Most people have an idea of what Pilates might be, and usually that idea involves lots of abdominal work in a group class at a gym. While that’s a common misconception, Pilates is a much larger method of movement involving specific equipment, springs, and over 600 exercises, created by a man named Joseph Pilates. While many methods of movement are valuable for musicians, Pilates is unique in its use of equipment, its extensive exercises, and its adaptability to a diverse population with a wide range of abilities.
Joseph Pilates (1883-1968) was a German trainer and exercise enthusiast with a colorful history as a circus performer, boxer, and self-defense instructor at the turn of the century in England. During World War I, he was put into an internment camp at the Isle of Man, where he worked with patients on rehabilitation by using bed springs to support and move limbs. This experimentation was an early predecessor of his later inventions, especially the trapeze table, known as the “Cadillac.”
In the 1920s, Joseph Pilates emigrated to the US, where he established a studio in New York City, which eventually attracted many famous dancers for rehabilitation. In this time, Pilates expanded his equipment considerably to include an array of different equipment, wrote a few books on his theories of healthfulness, and called his work “Contrology.” While most people associate his work with dancers, the method is not dance specific and can be beneficial for many musicians who struggle with safe, progressive exercise plans.
One of the most famous pieces of equipment is the “universal reformer,” also known as the reformer. While it seems like a simple sliding bed with springs, there are infinite exercises and progressions that can be executed on it. Unlike traditional weight machines that have a weight a pulley, Pilates equipment mostly uses springs as resistance in various tensions appropriate for different bodies and different movements. The Pilates equipment allows for closed chain exercises, or exercises in which the distal (far away) body point is in contact with something, whether that’s a handle attached to springs, a bar, or something similar. An open chain exercise is one in which the distal body part is free, such as using free weights. Closed chain exercises give the client feedback that can help one get a sense of where you are in space. There’s additionally a focus on spinal movement in all directions and developing a sense of awareness of the whole body to increase efficacy, strength, and mobility.
Pilates can help you expand your proprioception, strength, and resiliency after injuries, as well as give you tools to help seated posture, breathing, shoulder position, and more. It can complement another fitness practice well, whether that’s yoga, running, strength training, or something else. Most Pilates instructors have more than 500 hours of training (twice that of standard yoga instructors and more than personal trainers). Many also work with special conditions and clients of all ages and abilities, from those with Parkinson’s to osteoporosis to scoliosis. If you’re working with any injuries or challenges, be sure to communicate that to your teacher so they can adjust your exercises accordingly.
While most of us may be exercising at home for the time being, you can still experience Pilates exercises with a few props that you may have lying around—a foam roller, a theraband, a small inflatable ball, and some small hand weights can go a long way. In addition, many instructors work with clients directly online, both privately and in groups, to help build foundational exercises, and yes, some core strength! If you’ve been wondering about whether or not Pilates is for you, give it a try.
Check out this video by Kayleigh Miller explaining the universal reformer machine and some of the basic exercises in Pilates: