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Pilates & Core Stability: The Science

Pilates is the real deal in core conditioning. Learn why, and learn how to tell whether your instructor is up to the test. Science based core chiropractor, Dr. Alexander Jimenez examines the latest report.

In the realm of working out, Pilates is quite high trend. After the best-kept secret of the dancing area, Pilates was discovered and adopted by singers, models, athletes and actors. But what exactly is Pilates and does this really work?

At the outset it's necessary to understand that there are two different kinds of Pilates which you might come into contact with. The first type is 'fitness' Pilates, provided through a variety of brands/training schools, and taught in classes in the gym, gym or community hall, or accessible as a home video/DVD. The second type is 'clinical' Pilates, which has become increasingly integrated into mainstream sports therapy. This field is usually educated one-to-one, or under very close supervision within a small group, as part of a patient's rehab from injury. It's the first class, gym, that concerns us here.

Pilates Summarized

Fitness Pilates is a method of exercise and physical movement designed chiefly to stabilize the trunk (the 'core'), producing more effective stretching, strengthening and balancing of your human body. Through systematic practice of specific exercises coupled with focused breathing patterns, Pilates has proven itself invaluable as a fitness endeavor and also an important adjunct to professional sports training.

It was developed in the 1920s by the German boxer, circus performer and exercise innovator Joseph Pilates, and started to gain a following when dancers he was working with found it might produce long, lean muscles and a strong, streamlined physique. Pilates' system didn't actually hit the big time, until the 1990s.

Following years of high-impact, feel-the-burn physical fitness workouts, there was great appeal at a slower, safer approach to health and wellness. Fitness Pilates can condition the body from head to toe using a no- to - low-impact approach suitable for all ages and skills. It requires patience, attention to detail with your entire body and consistent exercise, but results are guaranteed to follow if a person sticks at it and does it right.

The kinds of results and benefits you can expect from an accurate, educated and well designed Pilates program include:
  •  improving strength, flexibility and balance
  •  toning and building long, lean muscles without bulk
  •  challenging deep abdominal muscles to support the core
  •  engaging the mind and enhancing body awareness
  •  reducing stress, relieving tension, and boosting energy through deep stretching
  •  restoring postural alignment
  •  creating a stronger, more flexible spine
  •  promoting recovery from strain or injury
  •  increasing joint range of motion
  •  improving circulation
  •  enhancing mobility, agility and stamina
  •  improving the way your body looks and feels.
Behind every one of these benefits there are bodily and technical justifications, but success depends entirely on understanding the basic principles and practices of Pilates, and doing this correctly.

Pilates is such a flexible workout system that it is beneficial for a huge array of conditions. Some fitness facilities target a specific type of clientele or rehabilitative issue, for example pregnancy, back care, seniors, the unfit and so on. Pilates is also appealing because it can be practiced in different contexts: at home in front of a movie, as part of a class in a gym/health club, or in a studio setting. Exercises can be performed on mats, with Swiss balls, elastic tube or bands, or on some weird and great contraptions unique to Pilates called Reformer, Trap Table, Wunda Chair and Thoracic Barrel.

Ideally gym is practiced in a studio under the careful supervision of a certified instructor. A well trained specialist knows how to tailor a Pilates regime to fulfill individual needs and abilities, monitoring movements to ensure proper technique for optimum results.

The dependence on a good Pilates session is on quality (as opposed to quantity) of movement, not on how much you can sweat and lift but on how well you can remain true to the principles it espouses. Only certain types of yoga can provide similar improvements.

Stability, Flexibility, Durability

The foundation stone of this Pilates movement is the idea of core stability. A secure back, or mid-section, is the ideal platform from which to create whole-body muscular strength and endurance (strength), balance and flexibility. Having a stable 'centre' enables one to move in a way that reduces energy wastage (poor technique and exhaustion), tissue overload (trauma), and muscle confusion (inferior alignment/ imbalance). Pilates' balanced strategy ensures that no muscle group is overworked; the body functions as a highly efficient, holistic system in game and daily activity.

In any circumstance the body needs to have some degree of stability before it may function, whether it be gardening or sprinting (nowhere better on display than in slow-motion footage of this fantastic US sprinter Michael Johnson, who'd awesome trunk equilibrium). The greater an athlete's first levels of equilibrium, the easier it's for their body to master the specific requirements of the game. On the flip side, poor core stability will short-circuit some efforts to improve deficiencies in flexibility or durability.

Nowhere is this more true than with athletes hell-bent on forcing their bodies to the limit: without a stable trunk, you will endlessly struggle with trauma and poor performance, and will certainly never reach your entire potential.

Hence, joint and muscle stability is the key requirement for the efficient development of muscle flexibility and durability. And the fundamentals and equipment of fitness Pilates help to achieve this better than many, in the end, other workout programs.

The Six C's

There are several versions of Pilates principles, which range from those who Joseph Pilates pioneered to contemporary adaptations integrating modern understandings of gym, fitness and biomechanics. The six principles that I believe define Pilates greatest are:

Concentration – That all-important mind-body connection. Conscious focus on movement enhances body awareness. Focusing the brain on the body part enhances proprioception (sense of body position in space).

Control – It's not about intensity. Rather, it’s about the empowerment of having a definite and positive impact on a body part by being able to isolate and work the body’s critical stability muscles. Ideal technique brings safe, effective results.

