I thought it would be useful for me to write about the mistakes that I have made (and there have been many of them!) over the ten years I have been doing Pilates and how to learn from them. Also from what I've learnt when teaching Pilates classes or running private Pilates sessions and how to rectify some simple errors that will make a lot of difference to your Pilates classes.
PRINCIPLES OF PILATES
When Joseph Pilates designed his exercises back in the 1920's he talked about the Pilates Principles which can be used to help us master the technique and here they are:
These Principles when applied to the Pilates exercises do really help to get the best of the movements so that the exercises do become easier and very rewarding.
This means physically bringing the focus of the mind to the centre of the body - the Powerhouse - the area below the lower ribs and the pubic bone. The Powerhouse is what drives the body during performing the exercises and provides the source of energy.
This means applying total focus whilst doing the exercises so that your mind just revolves around the next movement you are going to do. As you complete the movement you then move your mind onto putting yourself in the right position for the next exercise. There should be no gap between one movement to the next, neither physically or mentally.
This means the control of the bigger and smaller muscles in the body working in unison and alignment to perform the exercises. No part of the body should be left to its own devices. The brain should be consciously directing movements which should be deliberate and controlled.
This takes a while to learn how to do the exercises with correct technique and alignment because the body has to learn how to be spatially aware, know where each body part should be and understand what the exercise is trying to achieve. After a few lessons the body starts working with the brain, awareness of movement and alignment relative to other body parts starts to develop and it all starts to make sense.
Joseph Pilates emphasised using full breath, visualising an inflated balloon when the lungs inflate with oxygen when going to start the exercise and releasing the air from the lungs when finishing the exercises - like a deflated balloon. Most Pilates exercises co-ordinate with the breath but it does take time and practice. If you are new to Pilates just try to remember to take a big intake of breath before the exercise and gradually release as you perform the exercise.
Pilates exercises are designed to flow from one exercise to another. I try to plan my lessons so that the exercises cover every plane of movement and do not involve too much movement around the mat. The idea is that the movements are fluid, graceful and done with ease. The energy from the exercises are designed to connect to all body parts and flow through the body in an even manner.
So, when you feel that you are just not getting the exercises right sometimes just going back to basics and practicing the core Principles of Pilates can help.
Pilates class doing the Shoulder Bridge.
As a beginner learning the 'Method' of Pilates it is difficult to master and apply the Principles of Pilates to the exercises. Often there is no flowing of movement with easy transitions from one move to another because the exercises take a few lessons to learn. The beginner will attempt an exercise several times, learning how it feels and what it is supposed to do so there will be pauses between exercises. This is normal as the body gets used to moving in different ways.
This leads me to the first common 'mistake' (or mistaken belief) that I have noticed when teaching newcomers to Pilates is:
1). 'THIS IS SO HARD - I JUST CAN'T DO IT!
Pilates is a system of exercises that work every muscle in the body in the way that nature designed them to do. As we get older we lose our confidence, muscles get underused or used in the wrong way and it is hard to get the muscles moving again. It all takes time - as Joseph Pilates famously quoted:
"In ten lessons you will feel the difference
In Twenty - you will see the difference and
In Thirty lessons - you will have a whole new body!"
Have you noticed that when children learn something new they 'just go for it' ? They don't stop and think 'Can I do this?' or 'Will it hurt'? or 'Will I look stupid'? They just have a go, make mistakes, laugh at themselves and try again.
We seem to lose that confidence as we get older, we lose faith in our bodies and in what they can do, at any age. Pilates is really is for everyone but it does take some time for your muscles to get used to exercise. Mat Pilates is ideal for those people who are still able to get up and down off a mat fairly easily and if this is a problem then there is Reformer Pilates.
The Pilates Reformer
Pilates is a great way for post (post) rehabilitation after surgery or an injury and this is the time when the person new to Pilates will start to doubt if Pilates is for them, even though their Doctor or Physiotherapist has recommended they do Pilates exercises.
People are naturally nervous about doing exercise when they have been in pain or discomfort and I always recommend taking things very slowly and sitting out any exercises they feel they can't do but to try again another time. There are many variations of Pilates which can used for all abilities.
ONE TO ONE PILATES SESSIONS
There is nothing worse than the thought of walking to a Pilates class as a complete beginner - not knowing to expect or even if you can do the exercises. This is where one to one Pilates sessions are really 'worth their weight on gold'. These sessions boosts the beginner's confidence in their body's ability to exercise and they feel more prepared to join a class.
