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.
J.H. PILATES AND BEYOND
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):
CONCENTRATION AND CONTROL
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
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.
SHOULDER GIRDLE STABILISATIONS
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.
HEAD AND CERVIAL PLACEMENT
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.
PROGRESSING FROM MATWORK TO EQUIPMENT
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,
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.
PICKING UP THE PACE
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.
BEYOND THE MIND-BODY BENEFITS
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
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.