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STOTT PILATES for Optimal Performance
By Moira Merrithew as published in FIT-PRO MAGAZINE, December 1998

Do not let the internal focus, movement precision and deep breathing lull you or your clients into thinking that pilates-based exercise is only for rehabilitation patients or those suffering the ill effects of too many high-impact aerobics classes. It need not be. Nor must it be restricted to exercises performed slowly on a mat. The fact is that the mind-body exercise system, pioneered by the late Joseph Pilates (1880-1967), is ideal for both strengthening the weak and challenging the strong. The exercises can be progressed beyond the mat to incorporate specialised equipment, all at a pace that would rival any high-energy fitness class.


German expatriate, Joseph Pilates, first made his mark in England during World War 1 when he developed a series of exercises and innovative equipment to help prisoners of war regain their strength and mobility. On emigrating to New York, his conditioning techniques, which achieved and maintained both strength and endurance whilst conserving long, even muscle tone, were adopted by the professional dance community there. Today many clubs and trainers have incorporated pilates-based mat work into their classes and clubs. A full appreciation of Pilates' work and its potential requires an understanding of the underlying principles and the vast repertoire of essential, intermediate and advanced level exercises performed on both a mat and specially-designed equipment.

At STOTT PILATES, an internationally recognised training and certification centre, we teach professionals from around the world a contemporary, anatomically-based approach to the full repertoire of J.H. Pilates. We begin by reviewing the basic principles, as well as important enhancements and modifications we have made to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the technique. Building on this foundation, students learn the wide variety of exercise variations they can use to customise programmes for their clients.


The following key principles of STOTT PILATES, evolved from Pilates' original tenets and should form the basis for any pilates-based routine (or any fitness routine for that matter):


Pilates said, "The most important thing is not what you do but how you do it". In other words, movement quality and control is more important than quantity.


Although Pilates emphasised the importance of strengthening the body's core abdominal and gluteal muscles, he considered a flat spine the most desirable way to achieve this. As with modern physiotherapy, the STOTT PILATES technique emphasises stabilisation of the spine in a neutral, rather than flat position to restore the natural curves of the spine and prevent or relieve back problems. STOTT PILATES exercises are designed to strengthen the deep abdominal muscles, spinal extensors and rotators. Importance is also placed on strengthening the deep shoulder girdle muscles. When lying down or standing, the pelvis should be in neutral, i.e. not tucked under (as in a pelvic tilt), nor arched back.


Exercises are performed with precision and care. The breath should initiate the movement, followed immediately by contraction of the abdominals and then movement of the peripheral limbs. Pilates originally worked the body as a whole, focusing primarily on flexion of the spine (bending forward) with extension (bending backward) introduced only in advanced level exercises.

He paid little attention to re-balancing the muscles around a single joint. With strong emphasis on correct body placement, STOTT PILATES incorporates earlier extension of the spine to strengthen the back extensors and focuses on re-balancing the muscles around a single joint to allow the body, as a whole, to work more precisely and hence more efficiently.


While it is important to start slowly to make sure you are aware of each movement, exercises should be performed at an even tempo, never holding a position, but keeping it fluid to avoid building up tension or boredom. To improve physical and mental endurance, speed should be increased but not at the expense of control.


Pilates encouraged deep, full breathing to keep the blood cells oxygenated. During the effort phase of an exercise, he encouraged inhalation. The STOTT PILATES approach more closely emulates a natural breath pattern, which in turn helps with concentration and control. Normally the ribs roll slightly forward and the spine slightly flexes on an exhalation therefore, more often than not, we suggest an exhalation on flexion of the spine or at the point of exertion. When we inhale, the ribs roll backward and down whilst the spine slightly extends. Hence, in most exercises, an inhalation is suggested during spinal extension. An awareness of the diaphragm moving downward during inhalation and the rib cage expanding to the back and sides as much as the front should be cultivated.


Contracting the abdominal muscles is not enough. Incorporating definitive stabilisation of the shoulder girdle, and an emphasis on proper neck placement before the initiation of each exercise, can help prevent neck and shoulder injury and complement rehabilitation. The feeling should be one of gently sliding the scapula down the back, especially during arm movements, but without forcing them, as this causes them to round forward, creating tension in the upper trapezius.


