Bodily Perfection 

Demystifying Pilates, the increasingly popular exercise system that seeks to strengthen all of the body’s muscles

Demystifying Pilates, the increasingly popular exercise system that seeks to strengthen all of the body’s muscles

Although Pilates, the exercise system developed by German-born Joseph H. Pilates in the 1920s, has become something of a fad over the past decade, few know what it is or how it actually works. Adding to this confusion is the fact that Pilates failed to secure a trademark for his system before he died. Consequently, not every instructor who teaches Pilates (pronounced “puh-LAH-teez”) is certified by the creator’s original, New York-based Pilates Studio. “The effect of this,” says Joanna Ross, a former demonstration assistant for Pilates in New York, “is that in some cases his method has been watered down.”

Pilates developed his system while working as a nurse during World War I and then later refined it after extensive studies in Eastern and Western philosophies. He first got the idea for his method while helping to rehabilitate injured soldiers, attaching springs to their hospital beds to be used for resistance training. “Physical fitness,” he later wrote, “is the first requisite of happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.” It is this idea of uniform development, of a method of fitness that strengthens all muscles to work together in powerful coordination, that is central to Pilates’ system.

A former professional dancer, Julie Kraft began studying Pilates in the early ’80s for rehabilitative purposes after a series of injuries to her hip, knees and back. She became taken with the system after noticing a marked difference in her strength level and decided to become certified. She opened Spring Studio in Nashville in 1998.

Kraft’s studio is fully equipped with the exercise equipment Pilates developed for his method. The largest piece is the Cadillac, or Trap Table, which looks like a hospital bed with a set of parallel bars attached. There’s also the Ladder Barrel, for lower back and stretching exercises, as well as a Pedipull, geared toward working the upper body. Unlike weight-training machines such as Nautilus, Pilates’ equipment is based purely on resistance training in which the student controls resistance through movement.

There is also the Reformer—a rectangular table with an adjustable footrest and arm straps, as well as a movable carriage with shoulder rests. A Pilates workout begins on the Reformer with a series of exercises called “the footwork.” Lying down on the carriage, the heels are placed together, the balls of the feet on the footrest and arms at the student’s sides. The legs are extended while exhaling, moving the carriage against the springs’ tension. The abdominal muscles and buttocks are used to return the carriage to its starting position while inhaling.

The movement is rhythmic and the resistance constant. Essential to the exercise is keeping the lower back pressed to the table while concentrating on letting the abdominal muscles, instead of the springs, return the carriage to its starting point. The purpose of this exercise, says Kraft, is “to get your mind into the studio and your breathing coordinated with your movement.”

After a series of repetitions, the feet are shifted so that the arches are now on the footrest, keeping the heels together so that the feet retain the same “V” position. This exercise, called “bird on a perch,” continues with the same series of movements and breathing; but with this slight adjustment of position, it works a whole different set of muscles in the legs and abdomen Throughout the series, Kraft monitors form and technique, with particular attention to the position of the lower back and stomach muscles.

If these exercises sounds simple, they’re not. Even a coordinated beginner feels discombobulated—aware not of the muscles working in tandem, but separately and disjointedly. Not only does this demonstrate the importance of working closely with the instructor, but it’s also the challenge Pilates poses, forcing the student to re-coordinate his or her actions into a fluid series of movements. Ideally, the exercises flow evenly from one to the next. Exercises that present greater difficulty to the student point to personal limits in strength, flexibility and coordination, but Pilates overcomes these limits in time.

And there’s plenty of variation in the system. Joseph Pilates developed 34 exercises for the mat and over 500 exercises for his machines. All are geared to increase coordination, strength, body control and flexibility, and all are built around Pilates’ concept of centering, or the powerhouse.

“The powerhouse,” says Kraft, “is the area in your body that involves your rib cage, your abdominal cavity and your buttocks—that band that goes around your whole body. That’s your stability physically. Once you have control of it, and work from it, it can set you free, because it supports all physical movement.”

Though Pilates is a slow process of body shaping, the initial result can be a markedly greater awareness of posture and balance. A number of Kraft’s clients have enjoyed far more dramatic improvements.

Consider Cindy Eckert. In 1993, this mother of three developed acute transverse myelitis, an extremely rare condition that leads to a swelling of the spinal cord; it paralyzed her from the middle of her torso down. After six months of medication and physical therapy, Eckert was able to walk with a cane, but still suffered spasticity in both her legs, had terrible balance problems and struggled just to turn over in bed. She began Pilates in 1998. Her improvement in coordination has been radical.

“When I first started Pilates,” says Eckert, “I was unable to sit in a chair for long periods of time because I would become unstable. Now I’m able to carry my 7-year-old up our stairs.”

Three years ago, Fritchie Lawton had her knee replaced due to osteoarthritis. An avid horseback rider, she went through 12 weeks of physical therapy but was still unable to mount without the use of a block. A friend recommended Pilates.

“By strengthening my abdominals and working muscles in and around my spine and lumbar area, as well as my cervical area, I have better posture and a better seat on the horse,” Lawton says. The following year, she had her other knee replaced. With Pilates, her period of physical therapy was cut in half. Currently, she shows horses all over the Southeast and no longer uses a mounting block. She’s 65 years old.

Two years ago, Kraft worked for four months with Montgomery Bell Academy football star Ingle Martin (currently a red shirt quarterback at Florida), who took up Pilates to increase his flexibility and athleticism. When Martin started, he couldn’t touch his toes with his fingers. By the end of the four months, he could get his palms to the ground. That fall, he ran his fastest 40-yard dash.

Most of Kraft’s clients have been working with her for years and have seen results over long periods of time. Because the movements require technical proficiency, staying with Pilates is central to success. “It’s a slow approach,” says Benita Hill, a cancer survivor whose body was severely weakened by chemotherapy. She took up Pilates to build up her strength and has been doing it for three years now. “It was integral to my reestablishing a connection between my body and mind. I can do things now that I couldn’t even before my cancer.”

Pilates has also been central to helping Kraft develop a personal philosophy. “You can continue to grow in this method throughout your life,” she says. “To realize that mindful and consistent work leads to progress at any age opens up a world of possibilities.”

In Nashville, Pilates is offered at Spring Studio, Willow, S.T.E.P.S., the Club’s four locations and the YMCA as well as other locations. For more information, call Julie Kraft at 292-1930. To learn more about The Pilates Studio, visit


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