Joseph Pilates was the pioneer of this wonderful practice which he referred to as ‘Contrology’. He called it this because he believed the mind should strengthen and control the body: that mind and body were interlinked and should move as one, using his six original principles of concentration, control, centre, flow, precision, and breathing as a basis for his techniques.
It is the mind itself which controls the body
It is a method which is hugely successful for improving flexibility, increasing strength, rehabilitating injury, developing control and endurance, and improving coordination and balance. Prior to developing his techniques, Joseph researched and practised every form of exercise he could, combining Western and Eastern ideas and concepts about physical health and mental wellbeing. He was a great advocate of yoga, tai chi and meditation, and also a huge fan of boxing, bodybuilding and gymnastics. Check out ‘An introduction to Pilates’ on True Relaxations for a more detailed account of Joseph and his life history, how he developed his methods, elaboration on the six essential principles, and how to approach five basic mat exercises.
Apparatus & equipment
The apparatus he developed were designed to increase and accelerate the methods that are often commenced in a Pilates mat class:
- body alignment
- stretching and toning
- strengthening the body and core
It is definitely possible though, even recommended by some, to begin with apparatus classes without ever having done a mat class: indeed, when Joseph began to develop the techniques in a hospital when he worked as a nurse during his war-time internment (he was interned as a German enemy alien), he used bed coils, bands and straps which provided resistance for muscles and assistance in the rehabilitation of injured and sometimes totally bed-bound patients. Says Barry Vardy of Pilates York in York, the UK:
You would ideally start using the apparatus. It’s the most authentic way to do Pilates.
So you could choose which might be better for you – this decision will be based on a number of factors: practicalities such as availability and access, and of course price – a group mat class will certainly be cheaper than a one-to-one apparatus class. As long as you keep bearing in mind the six principles and apply them to all your movements, you will get the absolute best out of whichever type of class you choose.
There are numerous exercises that may be carried out on this wonderful piece of equipment which is suitable for seemingly endless parts of the body, which is why this first piece of apparatus developed by Joseph Pilates was originally called the universal reformer; because of its potential universal application; it covers a really broad range of exercises. In appearance, it is similar to a bed-frame. It was originally made from wood, but is now often formed of plastic and aluminium, or even a combination of all three. It has springs attaching the ‘carriage’ (the slidy bit you either lie on or stand on!) to what is known as the footbar at the end (although the hands can of course be placed on the footbar!!) These springs (sometimes four, sometimes five) vary in resistance strength, and can be adjusted in gradient according to the level of the practitioner. Green is ‘heavy’, red is ‘medium’, blue is ‘light’, and yellow is ‘very light’.
It may seem at first that a heavier spring will mean a tougher workout. However, this is not necessarily the case. When tension is low, for example if you’re using a red and a yellow, or even a blue and a yellow, you’ll soon find that those core muscles will need to working incredibly hard in order to retain that all-important principle of control. You’ll be sliding all over the place, which could be dangerous, if you cannot successfully recruit your powerhouse on the reformer. For this reason, it will be better for a beginner to have stronger springs with more resistance attached to find their balance and assist the muscles in finding the correct positions. However, a stronger intermediate or advanced level practitioner may use a spring with a lower resistance, thus engaging their core more fully. Exercises on the reformer are all about mobility and stability.
On the other hand, an intermediate to advanced practitioner may also up the resistance in some exercises should they wish.
This photo shows the ‘long stretch’, the first in the ‘Long Stretch’ series (funnily enough), which cultivates strength in the lower body – the feet are attached to the carriage in every exercise. The series runs as follows:
- Long stretch
- Down stretch
- Up stretch
- Long back stretch
To be honest though, as long as you’ve warmed up and are fairly loose and limber, you could take any of these and perform them singly. I like the ‘up stretch best’, as it takes the traditional plank position and strengthens it, testing and tightening the muscles that little bit further. It’s a fabulous exercise that really tightens the core and the abdominals and loosens the hamstrings, and is a wonderful flowing exercise once performed correctly.
It requires the head to be bent slightly further towards the chin than seen in the long stretch photo, and the back should be slightly rounded.
- Place your feet on the shoulder rest as shown in the photo
- Place your hands on the footbar
- Inhale and press the carriage out, moving into a plank with a slightly rounded back and chin tucked in a little
- Pull in your abdominals and flex the spine
- Slide the carriage up towards the footbar,
- Exhale and raise your hips UP (up stretch!)
- Inhale and return the carriage to the plank position
The Wunda Chair is amazing. It’s compact, challenging and always interesting. As is the case with all the apparatus, there’s a multitude of exercises you can do. I love the pull up – that’s pretty hard, but I’m getting stronger…! The photo shows part of the step-up, which is great for the legs, particularly the calves, the buttocks, thigh and foot; you’ll definitely feel the burn after doing this! You’ll need to balance and lunge against the resistance of the spring that attaches the ‘seat’ of the chair to the pedal, and will find your lower limb strengthened and toned.
- Bring the pedal all way to the floor and place one foot on it; the ball of your foot.
- Place the other foot onto the chair, ensuring that your heel is all the way on the chair, not hanging off.
- Lower the heel on the pedal slightly and inhale.
- Exhale to lift the heel from the floor and rise up on the pedal.
- Lower the foot back down with CONTROL.
- Repeat 5 times then change legs.
Note that it is easier to do this exercise initially with your hands balancing you. When learning, you can put the Wunda Chair close to the wall and use it for balance. Ideally your arms will be free when you’ve gained strength.
Cadillac aka Trapeze table
There is, again, a plethora of exercises available for you to do on the popular Cadillac.
Here we can see a roll up – it can be performed on the mat and also on the Cadillac. On the mat, it can be one of the most difficult exercises to do without jerking or dropping down suddenly. On the Cadillac, when your hands are holding the springs, it can add resistance to assist you in eliminating that jerkiness, and can also add resistance to provide extra work for the arms.
In case you’ve got the money and the space in your home, this reformer with an optional cadillac by AeroPilates is one of the best on the market.
I absolutely love the ladder barrel – my teacher often puts it at the end of a class when my muscles are all stretched out and I’m extra flexible, and I feel very balletic when running through a series of exercises.
The standing back bend is a wonderful stretch for anyone, particularly someone who spends a lot of time driving, sitting in front of a screen, or standing for a long time.
It feels amazing to open out your front and stretch your back, and your shoulders will also benefit as you take hold of the ladder.
- Face away from the barrel and place your sacrum against it, feet a little more than hip-width apart. I find a little tuck of the buttocks helps avoid any niggles in the lower back as I’m moving backwards.
- Gently begin to move your spine back over the barrel, trying to feel every articulation.
- If you can, take hold of the top rung of the ladder. This will become easier as you become more flexible and you will soon be able to lower further to the second rung.
- Feel the stretch down your front and your back muscles contract.
- Now lift your arms and gently rise up and round forward, again feeling every articulation.
- Now do a slow, gentle and controlled roll-down to the floor, without locking the knees.
- Repeat 3-5 times
So these are just four pieces of apparatus, and a mere four exercises. There are so many more to do, so many to benefit from and so many to love! You really will leave an apparatus class feeling aligned, calmed and centred, both in body and in mind. Enjoy it!
Claire King is a copywriter and translator based in York, the UK. When she’s not reading, writing, or doodling ads, you’ll find her practising Pilates or enjoying some top-notch comedy!