I know that many people are not familiar with what Pilates theory and exercises are all about. “Is it like yoga?” is a question that I hear often, and although they are different in nearly every way, I do understand the confusion. Both of these activities focus more on body control, posture, and respiration than a lot of other exercise styles, but that is where the similarities end. Another strong sentiment that I seem to come across is (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Pilates is for girls”. Once again, I get it. It is far from the traditional “pumping iron” styles of resistance training that men have typically gravitated towards. But I thought that sharing my journey towards not just Pilates acceptance, but Pilates…um, let’s call it “invigoration”, might, at the very least, peak the interest of some guys looking for a change.
I grew up a “ball-sports” nut. Baseball was my favorite endeavor, as I played for St. Ignatius here in town (Go Wildcats!), but you could easily twist my rubber arm into participating in any pick-up football or basketball game going on. I have absolutely no experience with organized dance or gymnastics, unless you count a killer “Bernie” move that I have integrated into my wedding reception repertoire. Words like graceful, flexible, and fluid would never be at the tips of the tongues of my friends and family if they were asked to describe me. Exercise has always been a large part of my life, but even into my 30s, the modes that I used were like most guys – weight training, jogging, an occasional spin class, and, of course, p90x (still love that Tony Horton). And don’t misunderstand me - these are still very effective and useful methods of maintaining health and improving performance. My point is that, by all accounts, I was, from a wellness perspective, your stereotypical American male.
I was first introduced to Pilates in graduate school when I had the opportunity to take an elective course. My professor was a PT as well as certified instructor (my early inspiration!), and so her combination of classical Pilates teaching and clinical application really peaked my interest. I also noticed another thing while learning the repertoire: it was freaking hard! One could be easily fooled into thinking that, because of this fitness style’s intrinsic demand for control and precision, it is an easy workout. But my unstable hips, fired-up abs, and shaking hamstrings told me otherwise. As I began my career in therapy, I soon realized that I had an affinity for treating performing artists due to their extreme physical demands and lack of consistent care, and this population (dancers, musicians, actors, skaters, etc.) seemed to gravitate towards Pilates. Thus, I decided to “swan dive” (sorry, bad Pilates pun) head-first into a deeper understanding of this theory, and I am now a certified instructor, equipped to better help patients and fitness clients alike benefit from Joe’s original ideas.
But as is often said on a bad blind date, enough about me. Because we are a society that yearns for lists, I constructed the top 5 reasons why men should do Pilates:
1) Improves Flexibility: Men have a lot of things going for them physically, including the ability to form competitive bearding clubs and burp-based recitation of the alphabet. Muscular flexibility is typically not on the list. This is definitely my biggest problem, as my banjo-like hamstrings can attest. Though the therapist side of me thinks that stretching is very much an overrated part of rehabilitation plans (don’t get me started!), true commitment to a program can help to at least moderately improve resting muscle length. The Pilates repertoire often requires one to push the limits of flexibility through both static and dynamic exercises that encourage motion to the person’s “controllable” limit. So even though the thought of performing the Elephant or Saw still makes me break out into a cold sweat, I have learned to embrace rather than avoid these challenges in order finally achieve what many have been telling me for years: “loosen up, man.” You may not like Antonio Brown because of his team, but Pilates has helped him to develop some crazy skills on the field.
2) Improves Body Part Independence: As strange as it sounds, this is something that a lot of guys struggle with, besides that buddy who is able to “pop and lock” like a champ. What I am referring to is someone’s ability to move joints individually of each other. This may not seem like a big deal, but let me make my case. Each joint in the body was created and oriented to accept certain types and amounts of stresses. If these stresses are taken past their physiological limits, damage can occur in a slow, degenerative manner. As a therapist, I see this the most with neck-shoulder and low back-hip relationships. Pilates exercises put a huge emphasis on being able to move certain joints while stabilizing others. This can lead to significantly improved joint mobility and health. Plus, being a man that doesn’t walk, dance, and play like Frankenstein sounds somewhat refreshing, right?
Thanks to Pilates, Antonio Brown can give our Brownies hell twice a year.
3) Increased Control: So once you have body part independence, it’s important to know where the heck they are going. The term proprioception refers to a person’s perception of extremity orientation, or, more simply, the ability to know where your arm, leg, head or any other part of you is in space. Having good proprioception is vital for men to maintain good balance and effectively perform more complex motions, such as those associated with sports. Pilates exercises demand proper body positioning and challenge the participant to feel where several body regions are at the same time. And just as with multiplication tables, state capitals, and The Whip & Nae Nae, practice makes perfect. So the more you challenge your proprioception through Pilates, the better it will get.
4) A Little Grace Doesn’t Hurt: The words “grace” and “graceful” seem to have feminine connotations, but it would not hurt men to expand their horizons and try to snag a little. Intrinsic to the idea of grace are certain characteristics, such as fluidity and a lightness on one’s feet. I often use these descriptors when trying to get patients to go easier on their joints while jogging. Pilates motions are meant to be done smoothly, with one motion often seamlessly flowing into the next. Some of the exercises even have a ballet like quality to them, and, hey, didn’t that work for the ’85 Bears? So c’mon, guys, don’t be afraid to diversify your fitness routine and develop some grace. I promise that your “manliness” won’t take a hit. But be careful, because as Mr. Pitt so famously told Elaine, “You don’t want too much grace or you won’t be able to stand.” Oh Seinfeld, your wisdom knows no bounds!
5) Heightened Injury Prevention: What do you get when you add up improved flexibility ,body part independence, control, and just a touch of grace? A guy that has a lot less chance of both acute and chronic injury, that’s what. Commitment to Pilates will help create a body that is well-balanced, symmetrical, and real-world strong – all crucial components to avoiding problems. More specifically, those ever elusive “core” muscles will be as responsive and trained as ever, allowing you to put those worries of low back pain in your rear-view mirror – and wouldn’t that make you a rarity in the modern USA!
So gentlemen, take it from me. If you are looking for a way to face head-on all of your common physical deficiencies, Pilates may be the perfect addition to your (hopefully) regular fitness routine. And don’t worry. You can admit it if you actually enjoy it. You’ll still be the “The Man”, man.
David J Skrajner, PT, DPT