There are 6 key principles that form the basis for Pilates. Whether you are new to Pilates or have many years of experience these basic principles are the foundation of good practice.  If you bear these in mind every time you work out, your practice will become infinitely more effective and over time you will find these principles become second nature, not just in your Pilates practice, but in your daily life.

The first 3 principles are what I consider the most important and call Pilates’ A,B, C.

The first is Alignment. Precise, mindful execution of the movement and perfect alignment is the key to effective Pilates. When we talk about alignment, we are talking about how you position your body both when you are still and when you move. One of the reasons this is so important is that if our body is out of alignment it places enormous strain on our joint, ligaments and muscles and has a detrimental impact on the way we move. 

One of the main goals of PIlates for the Over 50s and Pilates for Riders is to improve your proprioception (awareness of where your body really is in space) and thus improve your alignment.

The next is Breathing. Breathing is obviously essential for life, and something we obviously all do. Unfortunately very few of us really breathe efficiently. Two of the most common poor breathing habits I see are just breathing into the upper chest and/or holding your breath. The latter is particularly common in riders who are stressed or students struggling to do an exercise. Both in Pilates and while riding we should breathe laterally (into the sides of our ribs), which enables us to keep our core engaged as well as move. 

Synchronizing the breath to the movement is another key of Pilates. Normally we inhale as we extend our body and exhale when we flex, rotate or bend. However it is important not to get hung up on breathing patterns, remembering to breathe is far more important than when. The correct patterns will sort themselves out over time.

The third of the 6 Keys is Centering – or as I tend to refer to it, Core Stability. Whilst neither of these terms were used by Pilates himself, all of Pilates movements are powered from the “powerhouse”, which is how Joseph Pilates referred to the core or centre.

Core stability is being able to stabilize and control different segments of our body as needed. Having stability gives you a strong and secure, but not necessarily still base of support from which all Pilates movements are initiated. To achieve this we have to train our core muscles. 

But what are our core muscles? They are the basically the corset of muscles that make up our entire central unit, including our pelvic floor muscles, abdominals, obliques, the muscles in our lower back and our gluteals (muscles in our buttocks).

The principal of Centering is not just a physical concept; it also involves a mindful connection to your body as you move. If you are “centered” mentally while you move, you will become more focused and more aware of what is happening in your body. With greater focus, you will move with more accuracy and have better alignment.

The next 2 key principles are control and concentration:

Control – Control enables you to become more aware of where your body is in space (proprioception)  and to work targeted muscles effectively. It is important to move with control rather than letting momentum take over. This applies to all movements, whether they are slow or fast. In fact, Joseph Pilates called his original system Contrology and said “ Contrology begins with mind control over muscles”. Which effectively brings us to Concentration.

Concentration – Pilates requires deep focus on your body, or as Joseph Pilates said “complete co-ordination of body, mind and spirit.  Concentrating on the movement will help you become more centered and able to move with greater control. You need to think about the movement you want to make rather than what you are going to cook for dinner. If you’re working the body, your brain should be engaged too!  But, a lot of people want to tune-out instead of tune-in to what they’re doing while they’re moving and this can make any workout a dangerous affair.  If you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing, the muscles that you’re using, how your body feels or even how tired you are and whether it is safe to continue, there’s a good chance that your “good workout” will cause a strained or even a pulled muscle.

The final key principal is Mobility or as it is sometimes listed, Flowing Movement. Pilates improves mobility by establishing sound movement patterns rather than just stretching tight muscles. It is worth remembering that when a muscle is tight, there may well be a reason for it, it could be down to injury, postural habit or lack of stability around the joint. Pilates exercises incorporate stretching by using one muscle group to stretch the opposing muscle group.

We should also aim to move fluidly. Long term each exercise should flow seamlessly into the next. The transitions between the exercises are then as important as the exercise itself as they encourage you to maintain core stability and alignment. When you are finally able to run through a workout with flow and easily connect one exercise with the next, you will really start to feel the benefits of Pilates in your everyday life.

For a Pilates course covering this topic please click here.

Core stability is one of the 6 key principals of Pilates, although that particular term was not originally used by Joseph Pilates himself – who tended to use the word the “powerhouse” to describe the corset of muscles around the waist that supports the spine. 

Basically all movement in Pilates flows from a strong centre and is therefore powered from the core. It is really important to remember that the core is not just our rectus abdominis muscles (commonly known as the six pack) but, as already mentioned the corset of muscles that make up our entire central unit, including our pelvic floor muscles and all the muscles that stabilise the spine, pelvis and ribcage.

Strong core muscles make it easier to do many activities, such as ride a horse well, swing a golf club, get a glass from the top shelf or even bend down to tie your shoe laces. Weak core muscles can leave you susceptible to a whole plethora of muscle injuries. 

