This workout uses equipment with springs and straps and names like “the Reformer.”
The exercises include lying on a bed attached to springs and pushing to straighten the legs — like a squat, only lying down — or circling the legs in a bicycle movement while they are attached to springs.
It might sound a little scary, but Pilates has become quite popular as a way to strengthen core muscles. It’s not about getting six-pack abs, though, or the number of reps you can do. It emphasizes quality over quantity.
“It’s very slow and targeted. It’s not like going in the gym and barreling through a workout,” said Kathy Meyer of Champaign, a neuromuscular therapist who has done Pilates for five years.
Pilates is a system of exercises done both on a mat on the floor and on several pieces of spring-based equipment, with the springs providing resistance. The exercises aim to stretch and strengthen the deep abdominal muscles, glutes, hip rotators, inner thighs and back — the core muscles referred to in Pilates as “the powerhouse.”
“Pilates is really working muscles you can’t see,” said Noel Chase, a Pilates instructor and owner of Ascend Pilates studio in Savoy. “The first thing that happens with Pilates is it brings an awareness to your body that you didn’t have before.”
It’s about learning how to move from the core of the body rather than the extremities. She said many people, including runners and other athletes, rely on large muscle groups such as their quadriceps or hip flexors to move. As a result, those muscles might become very tight and pull the pelvis and spine out of alignment.
Pilates can help stabilize the pelvis and core muscles, and help people use their abdominal, gluteal and inner thigh muscles to support themselves. Chase said that will result in less fatigue and fewer injuries.
Bill Dey of Champaign, who is a runner, started Pilates in January to help correct a muscle imbalance in his legs. His left leg is considerably stronger than his right, and long runs left his right hip extremely sore.
Chase said many people are unbalanced — from carrying groceries or a baby on one side, for example — although Dey’s is more noticeable than most. She works with Dey on alignment and symmetry of his legs and pelvis. For example, one exercise has him lying on his back and circling his legs while stabilizing his back, keeping his stomach in and glutes tight, and using his hips to extend his legs.
“It takes awhile to get those little muscles to obey you, because you don’t really isolate them very much in day-to-day life,” Dey said. “It’s communicating with muscles I normally don’t talk to.”
One of the first things Dey noticed after starting Pilates was that his posture improved and he was more aware of how he sits and walks.
“You’re most efficient when your body is balanced over your feet,” he said. “In longer races, I tend to hinge forward at the hips. It tends to put a lot of stress on the lower back and legs, and it’s a lot less energy-efficient.”
A noticeable improvement in posture is fairly common, Chase said.
“People might comment that they feel taller, they feel longer. Their posture is better. It takes a lot of core strength to sit up tall,” she said.
Dey ran his first ultramarathon in two years in mid-April — a hilly 50K trail run in Pennsylvania — after taking time off to heal a calf injury.
“It went very well. It wasn’t blazing fast, but I had a really good run,” he said, adding his hip still bothers him from time to time, but Pilates is helping.
Meyer has worked with Dey and recommended he try Pilates. Her therapy involves working with soft tissue to lengthen it and release tension that is causing pain. To maintain the work she’s done, she recommends clients find a flexibility and strength program to address what is causing the pain.
“I’ve seen the benefits of Pilates in combination with another type of bodywork like what I do,” Meyer said. “I see that firsthand from my clients ... and how much quicker they improve when they do the two together.”
She started doing Pilates herself five years ago to help relieve hip pain.
“I always thought I was pretty fit and aware of my body,” said Meyer, who has been working in athletic training for nearly 30 years. “When I started Pilates, I realized how much I was missing. It’s very targeted and very specific, and that way it’s strengthening the weaker muscles where you might not be doing that on your own.”
Meyer, who is a runner, cyclist and tennis player, said she has built strength and flexibility and she has less pain now when she does those activities.
“What running does not do is target very specific muscle groups,” she said. “It’s wonderful for the heart and lungs, but it can be hard on the joints. As runners, we need to strengthen the muscles around the joints, and to do that, we need to do something outside of running. Pilates is one of the ways you can do that.
“I just love how individualized it is,” she continued. “That’s what drew me in, how it fits each person’s specific needs.”
Photos: Noel Chase works with Bill Day at Ascend Pilates in Savoy. Photos by Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette.