By Liz Brody
Los Angeles Times – Health
Monday, November 1998
This workout emphasizes strength through grace and flexibility. Oh, bythe way, it's pronounced puh-LAH-teez.
Two hundred and twenty pounds, 74 inches and 42 years of poor postureare rigged up with chains and springs, semi-suspended on a contraption that looks like itbelongs in a medieval torture chamber. It's actually Martin Sherman doing an exercise onthe "Cadillac" at a Pilates studio in Venice. The 42-year-old framing businessowner started Pilates training when other treatments for his chronic lower back painfailed, and in his view, it's thanks to this workout that he is now a picture of health."Before, I would always revert to my old way of living and strain my back again. NowI walk differently. I'm using certain muscles I've never worked before, and I'm more awareof my body so I'm not re-injuring myself."
If you haven't heard of Pilates yet, you will soon. Once known mainly todancers and celebrities, it 'is now coming to a neighborhood gym -even a YMCA-near you.Enthusiasts tout Pilates as a wunder-workout that slenderizes the thighs, and keepsthe body in youthful retrograde without too much punishment.
"I always leave the studio feeling energized, not tired; centered,not scattered. And taller," says actress Susan Dey, who works out at a Beverly HillsPilates studio that is also frequented by such stars as Adam Arkin, Stockard Channing andGina Gershon. Who wouldn't like an exercise program in which much of the conditioningtakes place on a sliding bed-like machine, known as the "Universal Reformer"?
Sorry, You Can't Just Lie There
But before you get too excited about lying down and waking up fit, bearin mind that there's no new magic here. You'll break a sweat, probably be sore afterwardand definitely have to stick with it to benefit. The quirky moniker (pronouncedpuh-LAH-teez) is actually the name of its inventor, Joseph Pilates, a German-born healthnut whose lifelong passion for physical fitness stemmed from an asthmatic childhood in the1880s. It was during World War 1, when he was thrown into an internment camp in Englandthat he began testing his oddball exercises on injured soldiers. For those who wereimmobilized, he rigged up their hospital beds with springs, creating resistance to helpthem regain their strength. From that experiment sprung the idea of the UniversalReformer.
Pilates went on to design several more spring-based pieces of equipmentwith adjustable straps and movable bars. When he brought it all to New York in the 1920s,such dancers as George Balanchine and Martha Graham literally jumped on it. It took anadditional 50 years for Hollywood to do the same.
"I remember Brenda Vaccaro going, 'What is this? Yoga inchains?'" says Michael Podwal, owner of Ron Fletcher Co. in Los Angeles, a Pilatesstudio that opened its doors in 1971. While Pilates was virtually unheard of back then,today there are about 300 facilities in Southern California that offer Pilates-basedworkouts and at least 1,000 instructors, says Joan Briebart, president of the PhysicalmindInstitute in Santa Fe, N.M. And the numbers are growing.
Coming Soon to a Gym Near You
"In the next six months, you'll also start seeing it in healthclubs everywhere. Like step and spinning, Pilates classes will just be part of theschedule," says Elizabeth Larkam, co-founder of Polestar Education in Miami a companythat trains fitness professionals in Pilates-style work-outs. The YMCA in PacificPalisades and the Sports Club/LA in West Los Angeles already offer Pilates classes.
What exactly is Pilates? It includes about 500 exercises, many of thembased on yoga and dance, designed to build long, supple muscles, improve posture andin-crease grace. Rather than lots of reps, each exercise is performed only a few times butwith intense concentration on form and precision. You can do them in a mat class or on theUniversal Reformer, which intensifies the workout by adding resistance.
When you sign up for a lesson on the Pilates equipment, you generallyexercise under the close supervision of a trainer -either individually, or with two tofour students at a time. On the Re-former alone, you lie, stand, kneel and sit while yourbody goes through a wide range of motion. Stretching while strengthening, you feelsomething like candy in a taffy pull. You also learn to work the body as one unit insteadof an archipelago of misbehaving trouble spots. No pumping or burning here; rather, theidea is to let your muscles sing smoothly as a Roy Orbison croon.
