As with all safe and effective exercise, Pilates can be adjusted in intensity move by move to suit the participants.
As instructors, we have the skills to manipulate moves in various ways. When we think of increasing intensity in other forms of exercise, we think of ways to make participants go faster, harder, stronger. However, in Pilates, we already spend so much of our time encouraging good technique that the goal is often just to get it right.
A lot of participants (through no fault of their own) just aren’t getting what they are supposed to do in Pilates. It’s our job to spread the word. Observe. Correct. Be passionate about technique. Make sure they are getting it right and they will feel the difference. They will feel the intensity massively increase from when they were lying on the floor waving their legs around willy-nilly to now when they are lying on the floor in neutral spine (which they can find and correct themselves) keeping their hips level (which they are constantly checking with their hands and correcting when they need to), engaging their transverse, pelvic floor and breathing (which they can do all of at the same time). When they really have to concentrate on their One Leg Circle and the stability of their core while they perform it, then it becomes Pilates. So you could ask yourself how you can increase the intensity of your Pilates classes and you know the answer – be a real stickler for technique and take no cheating, no matter how accidental it may be. Pilates is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Think about who it was aimed at originally. Of course it’s hard for your participants. That’s great!
True story – I used to personal train a stunt man – a real-life ‘jumping out of buildings in a ball of fire’ stunt man. You really never know where your Pilates journey will take you! Anyway, he was an ex-gymnast and a martial artist, so of all the people I have ever taught, he was technically almost perfect on every move I gave him. I progressed him through exercise by exercise, layering and finding his level as we went, as even though he had amazing core strength, balance and flexibility we are using it in a different way and the skill of Pilates still needed to be learned. Week by week we adjusted the time he was performing each exercise (slowing it down some weeks to engage and hold for longer and speeding it up other weeks to move through the range of movement more times). We also changed his lever length by extending his arms or legs to put more pressure on his core to stabilise as per normal progressions of exercises. Then there was the additional element of gravity. As he was physically able to perform Jack Knife with precision, flow, concentration, centering, breath and control, then the anti-gravity options of Scissors, Bicycle and controlled balance were available to us to increase the intensity. Although he was supremely fit in many disciplines, he always commented that Pilates made him work like nothing else and he was always shattered at the end of a session. I suppose the difference between him and a lot of other clients is that he had body awareness and core stability so he knew if he performed a move with good technique. So to teach him was a dream. He found it so hard because he was doing it correctly, which brings us back to our usual classes. Yes, we can make moves harder by adjusting the time, lever length and gravity, but we should start with technique.
Cardio exercise in Pilates would really be a long way off for most of our clients. Rumour has it that Joseph used to walk around his mat Pilates room banging a stick on the floor (1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… 8… 9…) and control the speed of the exercises, sometimes making it quite quick. There is every possibility that in these circumstances it may have raised participants’ heart rates enough to be considered cardio exercise. However, he only taught dancers and gymnasts and only taught mat Pilates to those who could successfully complete the moves on the reformer and other equipment. Given that almost all of my clients are not of this standard (nor are they aiming to be) then I would consider it safer and more effective to teach them the moves at a level they can do well, with good technique and control, forfeiting the associated benefits of cardio exercise but gaining the amazing benefits of Pilates.
Written by Heather Oakes