Is Pilates a bit, you know, girly? A kind of ballerina yoga where you prance around in, God forbid, tights, doing a few tummy-pulling-in exercises that are too easy for men anyway?
The answer – as many men have come to understand – is no, of course not. Trawl the Internet for ‘men and pilates’ and you’re bombarded with articles about how football and rugby players, boxers, weight lifters and other sportsmen, amateur and professional, are turning to Pilates to improve their performance. Men committed to gym workouts are also beginning to see Pilates as an essential, complementary, activity.
Improving your competence in a sport is for many people the main driver towards Pilates, but it’s not limited to sports or fitness fiends. If you’re a couch potato (especially if you’re a couch potato) attending regular Pilates classes will probably be the best decision you’ve made in a long time. If you spend your time hunched over a desk, wouldn’t mind if all gyms were forbidden by law, and at best kick a ball around from time to time, sooner or later your body will start to broadcast areas of annoying discomfort, or nagging spots of pain.
So what’s so magical about Pilates and what does it do that a session at the gym doesn’t?
The gym can be an excellent way of keeping fit and/or bulking up, and is often a key part of any fitness regime. ‘Part’ being the operative word. Treating the body as a bundle of isolated units can be dangerous. Focusing on one group of muscles whilst ignoring others can lead to stiffness, weakness in some areas and an imbalance that can easily lead to injury, something that sports professionals have long recognised.
The central principles of Pilates is to increase the strength, flexibility and control of the body. It recognises the body as a holistic system with everything – muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and connective tissue – connected together. It works not only the major muscles, but also on the muscles that are commonly forgotten in the gym, such as the deeper intrinsic ones that support the whole body and keep it in alignment. It looks at improving the flexibility of muscle groups as well as their strength – flexible muscles means less risk of pulling or tearing – and at increasing the strength of the core stabilising muscles. Evidence suggests if you’re strong in the core you can lift heavier weights, be it Dumbbells in the gym or that box of books you have to get down from the attic.
And it’s not necessarily easy. In his entertaining article ‘Pilates for Meatheads’ (www.mensfitness.com/training/pilates-meatheads) Brandon Guarneri, a self styled ‘Meathead’ ‘fairly obsessed’ with training at the gym, describes the sharp transition, at his first Pilates session, from complacency to amazement at how difficult and challenging he found the exercises. “One 45-second movement and I couldn’t tell if I was going to make it” he says. He concludes that this wasn’t because he was doing anything outrageous or impossible. “It was just that Pilates worked my muscles in a way that they aren’t used to being worked.”
Brandon Guarneri is talking about working on special equipment at a Pilates studio, of which there are many to choose from. A cheaper alternative is Matwork Pilates, which incorporates all the movements and exercises of a Studio but without the machines.
Both types are highly recommend if you want a body that works for you rather against you. And you won’t have to wear tights, promise.