Pilates Reps — Why So Few?

Remember back in high school when your trigonometry teacher asked you a question after lecturing for an hour on the applications of the Pythagorean theorem? That familiar dread as you admitted to the whole class that you weren’t paying attention? The knowledge that, even if you liked the subject, its delivery had been repetitious, boring, and ineffective, leaving you completely ignorant of the beauty of a simple equation?

It might help to think of your normal gym workout as a boring math teacher. We’ve all experienced the dread of the gym — not because we don’t enjoy physical fitness, but because we become bored, under-stimulated, and unmotivated by our repetitious workouts. Oftentimes we include so many repetitions of that same bicep curl or lunge that we become dreamy and unfocused, our muscles sore and tired, our bodies out of alignment rather than invigorated and centered.

A sloppy or forced workout creates a barrier between the mind-body connection, rendering the results of a workout less effective as we go about our daily lives. Nobody wants to be sore in the checkout line of the grocery store or too muscle-fatigued to grab a late meal with friends. Rather, we want to feel strong, able to shine in every activity we undertake. Here’s where Pilates comes in. Because Pilates relies on the balance and focus of fewer repetitions to achieve overall fitness, you’ll feel a whole-body integration throughout your day.

Joseph Pilates wrote, “Contrology [his original name for Pilates] is not a fatiguing system of dull, boring, abhorred exercises repeated daily ad-nauseam.” You won’t catch yourself yawning or tearing muscles during a Pilates routine, because Pilates uses a variety of exercises (around 20-25 for beginners) that build on and flow into each other with fewer repetitions (an average of 5-10 reps). Based on the six major Pilates principles, these targeted movements with low repetitions can only be beneficial.

  • Precision. Joseph Pilates said to “honor every movement,” meaning that every single movement within an exercise requires integrity of purpose.
  • Concentration. Bringing one’s entire attention to each exercise exponentially raises the benefit of the exercise because it keeps the whole person engaged in the activity at hand.
  • Breath. Proper breathing actually enhances each movement by oxygenating the blood, thereby increasing circulation and flexibility in the body. Proper breathing, then, requires fewer reps.
  • Control. Control is about the awareness we feel in connecting our minds (concentration) to our bodies (movement). Control utilizes mental fortitude and bodily awareness, which reduces the risk of injury because you know what your body is experiencing.
  • Centering. Pilates concentrates on proper alignment and core strength that radiates to our peripheral muscles. People with injuries on one side of the body can benefit from centering because healthy benefits radiate from the core and have a positive effect on both healthy and injured sides of the body.
  • Flow. Each movement should be fluid, almost like a dance. Exercises are woven together with seamless transitions. Variety in a Pilates workout maintains overall symmetry and grace.

In his book, Pilates, Rael Isacowitz writes, “Pilates encapsulates the concept of ‘less is more’ (quality versus quantity), which holds the key to deeper work and enhanced performance.” Active people can’t afford to be laid up with the soreness, stiffness, and muscle fatigue of an unbalanced workout. Nobody wants to ignore overall fitness because of injuries. Certainly nobody wants to be bored at the gym! Pilates’ low repetition/high awareness system ensures success on every level.