As opposed to pressing the chin to the chest as Pilates taught, which puts pressure on the intervertebral discs, STOTT  PILATES emphasises cranial vertebral flexion. Lying supine on a mat, this is achieved by slightly dropping, not cramming, the chin, to lengthen through the back of the neck (without lifting the head off the mat), then contracting the abdominals to flex the upper mid-back, head and neck off the mat.


Any time the legs are fully extended, attention should be paid to supporting the knee joints and tracking the patella properly. Working the legs in correct alignment, and using the vastus group of quadriceps, ensures this and helps with injury prevention and rehabilitation.


Once clients understand the basic principles of the work and have begun to develop body awareness, strength, stability and proper breathing on the mat, they are ready to progress to exercises on the STOTT PILATES Reformer. These exercises build upon the mat work and are similarly labelled according to level of difficulty; essential, intermediate or advanced. The stabilisation and co-ordination learnt on the mat is challenged by adding spring resistance. Strength and neuromuscular co-ordination is improved by being able to use the reformer in a variety of positions. Other pieces of STOTT PILATES equipment such as the Cadillac, Chairs and Barrels help facilitate deeper body awareness and provide ultimate versatility for any body type or condition.

Performing exercises using the equipment will help refine musculoskeletal strength, mobility, flexibility, co-ordination and balance whilst maintaining and further developing core stability. In fact, it is on the equipment that most clients gain a full appreciation for the relationship between torso stability and peripheral mobility.

These obvious benefits are heightened by the fact that the majority of reformer exercises strengthen both the concentric and eccentric contraction of the muscles. This, combined with an ability to work the whole body without stressing the joints, is particularly attractive for those involved in sports or activities where muscular control and injury prevention is key. Of course, the benefits are not lost on clients who simply want to perform everyday functions, such as bending over to tie their shoes, with ease.

One of the most significant advantages of combining STOTT PILATES matwork and equipment-based exercises is that we are able to focus on muscular imbalances that may have occurred due to injury, postural problems or over-training, but without stressing the injured area. Many athletic injuries are due to the muscles not firing as they should and by adding resistance, whilst maintaining the basic principles, the muscles can be trained systematically to work together more efficiently.


As most fitness professionals will attest, clients who reach a high level of fitness need and want to be continually challenged. As people advance from essential to advanced level exercises performed on various pieces of STOTT PILATES equipment, exercises become more three dimensional and complex, with the emphasis still being on maintaining torso stability as the limbs are exercised. To achieve optimal musculoskeletal strength, flexibility, co-ordination and endurance, exercises should flow from one to the other without compromising technique.

One of the many benefits of the advanced work is that you can customise a routine for a very fit client, such as a trained athlete, by incorporating positions and movements required in their particular activity or sport and working with them to stabilise the torso and use appropriate muscles efficiently. This in turn helps clients increase control and performance while minimising the chance for injury, which usually occurs when people lose control or become oblivious to improper muscular patterns or posture.


As the neuromuscular and musculoskeletal benefits become more widely understood and appreciated, the market for exercise evolved from J.H. Pilates continues to grow among health and fitness professionals, athletes, dancers, celebrities and the general public.

For STOTT PILATES-certified instructors and studio owners, like Suzanne Scott, director of the Scott Studio in Castle Cary, Somerset, England, business is booming because clients can see and feel the results of their efforts. For fitness clubs, being able to provide clients with a safe, effective, in-demand and profitable method of exercise makes tremendous sense. For health professionals who are incorporating therapeutic pilates-based exercise into their practices, the proof is in the patient's improved mobility and well being. As for football players, runners, skiers, hockey players, fitness professionals and enthusiasts, improved performance and injury prevention equates to a longer career and better quality life.

This article has been reproduced by kind permission of Fitness Professionals, Europe's largest association for exercise professionals: 113 London Road, London, E13 0DA ENGLAND tel: 0990 133434 fax: 0181 586-0685

Moira Merrithew is the Programme Director for STOTT PILATES Studio AND International Certification Center in Toronto, Canada, which she opened with her husband. In 1993 they founded STOTT's equipment division, a worldwide manufacturer of equipment based on the teachings of Joseph Pilates. Moira is a former professional dancer with London's Ballet Rambert and City Ballet Toronto.