"The springs afford progressive resistance," explains KenEndelman, president of Current Concepts, a Pilates equipment manufacturer in Sacramento."When you start a movement, the resistance is almost zero; as you extend, theresistance may get up to 25 pounds. That's totally different from lifting a weight stackwhich never changes." Because We face constantly changing weight loads in real lifethe springs help build a more functional kind of strength, Endelman says. Pilates is alsohighly personalized, which is one big reason for its popularity. Watch Martin Sherman'strainer, Anne Sotelo, at work: She's reading his body like a grocery scanner ("alittle imbalance in the leg muscles," "one hip higher than the other ... .. somescoliosis") adjusting the workout to concentrate on his weaknesses, guiding him toget in touch with how he's moving.
"The internal awareness of how you're performing the exercise ismore important than seeing how buff you get from doing it. That will come later," says Sotelo, owner of Soma Syntax Studio in Venice. "It's really not about fittinginto some spandex dress. People walk out and say, 'I'm more graceful, my posture isbetter-Wow, I have no pain!'"
Experts say the benefits range from helping the average exerciser negatethe pitfalls of a favorite sport (untwisting the corkscrew of a golf swing before ittweaks. The back, for example) to perfecting the performance of an elite athlete. "Ifdone correctly, Pilates corrects known underlying flexibility imbalances, and by havingnormal flexibility around the joints, you're less likely to pull a muscle," says Dr.Carol L. Otis, chief medical ad-visor for the Corel Women's Tennis Assn. Tour.
All-Over Conditioning, Low Risk of Injury
Century City internist Dr. Ronald Sue says Pilates works the body in abalanced way. Because each movement uses many major muscle groups, it is an efficient formof exercise. A big advantage of Pilates conditioning is that people with painful physicalconditions can still use the apparatus. Several physical therapists are using Pilates torehabilitate people with arthritis, osteoporosis and other conditions. Sue says Pilates isa good way to get in shape without risking injury if you have joint disease or arerecuperating from surgery.
One thing Pilates isn't is a weight-loss technique; because it's notaerobic, it won't burn fat. If you want to look like Gina Gershon in"Showgirls," you'd probably be better off praying for reincarnation or a greatcosmetic surgeon. Any honest trainer will tell you that. "Slim tummy, long legs? Thiswill get you toned, but it's not going to make your legs long," says Zod Hagler, whoruns a studio in Pasadena.
Moreover, like any fitness regimen, Pilates requires persistence andhard work. "You can't just lie on the Reformer and expect miracles to happen,"says Hagler. "It's not something you go to sleep on."
Despite its "gentle" reputation, many say a Pilates workoutrivals any other. "Your legs can be quivering as you go down the stairs, "saysPilates enthusiast Bob Tzudiker. Some may also quiver over the price. Pilates classes canrun from $40 to $75 for a private one-hour session. At the recommended two to threesessions a week, that can run as much as $900 a month -out of the range of most fitnessbuffs.
Pilates, however, is getting cheaper. Home versions of the Reformer,designed to be used with videos or books, now cost as little as $350. But can you learnPilates with-out a trainer? Many say no. The skill of the trainer is also said to make aworld of difference. You could actually injure yourself, says Otis, if you have loosejoints and your instructor isn't aware of it and over-stretches you. Ironically, just aswe learn to pronounce "Pilates," trainers may have to start calling it somethingelse. A New York Pilates studio owner, Sean Gallagher, has sued a number of other Pilatesbusinesses, claiming they are unlawfully using the name to market their products orbusinesses. Gallagher says he obtained exclusive trademark rights to the Pilates name in1992 and is trying to bar others from using the name without his permission. Severallaw-suits are pending.
Frankly, most devotees don't really care what it's called. "I wantmy back to take me well into the 21st century. I do not want to wheel into it,"Martin Sherman says. "I have to do this."