Update 6/25/2011: These days, as part of teaching beginning skaters how to brake, I show them how to engage their core to improve their upper body stability. All it takes is one strong exhalation to feel the muscles that need to be involved.--Liz
I have been excited about the results of my Pilates workouts for several months now. Surprising fitness improvements began to appear just six weeks into the beginner's program I found in the book The Pilates Body, recommended by one of my students. It was only a matter of time before my compulsion to share resulted in this article!
Pilates (pronounced "puh-la'-tease") is a method of body conditioning developed in the early 1900s by German-born Joseph Pilates. His focus was training the body to perform its daily tasks with alignment, flexibility and strength. Today, Pilates workouts range from coaching sessions on special Pilates machines to mat exercises anybody can do at home. Each Pilates move is stabilized by the "powerhouse:" engaging the muscles of the abdominals, lower back, hips and buttocks from deep inside the body as the limbs are moved. Once I learned that posture, the lightbulb turned on in all my workouts!
Coincidentally, fellow certified skating instructor Michael Rissman discovered a way to build strength from the inside out about the same time I did. I decided to try his skate-specific training on a Precor elliptical machine at my local gym simply because his description is all about engaging the deepest spinal and torso (core) muscles. In Pilates terms, that is known as engaging the powerhouse. In addition to Michael's techniques, I decided to do my stepping with absolutely no up and down movement and no grabbing onto the frame. This way, not only do I achieve a skate-like leg and cardio workout, I'm also improving both my balance and core strength with each transfer of my weight from foot to foot.
My combination of various Pilates exercises along with the Precor training resulted in noticeable strength and stability gains not just in my skating, but also on skis and in doing the upper body strength poses of Yoga. After skiing a challenging slope ahead of me last winter, Dan coined a phrase that hit home: "I felt like a viscous fluid flowing smoothly down the hill!" That phrase now surfaces every time I experience solid, centered stability while my arms and legs are working hard.
I think everybody should add a core strength focus to their workouts. Here are just a few of the reasons I've logged so far:
- Easy to do and learn
- Easy to incorporate into other fitness activities such as weight training and Yoga
- Increases lean (not bulky) strength
- Strengthens internal stabilizers around spine and hips
- Improves stability in all movement
- A more stable spine reduces back pain
- Enhances all sports performance
- Adds body and limb awareness
- Results expand over time: strength builds strength
- Stabilizes, tones and strengthens sides of torso as well as front and back
Although Michael and I have written about our impressions of the Precor Elliptical Trainer and Pilates methods to build core strength and balance, there are other ways to gain some of the same benefits, including:
- Swiss ball exercises and sitting
- Lying on a Styrofoam tube while working arms and legs
- Balancing on rocker and wobble boards
- Hiring a coach (physical therapist or personal trainer)
If this article interests you, be sure to read Dan's related fitness article from June 2001, Get a Little Balance in Your Life. You might also enjoy the About.com article No More Crunches -- A different way to strengthen your abs by Paige Waehner.