Is Pilates group class safe and effective in the gym?

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backache

Have you attended a pilates mat class in the gym, and felt that your back was aching more than your abdominal muscles? Although you felt your abs were worked, you felt more back and neck strains after class. Your hip flexors might also be overworked and felt really sore the next day. However, your physiotherapists advised you to attend pilates classes to strengthen your core. You followed his or her advice but you were in more discomfort than before.

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“Being a Pilates Instructor is about observing closely and being able to explain to clients what they need to do in ways they can understand”
– Alan Herdman
(A former dancer and teacher at the London School of Contemporary Dance, a world-renowned Pilates expert)

I am a pilates mat instructor for close to 20 years. I agree with Alan Herdman that your client might not understand if you ask them to “engage your core muscles”…they might not fully understand what core muscles are. Instructors might have to use visual imagery or physically touch the muscle to set muscle memories. Most importantly, your clients must be able to understand you.

Core Muscles Anatomy Words Of The Week - Human Anatomy Diagram
Core Muscles Anatomy Words Of The Week – Human Anatomy Diagram (Photo credit – www.human-anatomy101.com)

Please also note that pilates is not a cardio exercise, meaning that it doesn’t burn fat cells, but it can help to tone your muscles and shape parts of your body, making you feel stronger and taller as you progress. I do suggest clients to go for 1 hour of cardio like swimming, jogging, dancing or other cardio classes. Switching pilates and cardio every other day to get the optimum results of your health and body shape. The emphasis of a good pilates session is on quality (rather than quantity) of movement. It is not on how much you can sweat but on how well you can apply the principles of pilates into each and every exercise.

In Stott Pilates (a contemporary approach to the original Pilates method based on modern principles of exercise science and rehabilitation), there are 5 basic principles:

  • Breathing
    (helps to prevent unnecessary tension)
  • Pelvic placement
    (stabilization of the pelvis and lumbar spine (lower back) in either a neutral
      or an imprinted position)
    pelvic placement neutral (natural curve of spine)
    imprint imprint (contract abs and imprint lower spine to mat)
    (photo credit – www.merrithew.com)
  • Shoulder Stability
    (prevents strain in the neck and shoulders)
  • Ribcage placement
    (enhance awareness on the alignment of the thoracic spine)
  • Head and neck placement
    (paying attention to your cervical spine and avoid straining)


I started off teaching in a gym where we had as many as 30 students in a class. Currently, there are still many gyms that offer pilates classes and squeezing in 30 members or more with no strict enforcement of the class levels. 

How safe is it to practise pilates in the gym? I will say that it is NOT safe at all if you are suffering from a back pain or even mild neck strains. These pilates classes are catered more for people who are reasonably active, have good awareness of body alignments and have no prior or current injuries. I will label them as “able bodied”.

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The other group of students that are in the “danger zone” are the people who have no physical pain or old injuries. However, they have NOT been exercising for a long time (1 year and longer) and have no prior experience in any dance, yoga or pilates exercises. They normally attempt to imitate the instructors’ movements as much as they can. Many new students also like to place their mats further away from instructor as they did not want to be embarrassed if they are not able to execute certain exercises; which is really not ideal for the instructor to help you. In this open level classes in the gym, instructors will normally give variations for the exercises, as the culture in the gym is to “sweat it out” This is where “newbie copies neighbour” syndrome happens, these new students will attempt to practise the exercise with no awareness of the basic principles eg. they will arch their lower back just to hold in a certain position. In many supine positions (lying on your back) exercises with both feet off the mat, if you turn your head to “check out “ your neighbour, high chance that you are going to strain your neck and lose focus on your core, causing strain on your back.

‘With the celebrity endorsement of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Pippa Middleton, Pilates is a popular way of keeping toned and slim with good posture,’ says Priya Dasoju of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. ‘But its popularity means it’s sometimes looked at as nothing more than a gym class, which isn’t necessarily good for those with back problems. Traditional Pilates incorporates exercises that can be challenging — particularly if you have an existing back problem. Indeed, even if you carry them out correctly, they can put excess strain on the spine and surrounding muscles.”

says Priya Dasoju of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (article from daily.co.UK)

If you are a newbie in the gym, you want to explore the following.

  • Which are the pilates classes that are catered for beginners?
  • Go to a off-peak pilates class. Classes in the early morning, late afternoon or early evening can be smaller in number of students. This allow the instructor to give you enough attention to guide you properly.
  • Find out who are the instructors that are very experienced and good with beginners. They are able to correct your posture or correct your alignments. There are instructors who are very skilled in demonstrating the exercises but are not able to put themselves in the shoes of the beginner students.
  • Read up on the basic principles of pilates or watch a video to help you understand much better before you step into your first class.
  • Find time to talk to your instructor before the class so that her or she is aware that you are new and can advise you accordingly.

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If you want to be safe and gain clear understanding of the fundamentals of pilates, invest in a short course on workshop for pilates absolute beginners. Sometimes, we might not be able to invest long term in an expensive course or membership; with good foundation, you will be quite safe when you practise in bigger group classes or in the gyms. You make good decisions to not overstrain yourself when executing higher level of exercises.

People with back pain or other strains, I do not recommend that you go to the regular classes in the gym. You should go to a private one-on-one class or a small group class of not more than 6, focusing on rehabilitation.

5 key points to assess your pilates instructor in the gym

  • did he or she find out if anyone has any injuries before the class starts?
  • were the pilates principles clearly explained or instructor jumped right into the exercise routine?
  • were there enough variations for different bodies?
  • did the instructor move around the studio to make adjustments for the students?
  • did he or she spare some time to chat with new students after class?

There is a reason why the pilates studio are charging higher for their mat classes. Their teacher- student ratio is smaller (probably about 1: 8 or lesser). There is a high focus on safety and class levels are clearly labeled. New clients are definitely in better hands. We must understand that Pilates is not a cardio workout. Instructor must be able to do a general postural analysis and offer variations in the exercises for optimum benefits.  If done correctly, you can strengthen your core muscles effectively. Yes… and that also means that you will have toned abs and longer muscles. However, if you go to the pilates class in the gym for rehabilitation? It is not safe until you are very familiar with the exercises in a smaller group classes and are applying the basic principles of pilates for all exercises.

moira-natalia
(Photo Credit – www.merrithew.com)

Enjoy your pilates classes and you can get your 6 pack abs if you practise mindfully and watch what you eat. Have a great practice!

 

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Carol Cheong is a pilates and dance instructor for close to 20 years.
She had been a flight attendant and dance studio owner in her 20s and 30s. Now, she adopts the yogic lifestyle and loves connecting with her students through movements and breath. She launched an elective course (Pilates and Yoga)  in the university in Singapore and her dance choreographies are frequently featured on national TV station in Singapore. [www.ompulence.com]

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