I have my own Pilates studio where I offer one to one sessions. I carry out a postural assessment, learn about any injuries or problems and then tailor the session to suit the person's goals and fitness levels. We go at the pace dictated by the client and it is time well spent because the client learns how to stand correctly, how to exercise safely and correctly and learns some basic exercises that they then can practice at home.
BEGINNER'S PILATES CLASSES
After a few one to one sessions the person might then ready to join a class because they've been taught enough exercises to get through a class with confidence, their body is now used to exercising again and they know what to expect.
If someone says to me in a class they can't do an exercise I usually say you can't do it NOW - but may be next week!
2). GIVING UP AFTER A FEW LESSONS
I do see this with people who are very new to exercise or have not done exercise for a while.
Learning anything new can be exciting but also daunting and sometimes the sheer effort of getting to class is just too much when you have been at work all day. Sometimes I do have people come back after a while, particularly when they have been diagnosed with a condition where Pilates has been recommended and that is very rewarding.
3). FORGETTING ALIGNMENT WHEN GOING INTO OR COMING OUT OF A MOVEMENT
Pilates is all about alignment of the joints, muscles and ligaments of the body so that they work in perfect synmetry. Sometimes it is easy to forget to control every single part of the body during the exercises and that's when things start going wrong. Pilates is about controlling the head, rib cage, pelvis because they are the three main body weights and if these are controlled and stable then the Powerhouse is being used correctly.
It helps to check the body's alignment before the next move, going through the move and then coming out of the move and always coming back to the same position.
Pilates Kneeling Side Kick showing perfect alignment and concentration.
4). NOT BREATHING CORRECTLY
Pilates uses different styles of breathing but the main one is Lateral Thoracic Breathing where the ribs are breathed into and prevents 'bracing'. Bracing is holding the breath during the move which prevents much needed oxygen getting to the muscles to perform the movement and also prevents the core not being used correctly.
5). NOT KEEPING 'NEUTRAL SPINE' DURING EXERCISES
This tends to happen more to beginners who have not recognised where their pelvis is in relation to their spine. What tends to happen is either the back is pushed too much into the floor during - for example The 100 exercise which then pushes the pelvis upwards or arching the back and 'popping' the ribs and pushing the pelvis downwards.
It is very important when doing lying Pilates exercises to keep a small gap in the base of the spine between the ribs and the tailbone. See my earlier article on how to keep Neutral Spine).
6). DOING ONLY THE MOVES YOU LIKE - NOT WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
There is always some Pilates exercises that are easier than others and this can be due to how we are built or how long we have been doing Pilates and it is the easier ones that we prefer doing. For example - Pilates exercises are easier for those who have Khyphosis - which is the rounding of the upper back and they would prefer doing Roll ups, Roll backs and Shoulder Bridge because this follows the line of the curve of the back. Instead they should really concentrate on back extensions or chest openers.
7) PEER PRESSURE AND COMPETITION.
You really do go at your own pace in Pilates classes. There will always be people in class who will be better or worse than you and that is the same in any class setting. Sometimes this really puts people off from going to classes and this when I suggest one to one Pilates classes in the Pilates studio to give confidence and experience before going to group classes.
8). NECK PROBLEMS AND RISKS.
Pushing the chin in your chest when doing exercises such as 'the 100' or the Roll Up causing a lot of pressure on the neck so I always encourage people to try to look over their knees as they lift up their shoulders from the mat so that the chin is lifted away from the chest.
9). RUSHING THROUGH THE MOVEMENTS
Pilates exercises are meant to be done slowly whilst obeying the Principles of Pilates ALL of the time! The exercises are hard to do slowly but really are more effective this way.
The Shoulder Bridge is meant to curl upwards through the spine to the neck and then curl slowly down through the tail bone to the floor but often I see people just lift up and down which isn't as effective.
10). NOT WATCHING THE EXERCISE BEING DEMONSTRATED FROM BEGINNING TO END.
I admit I used to do this a lot when I was a student of Pilates! After I had been going to classes for a while I could predict what the exercise was going to be and I would just lie down and start doing the exercises.
I would strongly recommend that you do take the time to watch the exercises being shown from beginning to end because you can always learn something new, a little movement here, a slight move of the knee or hip there. Pilates Instructors are always tweaking their exercises so you can always benefit and sometimes they might a bit of equipment whilst you are lying down exercising!
I will close with picture of the Pilates classic - the Side Mermaid Bend.