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Pilates Works for Pro Athletes If you're a sports fan, you've probably heard of beach volleyball's Olympic power-duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. And if you've seen them play, you've no doubt marveled at their grace and power on the sand. Both athletes embody the combination of strength, balance, and endurance it takes to be a world-class competitor. What you might not have guessed is that both May-Treanor and Walsh include Pilates as part of their training routines. When The New York Times asked May-Treanor how her workouts differ from, say, yours or mine, her answer: "You'd be surprised. I think people think we do a tremendous amount of exercises that are completely different from what the general population can do. It's not true. I think athletes in general have to be a little more disciplined and get our work in."So, if you're asking why an athlete -- someone in prime physical condition already -- needs to add Pilates to his or her routine, it's because athletes don't just saunter onto the golf course or jump into the pool. There are hours and hours of behind-the-scenes workouts involved in high-level athletics. There is discipline.A growing number of disciplined athletes, from LeBron James to Olympic diver David Boudia, are taking what they learn in the Pilates studio into their sport. Here's what a Pilates workout, tailored to each individual athlete, can accomplish:Build core strength from shoulders to knees to propel the body with fluid, controlled motion. Think about a swimmer's ability to cut through water with as little splash as possible. This comes from a stable core.Align the spine, enhancing balance and stability. Joseph Pilates said that a young spine equals a young person. Spine health is integral to proper sports techniques. Runners need to be as upright as possible to achieve maximum results. Balance is key. A tennis player must be able to teeter on tiptoe while returning a shot.Prevent injuries. Tight, short muscles are more prone to injury.  Pilates lengthens muscles and strengthens tendons and ligaments. Those explosive drives to the basket that LeBron is so famous for? If his muscles weren't long and lean, he'd tear something new every week.Rehabilitate injuries with workout modifications, depending on type and severity of injury. Many injuries are caused by misalignment. Baseball players, for instance, always hit and throw on one side, leaving the other side of the body to compensate in potentially damaging ways. Pilates can rebalance those issues by using controlled movement in exercises that accommodate, not exacerbate, an injury.Integrate. Joseph Pilates said that Contrology (his own term for his exercise method) was the complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit. If you are an athlete, you know that sports are more than simply physical. The mental and emotional fortitude an athlete must develop can actually be cultivated in the Pilates studio through concentration and controlled movement.Pilates for Busy People (All of Us?) It's a given in our world: We are busy people. With 40-hour-a-week jobs, presentations to give, children's carpool lines and after-school activities, meals to prepare, bills to pay, cars to get fixed, houses to clean, laundry to fold -- you get the picture -- there's little time left to think about ourselves, our bodies, the way we move through the world. What if there were an activity you could fit into your busy schedule that would not only help you to stay in shape, but carry its benefits into your daily life, boosting your energy, confidence, and stamina so that you don't collapse in a heap on the bed after a full day?Well, there is! Even one Pilates studio session per week will leave you feeling invigorated, stronger, and more sane so that you can be your best self all week long.  Because the Pilates method requires focused attention, deep breathing, and whole-body engagement, busy people (let's face it, we're all busy) will reap its benefits. The mind-body connectionWhen Joseph Pilates said, "A body free from nervous tension and fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well balanced mind, fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living," he was explaining how the Pilates method affects daily life. With regular Pilates practice, students become more aware of posture, breath, and core strength. Whether you're writing a memo at a desk or cooking dinner, you will begin to feel the proper way for your body to move throughout the day, a knowledge that retrains the mind to expect alignment and health. Frequency of workoutsExperts say that no matter what exercise you try, it's optimal to engage in it two to three times a week. The same is true for Pilates. Joseph Pilates said, "In 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 you will see the difference and in 30 you will have a whole new body." Consistency of practice is important: Once a month at the Pilates studio will not only be less beneficial, but you'll get frustrated that you can't remember what you learned in your previous sessions. Workouts are designed as building blocks from beginner to advanced fitness levels. As they engage different levels of concentration -- from proper breathing, to specific muscle groups, to the flow from one exercise to another -- it's important to find a regular routine. Once a week will give you a boost. Two or three times a week will garner greater, and faster, change. What else can I do?When you can't get to the studio, what else might you do? Many Pilates instructors actually give their clients homework, often consisting simply of conscious practice in proper posture and breathing. Ask your instructor what you can do throughout the day to maintain your workout's benefits. You'll be surprised: You may not even have to leave your desk!Adding aerobic exercise is also beneficial -- even taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood after dinner can get your blood pumping, as will a jog. Adding stretches to your morning or before-bed routine can keep you aware and limber. Remember, physical exercise isn't just for people who don't have kids, careers, or lives outside the gym or studio. It's important for all of us to stay in physical, mental, and emotional shape so that our busy lives can feel enriching versus constantly exhausting. Pilates is an excellent way to bring your workout home with you, and to train your body to expect its benefits throughout the day.