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What Are Pilates Exercises?

By Andrea Cespedes

You may be familiar with Pilates mat exercises that combine classic dance, yoga and core-training exercises to work what Joseph Pilates deemed your "powerhouse" -- the hips, abdominals and back. Along with the body-weight exercises, Pilates created an apparatus known as the "reformer," which consists of a gliding platform, springs and pulleys so movement can be done in a horizontal plane even by those lacking the strength and control to do movements on their own. At a Pilates studio, you may also encounter other specialized equipment, including the cadillac, wunda chair and ladder barrel, that Pilates developed to meet the particular needs of his trainees.

A Wartime Method

Joseph Pilates emigrated to the United States in the 1920s, after developing his exercise methods in Europe. Born in Germany, Pilates was an asthmatic child who was often bound to his bed. As a result, he developed a strong determination to become healthy with physical exercise. When World War I broke out, he was in England and found himself interned in a camp for German nationals, where he taught fellow prisoners wrestling and a system of exercises he deemed "contrology," which look like the classic mat Pilates classes taught today. He was later transferred to another camp where worked with bed-ridden internees and designed contraptions with springs and pulleys attached to the beds so that these injured and ill folk could gain benefit from his exercise system. The intention was to build a foundation of strength in the muscles and joints so they could rehabilitate faster.

Reformer Work

All exercises performed on the reformer, the wooden apparatus that's been derived from Pilates' bed contraptions, are done in a reclined, seated or kneeling position. Reformer work consists of more than 100 exercises, all of which target the central axis of the body -- or the muscles, joints and connective tissue that lie between the shoulders and the thighs. The exercises aim to hone range of motion as you engage the abdominals and back muscles; they are progressive, meaning they build upon one another. You'll also be taught a specific breathing method, in which you inhale through the nose and then exhale through pursed lips -- as if breathing out through a straw -- to perform during all Pilates work.

Sample Movements

While on the mat, you may perform exercises such as the abdominal series, which consists of the single-leg stretch, double-leg stretch and crisscross variations, as well as roll-ups, teasers and leg circles. Variations of these exercises may also be performed on the reformer while attached to straps, pulleys and springs -- increasing the precision of the movement. The pulleys and springs also create resistance, which can make the reformer version of exercises more challenging. But, reformer exercises are infinitely modifiable and thus appropriate for all levels of participant. They're usually taught in a small group session, or one on one, with a certified instructor.

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Specialized Equipment

The cadillac is another contraption designed by Pilates and is sometimes referred to as the trap table. It consists of a table with which various springs and straps are attached, forcing you to work your arms, legs and trunk against tension to build strength. The wunda chair was Pilates’ answer to what he perceived as the harmful effects of modern chairs, which negatively affect the body's balance. This contraption, modeled after boxes used for stunts by Chinese acrobats, is quite specialized and is used once a participant has graduated from introductory mat and reformer work. The ladder barrel consists of a ladder-like apparatus attached alongside a rounded, padded arch. You use the ladder barrel to perform challenging abdominal strengthening moves and to improve spinal flexibility.

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