Pilates: Your New Cross-Training Best Friend

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If you never take a break from your regular exercise routine — whether it be lifting, cycling, rowing or running — mixing things up is worth your consideration. Pilates, which was originally created in the 1920s to rehabilitate injured World War I soldiers, is touted as a cross-training dream.

“You gain the ability to control your muscles with your mind and not let reflexive patterns take over,” explains Lynda Gehrman, founder of Physio Logic Pilates & Movement, professional dancer and teacher for more than 20 years. “You work smaller muscle groups to support the larger, sometimes misused, muscles. You train muscles and joints to have both strength and range of motion from a stable starting place.”

So whether you’re a CrossFit fanatic, runner, swimmer or dancer, Gehrman says Pilates can help you:

1. Understand ideal alignment. 

You’ll learn to make choices on which muscles you want to fire. You do this with proper positioning because your form will equate to your muscle function. We need to properly align in order to access specific muscles.

2. Amp up your training. 

Pilates helps you identify and use your entire core, not just the abdominals, in motion.

3. Correct your gait. From your running gait to other movement patterns, Pilates uniquely trains muscles eccentrically, concentrically and isometrically.

4. Align your spine. 

By working in neutral, flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation, you’ll learn to unwind your body and achieve ideal alignment.

If you’re new to Pilates, here are a few ways to incorporate this strength-, flexibility- and posture-improving activity into your fitness routine:

  • Seek instruction. Commit to trying a few private lessons at a studio. Ask the instructors how they go about creating programs and how they apply the work to cross-training and/or sports-specific goals. Depending on your schedule and budget, you can continue with private lessons, switch to small classes, work with an apprentice or develop a personal practice.
  • Learn the moves. Add in a few new exercises to help tune up your body and identify your core from head to toe. Then begin creating sequences — such as pelvic curl, back extension, spine twist, footwork, squat, plank and side plank.
  • Go slow to create awareness. It can be as simple as adding a few more repetitions of one of your staple exercises in a more thoughtful way before you do your usual set at full speed using your reflexes. These thoughtful reps will be able to identify what muscle you are truly initiating from and what you feel at the end range.

“Our body is a machine, our instrument, and it needs to be fine-tuned all the time if you want to be an athlete or have a long, active life,” says Gehrman, who is an avid dancer, skier and biker. “You should love what you love pain-free forever. Pilates is absolutely for everybody because it can be used as a modality and not just a form of exercise.”

Try It at Home

This cross-training flow should be repeated four times on the left and right sides.

1. Standing:

· Find your ideal alignment, often described as forehead, sternum and pubic bone in a vertical line. The pubic bone is on the same plane as the ASIS bones (often referred to as “hipbones”).

· Feel the muscles that recruit in order to sustain this ideal alignment, including your hip extensors (back of the legs,) abdominals and thoracic extensors.

· If your hip flexors are tight, you may feel a stretch.

2. Footwork, with resistance band:

· Stand tall in ideal alignment as described above.

· Foot in neutral, avoid any supination or pronation as you dorsiflex and plantar-flex your foot.

· Point and flex through your ankle joint, metatarsals and toes.

3. Resistance-band shoulder stretch:

· Work on getting your arms, including your elbows, straight overhead the same width as your shoulders.

· Think of reaching out wide as your arms pass behind you.

· Work very carefully to increase this range of motion in your pecs and biceps.

4. Squats version 1:

· Your knees remain in line with your toes as you bend and stretch.

· Only bend as far as you can keep this positioning.

· Keep your glutes activated and your lower back from rounding.

· Expect to feel a deep crease in your hip flexor.

5. Squats version 2:

· Same as above, but aim for your knees to be directly over your heels when bent. You won’t bend as far as other squat versions, but stay here a while and feel the hamstring/glute insertion work like crazy!

6. Plank:

· The head/neck/pelvis alignment should be placed as when standing.

· Think of the smallest tuck of the pelvis to avoid swaying into your lower back.

· Avoid protracting or retracting your shoulder girdle. Stay wide across your upper back, keeping your scapula on your spine.

7. Leg pull back:

· Lift a long, strong leg straight to the ceiling only as far as you can go without bending into your lower back. This is hip extension.

· Keep your quads, hamstrings and glutes in co-contraction to maintain that strong leg while in motion.

· Keep your abdominals pulled in to support your spine.

8. Side plank:

· Keep your body in the coronal plane. (Don’t let your head fall forward or your butt hang back.)

· Your abdominals and hip extensors stay supportive.

· Keep the distance between your ears and shoulders as long as possible at all times. Fire your upper-back muscles, particularly the serratus anterior.

9. Side Bend:

· Follow side-plank tips and enjoy a lifted side bend by pulling all the way up to the ceiling.

10. Twist:

· Follow side-plank tips but enjoy a twist of the rib cage, keeping your arms and legs long.

11. Shoulder bridge:

· Keep your knees and feet evenly in line with your sitz bones.

· Create a flat diagonal line from your knees, hips, ribs and shoulders.

· You shouldn’t feel your lower back lifting you. Use your abdominals and hip extensors.

12. Back extension, from flat back:

· Palms face in toward you first, then face the floor for more of a challenge.

· Keep your elbows long, triceps engaged.

· Keep your collarbones wide and abdominals engaged to create a flat front of your torso.

· Keep your ribs connected as your shoulders extend.

· Allow your hamstrings to stretch by reaching.