founder of a fitness movement.

Born in 1880 in Germany, he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever as a boy. To gain strength, he tried sports from bodybuilding to gymnastics. Eventually he earned a living as a boxer and circus performer after moving to England.

During World War I, Mr. Pilates was held with other Germans in an enemy alien camp. He kept up his training under less-than-ideal conditions, coming up with many of his signature exercises and teaching them to fellow internees.

Mr. Pilates came to the United States in 1926, meeting wife-to-be Clara on the ship. They set up a Manhattan exercise studio that became popular with New York City's dance community.

Never a self-promoter, Mr. Pilates called his system contrology because of its focus on muscular control. The term never caught on, but the program served Mr. Pilates well. He remained active until his death at age 87.

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