Pilates revamped

Pilates plank

Pilates Meets Tom Ford

Pilates is, to the exercise industry, what Tom Ford was to Gucci! A much-needed revamping of ideas (around focused movement, in this case). Disciples of Pilates can’t help but sound enthusiastic about it. Whether because it “fixed” their backs, they feel stronger for it, or they just love this style of exercise. What I appreciate about it is simple. It’s the unending attention given to form and control of movement. As a pedant, this is music to my ears!

Joseph Pilates developed the workout method in the early 1920s. He specifically presented it as “the art of controlled movement”. Given this, the focus is naturally on alignment, breathing, core (trunk) conditioning, coordination and balance. 

Core conditioning

He and I agree when it comes to understanding the importance of core work. Most people tend to think “core” refers to abdominal muscles, but this is wrong. The core describes all the muscles in the trunk that attach to the spine and stabilise it. It covers the muscles of the abdomen, lower back, and hips. The core’s job is to transfer forces between the upper and lower body. It therefore needs to be stable and strong.

Inside the core is an inner unit, or “drum”. I like the analogy of the drum being a car’s engine. This engine provides the power for the chassis (the limbs) to move. It explains why you’ll want to strengthen the engine before you strengthen the chassis. Pilates can offer you the perfect chance to do this. Despite being a fan, I have some issues with it (in the context of mat work). 

Function over comfort

The first is that it’s just not functional to spend time training while lying down! (Where – in your typical day – would you spend time on your back, front, or sides, flailing limbs around?) The term “functional” suggests a mimicking of some sort of everyday movement. Even opening a jar requires more than just arm or hand muscles. A functional exercise is one that employs more than one joint. It also has obvious carry-over to everyday activities. 

This is why I developed my hybrid functional Pilates mat strength work. My tendency is to employ a lot of standing and kneeling work. This way your spine, shoulder and hip joints stay switched on to maintain good form while moving. Whereas, when lying down, these can relax while limbs move about. Strong stabilising muscles reduces the risk of injury.

Adaptation needs challenge

The second issue I have with Pilates workouts is that they don’t follow strength training principles. Most people tell me they’re looking to tone and strengthen their bodies. To do this, we need to apply specific variables to any workout.


The first principle is repetitions (reps). If you’re aiming for growth in your muscles (tone and strength) aim for 8-10 reps. This means completing at least eight reps, but not more than 10-12. You’re looking to achieve “failure”. In other words you can’t perform another rep with good form. Failing at lower reps recruits more muscle fibres and builds muscle more effectively than the reverse. Anything higher than 12 reps and you’re in muscular endurance territory. The consequence is no significant size or strength change.


The second principle is sets – the number of times you repeat an exercise. A good set range is around 3. A muscle needs to be challenged in order to adapt. Doing more than one set will present an excellent challenge to the muscles. 

Rest periods

When building muscle we need longer recovery periods between sets. One to 2 minutes is ideal. If you don’t rest for long enough, you start to change your outcomes. (This is because different energy systems are used for strength vs endurance in muscles.) In this way, it’s good to alternate between upper and lower body work. We call this active recovery as you’re working another set of muscles while resting.


This is simply about how quickly or slowly one does an exercise. For our purposes, the slower the better since it keeps momentum to a minimum.

Mix and pour

For me the combination works extraordinarily well. I keep my classes short (30 minutes), but immensely effective due to using these principles. This means faster results in a shorter time frame! It also means less chance of injury, and more chance of motivation levels remaining high (a benefit that can’t be overestimated).

This combination is – in my opinion – the creme de la creme of workouts! Effective, efficient, safe, motivating and enjoyable. Join me and discover these benefits for yourself. Watch a 30-second “compressed” version of a class here. Watch more about the benefits here.

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