Centering – A focus on the specific muscles that stabilize the pelvis and the shoulder blades underlies the development of a strong core and enables the rest of the body to function efficiently. The correct muscles must be taught to hold for extended periods of time at a low level. Consequently all action starts from a stable core.

Conscious breathing – Deep, conscious diaphragmatic patterns of inhaling initiate any movement, help activate deep stabilizing muscles and keep you focused.

Core alignment – Maintaining a ‘neutral’ position (joints held in mid-position by deep stabilizing muscles) is the key to proper alignment, and this leads to good posture. You’ll be aware of the position of your head and neck on the spine and pelvis, right down through the legs and toes.

Co-ordination – Flowing movement results from brain and body working perfectly in synergy; the aim is smooth, continuous motion, rather than jarring repetitions. Pilates has a grace and elegance to its movement that comes from working ‘smarter’, not ‘harder’. Repetition is used to ‘cement’ good movement into your brain.

These principles are quite different from other forms of exercise such as an aerobics class, running, or a weights session. But, Pilates may greatly enhance the benefits of other kinds of exercise. For example, when you've learnt how to utilize your abdominals correctly to stabilize your trunk, even cardio- aerobic exercise like jogging becomes a path to more train your abs.

Using a stable 'centre' also enables one to more efficiently extend the limbs. Many of the flexibility problems we find in the physiotherapy clinic have an instability element that has to be resolved in order to stay more flexible and operational in the long run.

So there you have the fundamentals. But they only tell us a part of this narrative. If we're really going to understand that the Pilates notion and what makes it work, we will need to look at it with all the critical eye of science.

Has Fitness Pilates Lost The Plot?

Certainly some of what gym purports to offer taps deeply into the fundamentals of how people can improve, restore and maintain safe and effective movement patterns. Nonetheless, in its concerted effort to grow quickly as a business, fitness Pilates is in danger of becoming its own worst enemy. By denying its fundamental practices and practices, it loses all of its power to change, and consequently creates disillusionment, and at worst, injury.

I speak from experience: working as a physiotherapist in the sports and fitness business, I hear weekly about the harms created in Pilates courses by well-meaning instructors with upwards of 30 individuals in their care. The most frequent criticism is low-back pain related to forward bending (flexion).

A good example of this is an inflamed disc that creates pain and prevents full forward flexibility. Sitting becomes painful, and bending over or lifting could be even worse.

Yet I truly believe that, provided some basic keys, many individuals can (and do) unlock the door to the many benefits listed above. The keys they want are precision and specificity.

Key 1: Accuracy

Accuracy relates to how fitness Pilates is taught: the method, the environment, the context. The success of the system relies heavily on the careful education and monitoring of a client by a correctly trained teacher. The question must be asked: does the advantage of teaching 30 clients in a class outweigh the disadvantages of 50 per cent to 90 per cent of those participants getting it wrong?

From experience, I know that it can take up to 30 minutes of one-to-one attention and direction from me before a patient learns to isolate and activate the correct muscles for even one new movement pattern.

And then they have to practise it! When working with a motivated client, I find that their body takes what it has learnt in our Pilates session and may do things differently for a day or two, until old, bad habits (eg, sitting stooped at a desk for eight hours, or standing ‘lazily’ with a child draped across a hip) undo the good we achieved.

I believe one-to-one training must remain the basic initial learning tool for the Pilates method.

Key 2: Specificity

Specificity relates to what is being taught. We’re talking about the critical word in exercise philosophy here: you get what you train.

So, if you as a client are doing Pilates and strengthening the wrong abdominal muscle group, you will probably get good at tensing the wrong muscle, but never achieve correct stability. Or if you have not been shown correctly how to move around your pelvis in order to hold a neutral spine, your brain will learn an incorrect movement pattern and your body will be setting itself up for injury.

The greater the specificity, the greater chance of success with our goal to deliver true stability to our bodies.


The power of Pilates lies in the detail. The future credibility of the entire Pilates industry is dependent on not sacrificing specificity and precision, the two key elements that set it apart from other exercise fads and styles, and make it such a potent tool for anybody interested in keeping peak physical conditioning.

The information contained in this publication is believed to be correct at the time of going to press. Whilst care has been taken to ensure that the information is accurate, the publisher can accept no responsibility for the consequences of actions based on the advice contained herein.

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The information herein is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional, licensed physician, and is not medical advice. We encourage you to make your own health care decisions based on your research and partnership with a qualified health care professional. Our information scope is limited to chiropractic, musculoskeletal, physical medicines, wellness, sensitive health issues, functional medicine articles, topics, and discussions. We provide and present clinical collaboration with specialists from a wide array of disciplines. Each specialist is governed by their professional scope of practice and their jurisdiction of licensure. We use functional health & wellness protocols to treat and support care for the injuries or disorders of the musculoskeletal system. Our videos, posts, topics, subjects, and insights cover clinical matters, issues, and topics that relate to and support, directly or indirectly, our clinical scope of practice.* Our office has made a reasonable attempt to provide supportive citations and has identified the relevant research study or studies supporting our posts. We provide copies of supporting research studies available to regulatory boards and the public upon request. We understand that we cover matters that require an additional explanation of how it may assist in a particular care plan or treatment protocol; therefore, to further discuss the subject matter above, please feel free to contact us. Dr. Alex Jimenez DC, MSACP, CCST, IFMCP*, CIFM*, ATN* email: coach@elpasofunctionalmedicine.com phone: 915-850-0900 Licensed in: Texas & New Mexico*