Pilates – A Beginners Guide To The Key Principles
The Pilates method of exercise as we know it today, was pioneered by Joseph Pilates, who originally used his knowledge of strength and fitness in the rehabilitation of injured servicemen in the First World War. He later moved to New York in 1926 established a successful studio primarily working with dancers and published his first book in 1934 titled ‘Your Health’. In the book he discusses his method of ‘Contrology’ promoting his ideas about the balance of body and mind to maintain good health. Since the death of Joseph Pilates in 1967, his teaching methods and techniques have remained popular for the prevention of and rehabilitation from injury.
Benefits Of Pilates
Although the Pilates method of exercise has been adapted over the years, it has grown in popularity for anyone wanting to be more active or trying to overcome pain from an injury, by building strength of our core muscles. It is now more widely practiced by healthcare professionals (such as the Australian Physiotherapy & Pilates Institute) for rehabilitation needs of patients following injuries, especially those suffering with lower back pain.
Using a simplified Pilates method, the technique involves contracting the deep core muscles during a sequence of movements, with the aim and benefits of improving:
- Lower spine (Lumbar) stability
- Muscle imbalances
- Optimal movement and re-education
Improves Our Overall Wellbeing
In clinical guidelines, physical activity and exercise is recommended as a primary method of managing lower back pain and sciatica. Research has shown that Pilates can have a positive effect on reducing levels of pain for those suffering particularly with lower back pain, to be able to build strength, in order to move better and carry out daily life pain free.
Not only does it provide the physical benefits as listed above it also requires the following, which also improves our overall wellbeing:
- Connection between the mind and body
- Control of movement and breathing
- A state of calm
The Key Principles
If you are new to Pilates, it is important to cover and understand the key basic principles before you begin in order to maximise your workout, ensure you are doing it correctly but also to make sure you aren’t putting yourself in any harm.
Here are the following key principles, each with a video to help you practice:
1. Neutral Spine
Your spine has four natural curves, which function to absorb shock when standing, running, jumping, or simply walking. When you sit, it’s important to maintain the natural curves in your spine to prevent lower back and neck strain.
Everyone has a slightly different posture and so before starting a Pilates routine we need to find the neutral position to avoid putting any unnecessary stress on your spine.
Lie on your back with your feet and knees hip distance apart, with your arms by your side. Place your thumbs and index fingers together to form a diamond shape. Place it over your lower abdomen. Your fingers should be placed on your pubic bone, and the base of your thumbs rest next to your belly button. Find neutral by tilting your pelvis. Roll your pelvis forward to emphasise an arch in your lower back. Then roll your pelvis the opposite way to flatten your lower back into the mat. Do this a couple of times to feel the range of movement then find the mid-point position. Make sure the diamond of your hands is parallel to the floor. This is your natural spine position which should be maintained throughout.
2. Head & Neck Position
To find the neutral position for your head and neck, lie on your back with your feet and knees hip distance apart, with your arms by your side. Lengthen the crown of your head away from your tail bone to create a sense of length through the spine. Avoid poking your chin towards the ceiling as this will overextend your neck. Imagine you have a soft-boiled egg between your chin and chest that you need to keep in place by lengthening through the back of your neck. You can use a thin cushion or towel under your head for some support.
Head and Neck Position
3. Lateral Breathing
Start in either a seated or lying position on your back. When you inhale think about trying to fill the back and sides of your ribcage, avoiding breathing from your upper rib cage or your abdomen. If you place your hands gently on your lower ribs so the ends of your fingers are touching. When you take a breath in your fingers should move apart slightly as your ribcage fills out to the sides, and then your fingers will touch again in the middle when you exhale and breath out. Repeat this deeper and wider breathing pattern a few times.
Centering is important to ensure that you engage your deep abdominal muscles, back muscles and pelvic floor all at the same time, whilst maintaining the neutral spine position. Following the steps mentioned above, find your natural spine position. Then imagine a belt sitting below your belly button tightening or trying to button up a tight pair of jeans or corset. Start to slowly suck your belly button in, away from your waist band as you gently contract your lower abdominal muscles. Hold this tension and continue with your lateral breathing for up to 10 times. To engage your pelvic floor muscles, imagine a zip from your public bone at the front of your pelvis to your tailbone at the back. Slowly start doing up the zip and drawing upwards, you can also imagine if you needed a wee and had to hold it in. You might find that one method works best for you – choose which is best for you.
5. Ribcage Placement
When lying with your back on the mat, you should think about your whole ribcage melting into the mat, making sure it is does not arch. Lie with your feet and knees hip distance apart, with your arms by your side. Soften your ribs, to make them lower to the ground and in line with your pelvis. Do not force your mid-back into the floor. Inhale as you take your arms up towards the ceiling, and exhale as you take your arms over your head but maintaining your rib cage alignment and without it starting to arch. All the movement should come from your shoulders. To return to the start position, inhale as you take your arms up towards the ceiling, and exhale as you place your arms back by your side. Remember to engage your center when you are doing the movement.
Rib Cage Placement
6. Shoulder Placement
The position of your shoulder blades and their stability is just as important as the position of the pelvis, spine and ribcage in order to move correctly and avoid unnecessary poor posture and pain. Sit in a comfortable position or lie on your back on a mat. Glide your shoulder blades gently down and inwards to the spine, to allow your collar bone and chest to widen. Thinking about gliding your shoulder blade down towards the opposite back pocket of your jeans, but avoid squeezing your shoulder blades together.
By following the above key principles, you will get the full benefit out of a Pilates rehab routine. For any ache, pain or injury you may have, by completing a rehab plan little and often your muscles will start to remember the correct way to move through re-education, resulting in better movement patterns and reduced pain.