Honestly, it’s not like Pilates had ever gone out of fashion. But lately, it’s as if every Hollywood babe, KPop starlet and fitness influencer has jumped onto the Pilates train.
Upon closer look, it’s actually not hard to understand.
Pilates, with its focus on core strength and building lean muscles, is the weapon of choice for many looking for a lithe, slender physique. It’s also a highly recommended exercise for people with neck, shoulder and lower back pain.
Whether you’re purely inspired by all the sudden hype or you’re looking for a new rehabilitative workout regime, here’s what Pilates beginners need to know before their first class.
Pilates vs Yoga — aren’t they both the same?
Many yogis go into Pilates thinking that it’ll be a similar workout (*cough* this was me). Sure, both use controlled breathing and require mind muscle connection. But yoga is predominately about flexibility, balance and relaxation as you flow through a sequence of poses. Most movements return to a standing position where you ground yourself down onto the floor before pushing away.
Yoga is also focused on deep belly breathing and both inhaling and exhaling through the nose. This has the effect of activating your parasympathetic nervous system which will promote deep mental and muscle relaxation.
Pilates helps build core strength and spinal alignment. The exercises are primarily done lying down and the focus is on using your pelvic floor muscles and transverse abdominis to move through the different movements.
The Pilates breath is drawn in through the nose right into your ribcage before exhaling forcefully through the mouth while tensing your core. It’s a more strenuous workout compared to yoga and you’ll walk out of a session feeling taller and more even.
Should beginners do Mat or Reformer Pilates?
Broadly speaking, your physical condition will dictate whether you choose Mat or Reformer Pilates.
Mat Pilates is the equipment-free variation which relies on your body weight as resistance. It’s a highly challenging workout because you’re working against gravity to strengthen and lengthen many often neglected muscles. From time to time, props like disk sliders, Pilates balls and circles/wheels and resistance bands may be used to up the workout’s intensity.
Reformer Pilates requires additional equipment like the reformer bed, trapeze, wunder chair, barrel and others. It’s a rehabilitative form of Pilates using springs, levers, ladders and boxes to add resistance and more accurately target specific muscle groups. Many liken reformer Pilates to being on training wheels, as the additional equipment helps beginners to better develop core strength and find neutral spine alignment.
Whichever style you choose, both will help redefine movement patterns within your body so you can move lighter and easier in your day-to-day.
Invest in a private Pilates class
You could learn Pilates on your own but there’s plenty of ways to do it incorrectly. It’s highly recommended to have a trained instructor who will teach you proper form.
One of the key benefits of Pilates is learning how to support your posture, internal organs and lower back using your core muscles. These already under-used muscles can be hard to find on your own. A qualified Pilates instructor will be able to teach you how to best activate these small muscles.
Don’t be afraid to try out a few instructors before settling on someone you enjoy working with. Some instructors are better than others at cuing and that alone can make a huge difference for Pilates beginners. Others are more hands-on when it comes to adjustments to your shoulders and pelvis which can be incredibly useful when retraining yourself how to move.
Small studio groups of 3–4 people also work well for Pilates beginners. Arrive early and let your instructor know that you’re new to Pilates. This way they’ll be able to slow down their cues and give you some extra attention to ensure you’re moving correctly.
Do Clinical Pilates if you’ve got pre-existing injuries
If you have pre-existing injuries, it’s especially important for you to see a Clinical Pilates instructor with a physiotherapy background. These practitioners first examine your problems before designing a workout program that will help rehabilitate your trouble areas. Having studied the human body, these physios can often be more effective at helping you recover from that sore tech neck or ankle sprain that just won’t heal properly.
Bonus points if your physio has an ultrasound which can show you in real-time how to use your transverse abdominis to brace your lower back and activate your pelvic floor to support your pelvic organs!
If you’re in Australia, remember that Clinical Pilates classes are claimable under your private health fund Physio Extras.
Grip socks are totally worth it
If you’ve got your heart set on reformer Pilates, do get yourself a pair of grip socks before your first class. These socks with small rubber grips help keep you safe by minimising slips and falls when on the equipment. Better grip also means that you can concentrate on activating and using the correct muscles. Normal socks which don’t fit tight enough might mean you need to over compensate in order to stay upright on the reformer.
If you rock up without a pair, don’t sweat! Ask your studio if they have any non-slip pads you can use to steady yourself with.
Slow and steady wins the race
When you’re in an open studio class, it’s easy to get caught up in what others are doing. They might be gliding in and out of movements faster than you and that’s okay.
Pilates is focused on slow, controlled movements and it prizes correct form over higher resistance and repetitions. There’s two reasons for this: firstly, you’ll increase your mind muscle connection and decrease the likelihood of injury. Secondly, slower Pilates gives a more intense workout that develops your strength and lengthens your body from inside out.
So don’t worry about what others are doing. For Pilates beginners, your priority is to develop good form and technique through a slow and steady practice.
Muscles you didn’t know existed will be sore tomorrow!
It’s common to have sore abs the day after your first Pilates workout. This is a good indicator that you’ve been using the right muscles during your session! The soreness goes away in 2–3 days but, in this period, you’ll notice that you’re now more mindful of your posture and moving easier (even lighter on your feet!).
If you do feel any sharp pain, your best bet is to seek medical advice to ensure that you haven’t injured yourself.