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All about pilates

wBy now you've surely heard of this sports trend that has won over the world's biggest movie stars, elite athletes and millions of others around the globe! The Pilates Method: we explain it all!

Whether you're looking to get back in shape, tone up your body or strengthen your back, take a few minutes to read this article co-written by Eleni, our sports biomechanics expert at the DECATHLON SportsLab and find out all the benefits this sport has to offer!

Joseph pilates: the man behind the method

It's impossible to talk about Pilates without first giving you some background on the man who invented it: Joseph Pilates.

He was a sickly child with fragile health who suffered from a malformation of the thorax. He was passionate about sport and the human body, and through sheer force of will and discipline, he eventually became a professional athlete and dedicated his life to helping people achieve well-being!

To do this, he invented a series of exercises to correct poor posture and bring the body into harmony. The most famous of physical fitness methods was born: the Pilates Method.

Source: An Animated History of Pilates / InfobytesTV

Joseph Pilates video

All about pilates

Pilates is a strength training method involving specific exercises to tone your body and strengthen your core (abs, back and pelvic floor) while maintaining perfect alignment.

The method is based on engaging your deep core muscles combined with breathing in a specific way.

When practised regularly, you'll quickly feel the benefits in your body: better posture (poor posture is often the root cause of back pain), more toned and balanced muscles, more flexible joints, an easier gait and a strong core.   

Pilates is also a popular rehabilitation technique. It is frequently recommended by physiotherapists to recover from injury, and is great as a cross-training method to improve your performances in other sports or prevent injury and pain.

“Pilates is complete coordination of body, mind and spirit.” Joseph Pilates

You should also know that anyone can do Pilates! From teenagers who need a stronger core for better posture to elderly people with limited range of motion, Pilates is the perfect solution.


The basics

The method is based on six pillars or principles that you have to understand and apply when doing the exercises for them to be effective.

1. Concentration: Staying focused on each movement lets you do it with precision and makes it more effective while also helping you to let go and relax.

2. Control: When performed with careful control, each movement is much more powerful. The slower your movements, the harder you'll work!

3. Breath: Each exercise is coordinated with your breath to make it easier to control each movement.  

“Breathing is the first act of life. Our very life depends on it. We must first learn to breathe properly.” Joseph Pilates

Spend a few minutes taking several breaths. You can place your hands on your ribs and close your eyes to feel the movement of the breath and enhance your concentration! Ready? Breathe while keeping your abdominals engaged to stabilise your upper body and hips. Inhale deeply through the nose and into your lungs, letting the ribs expand like an accordion. Exhale through the mouth, squeezing the ribs as if pulling on an elastic and keep your abs engaged!

This breathing technique is very effective as it increases both your lung capacity and activates your deep abdominal muscles!

4. Centring: Joseph Pilates believed that a toned core was the key to a healthy spine!

Studies have shown that 80% of all people will experience back pain at some point in their lives. The reason? Sedentary lifestyles and a lack of physical activity… 

The area of the body that Joseph Pilates rightly called the “powerhouse” refers to the deep abdominal muscles (the transverse), lower back and pelvic floor. They keep the upper body stable and aid posture, but we often neglect them in our strength training routines!

5. Precision: Pilates is not about trying to get through each exercise as quickly as possible. It's all about precision: fully lengthening and completing each movement! 

6. Flow: Pilates is a technique based on dynamic exercises. You inhale during one movement and exhale during another. This creates a cycle (like the breathing cycle) that is smooth and natural. Flow helps you maintain continuity throughout your movements, while also improving your balance, coordination and control!

These principles provide the purpose behind the method that was so important to its creator: physical fitness and well-being.

Pilates photo

Tips for better core strength

The transverse abdominis lies under the rectus abdominis, AKA the muscle that gives you washboard abs. The transverse muscle stabilises both the core and the abdominal wall. When you contract this muscle, the organs are held firmly between the stomach and the spine. This active core work keeps the organs from extending forward, which is what causes a pooch belly!

The pelvic floor (perineum) is the muscle group that supports your organs and stabilises your hips. It stretches from the coccyx to the pubic arch and includes the levator ani muscles. To visualise it, imagine a hammock stretched across your hips in which your visceral organs sit.

“You heard it here”: In women, a strong perineum prevents pelvic organ prolapse and has lasting benefits (40% of women over the age of 50 suffer from pelvic organ prolapse). In men, a strong perineum improves sexual function!

Tips on how to strengthen your perineum:

- Imagine that you are trying to bring your navel in to touch your spine. Let your ribs descend towards your hips while keeping your spine long. This will deeply engage your pelvic floor and transverse abdominis.

- Regularly do Kegel exercises: imagine that you are trying to stop urinating midstream. 

Tips on how to engage your pelvic floor:

You should feel like you are lifting your organs to the centre of your body. To do this:

- Relax the glutes.

- Imagine you are trying to stop passing wind and urinating midstream at the same time, and squeeze and lift the muscles.

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Starting pilates off right

To make sure your first Pilates session goes well and you get the most out of it, follow our essential tips on how to set up for each exercise.

Neutral position: The neutral position is the intermediate position between having an arch or curve in your lower back.

Tip: Imagine your hips like a tub filled with water that mustn't tip forward or back.

Or, form a triangle with your thumbs and index fingers. Place your thumbs on your navel, then place your fingers flat on your abdomen. If you can see the tips of your fingers, this means your hips are in a neutral position.

Shoulders down: We tend to naturally raise our shoulders when doing an exercise, which can lead to tension and even pain in the neck.

Try to keep your shoulders down and relaxed.

Tip: Place your hands on your shoulders, elbows in front of you. Inhale and rotate your elbows back, then exhale and slide your shoulder blades down your back to feel them engage.

Keep this feeling of stability - not rigidity - throughout your session. It is as important as keeping your abs engaged during the exercises.

Lengthening: When you do the exercises, remember to lengthen your spine up to keep your back, neck and head properly aligned.

Tip: Imagine a thread attached at the crown of your head pulling up towards the ceiling as you lengthen and feel the space between each vertebra.

Engage your core:

All Pilates exercises are meant to do one thing: strengthen your core!

To quickly feel the effects, remember to always engage these muscles by hugging your navel in towards your spine.

With your core muscles engaged and contracted, you'll be able to move your arms and legs more smoothly and with more control and precision.

You're ready to take up Pilates and want to do so safely. Enjoy Pilates and take care of yourself!

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Our editors

“I've been doing Pilates for about a year and I'm completely hooked! After just a few sessions, I was able to find the right placement and breathe with my movements. Pilates has made a real difference in my daily life as well as in the other sports I do! I hope that Eleni and I have been able to give you some great insights on this fantastic sport and that you'll be encouraged to try it out and love it as much as we do”

Elena, age 40 and mum who happily juggles her fascinating job in Decathlon's Pilates and Gentle Gym department and her two kids!

“As a well-practised sports enthusiast and Pilates fan for four years, I'm thrilled to have worked on this article to give you all the basic knowledge you need to confidently dive into this sport! Enjoy your new Pilates adventure!”

Eleni, R&D Engineer / M.Sc. in Sport & Fitness and Sport & Technology / PhD in Sports Biomechanics at the DECATHLON SportsLab

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