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The Power of Pilates

This workout emphasizes strength through grace and flexibility. Oh, by the way, it's pronounced puh-LAH-teez


Two hundred and twenty pounds, 74 inches and 42 years of poor posture are rigged up with chains and springs, semi-suspended on a contraption that looks like it belongs in a medieval torture chamber.

It's actually Martin Sherman doing an exercise on the "Cadillac" at a Pilates studio in Venice. The 42-year-old framing-business owner started Pilates training when other treatments for his chronic lower back pain failed, and in his view, it's thanks to this workout that he is now a picture of health.

"Before, I would always revert to my old way of living and strain my back again. Now I walk differently. I'm using certain muscles I've never worked before, and I'm more aware of my body so I'm not reinjuring myself."

If you haven't heard of Pilates yet, you will soon. Once known mainly to dancers and celebrities, it is now coming to a neighborhood gym--even a YMCA--near you.

Enthusiasts tout Pilates as a wunder-workout that slenderizes the thighs and keeps the body in youthful retrograde without too much punishment.

"I always leave the studio feeling energized, not tired; centered, not scattered. And taller," says actress Susan Dey, who works out at a Beverly Hills Pilates studio that is also frequented by such stars as Adam Arkin, Stockard Channing and Gina Gershon.

Who wouldn't like an exercise program in which much of the conditioning takes place on a sliding bedlike machine, known as the "Universal Reformer"?

Sorry, You Can't Just Lie There

But before you get too excited about lying down and waking up fit, bear in mind that there's no new magic here. You'll break a sweat, probably be sore afterward and definitely have to stick with it to benefit.

The quirky moniker (pronounced puh-LAH-teez) is actually the name of its inventor, Joseph Pilates, a German-born health nut whose lifelong passion for physical fitness stemmed from an asthmatic childhood in the 1880s. It was during World War I, when he was thrown into an internment camp in England that he began testing his oddball exercises on injured soldiers. For those who were immobilized, he rigged up their hospital beds with springs, creating resistance to help them regain their strength. From that experiment sprung the idea of the Universal Reformer.

Pilates went on to design several more spring-based pieces of equipment with adjustable straps and movable bars. When he brought it all to New York in the 1920s, such dancers as George Balanchine and Martha Graham literally jumped on it. It took an additional 50 years for Hollywood to do the same.

"I remember Brenda Vaccaro going, 'What is this? Yoga in chains?' " says Michael Podwal, owner of Ron Fletcher Co. in Los Angeles, a Pilates studio that opened its doors in 1971.

While Pilates was virtually unheard of back then, today there are about 300 facilities in Southern California that offer Pilates-based workouts and at least 1,000 instructors, says Joan Briebart, president of the Physicalmind Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. And the numbers are growing.

Coming Soon to a Gym Near You

"In the next six months, you'll also start seeing it in health clubs everywhere. Like step and spinning, Pilates classes will just be part of the schedule," says Elizabeth Larkam, co-founder of Polestar Education in Miami, a company that trains fitness professionals in Pilates-style workouts. The YMCA in Pacific Palisades and the Sports Club/LA in West Los Angeles already offer Pilates classes.

What exactly is Pilates? It includes about 500 exercises, many of them based on yoga and dance, designed to build long, supple muscles, improve posture and increase grace. Rather than lots of reps, each exercise is performed only a few times but with intense concentration on form and precision. You can do them in a mat class or on the Universal Reformer, which intensifies the workout by adding resistance.

When you sign up for a lesson on the Pilates equipment, you generally exercise under the close supervision of a trainer--either individually, or with two to four students at a time. On the Reformer alone, you lie, stand, kneel and sit while your body goes through a wide range of motion. Stretching while strengthening, you feel something like candy in a taffy pull.

You also learn to work the body as one unit instead of an archipelago of misbehaving trouble spots. No pumping or burning here; rather, the idea is to let your muscles sing smoothly as a Roy Orbison croon.

"The springs afford progressive resistance," explains Ken Endelman, president of Current Concepts, a Pilates equipment manufacturer in Sacramento.

"When you start a movement, the resistance is almost zero; as you extend, the resistance may get up to 25 pounds. That's totally different from lifting a weight stack which never changes." Because we face constantly changing weight loads in real life, the springs help build a more functional kind of strength, Endelman says.

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