A strong core is therefore essential for our health, as it is responsible for our posture, our balance and our stability whether we are in the gym or just going about our daily life. In fact, most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles. A strong core can also help prevent lower back pain or problems with the hips and knees.

The wonderful thing about Pilates is that it is relatively easy to strengthen your core. You don’t need specialized equipment or have to go to a gym, you can do all the exercises at home!

There are a multitude of exercises that target one or more specific muscles but some of the best core exercises are those that work with the entire muscle group. 

Full details for one of these exercises are shown below but for a full Core workout please click here

Bird Dog

The Bird Dog is  a classic exercise for developing the powerhouse as it engages both the abdominal and back muscles at the same time. The main target of the Bird Dog is the erector spinae muscle group. This group of muscles extends along the length of the spine, on both the right and left sides, from the base of skull to the sacrum. It is responsible for extending, flexing, and rotating the spine. The Bird Dog  also involves the gluteus maximus (the largest of the muscles in your butt), which is engaged when you raise the leg. In raising the arm, you use your trapezius muscles in the upper back and the deltoids of the shoulder.

In addition to the muscles already mentioned, the oblique and abdominal muscles as well as the hamstrings on the back of the thigh and the other gluteal muscles (medius and minimus) are involved in stabilising the position. 

  1. Start on your hand and knees in an All-4s Position, with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Draw your belly button in towards your spine, starting at the pelvic floor and zipping up towards your spine. 
  2. Then lift your left arm and your right leg off the floor. You may need to practice lifting one hand and the opposite knee just an inch or two off the floor while balancing on the other hand and knee and keeping your weight centered. 
  3. When you feel steady and ready to move on to full range of motion, point the arm out straight in front and extend the opposite leg behind you. You should form one straight line from your hand to your foot, keeping hips squared to the ground. If your lower back begins to sag, raise your leg only as high as you can while keeping your back straight.
  4. Hold for a few seconds then return your hands and knees to the starting position.
  5. Increase the difficult of the exercise by doing 10 small pumps of both the raised arm and leg.
  6. Swop diagonals.

Almost everyone these days has heard about Pilates, how it’s the exercise of choice for celebrities, how it will give you a flatter stomach, better posture and a longer, leaner, stronger body. But is Pilates really something that you can start in later life? When you’re over 40 or 50 or even 60 or more!

The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. It is never too late to start Pilates. Pilates is a safe and effective exercise method for both your body and mind. A good instructor will help you to improve your strength, flexibility and overall mobility. Pilates done regularly improves your posture, alignment, suppleness and balance and even changes the way that you move.

To paraphrase Joseph Pilates, if at 60 you are supple and strong then you are young, it you are stiff at 30 you are old. Although Joseph Pilates never really received recognition in his own lifetime, now some 50 or so years after his death many doctors are recommending Pilates to people to help them lose weight and become fitter or to help relieve aches and pains caused by age or injury. And they are making those recommendations because Pilates works!

Although the principles of Pilates are simple, developing your core strength, moving with flow and control, and becoming aware of your body, they can take a while to learn. If you’re experienced in Pilates doing regular classes or following an online course is a great way to keep up your fitness levels. However if you’re new to Pilates, you may well have concerns as to whether it will be too hard or demanding for you. You may also have mobility issues and feel that you can’t kneel or get down on to the floor to do a mat class. If mobility isn’t an issue then you can simply start with a basic Beginners course or class, which will help you slowly develop your strength and suppleness.  If however, you have restricted mobility then you will need to look for either a seated (or standing) Pilates online course or class that is geared specifically to help those with limited  range of movement or suppleness or find an instructor who will be happy to help you modify the basic exercises.

Whatever level of fitness or age you are, if you are going to follow an online course or do an online class, which are the only options available to us at this time, I would strongly recommend you find one where you have access to some support by the instructor. “Pilates at Home” offers online support to all monthly and annual subscribers through a private Facebook group. Don’t hesitate to use that facility – it is there to provide support, ask questions, seek clarification or even ask for modifications of exercises to suit you.

As we grow older most of us start to find we are feeling the odd twinge here or there, we are a little stiffer in the morning, and we start to notice that aren’t as strong as we once were. Sometimes this rude awakening comes at 40, sometimes its 50 and sometimes we are even older – but the ageing process catches up with all of us.

Throughout our lives we tend to move in certain ways, which is why we can recognize someone we know from a long distance, we recognize their movement. Habits and postural patterns emerge due to lifestyles, or because of injury. Every time we move to do something, we will tend to do it in exactly the same way – think about crossing your legs or carrying a handbag. This is basically because certain muscles are switched on in a particular way, which doesn’t matter when we are younger, as we tend to move in a natural and efficient way. However, as time goes by and the years pass our movement patterns change, certain muscles become weaker – very often because of an injury – and other muscles learn to compensate for them. This causes imbalances in our body and leads to poor alignment, asymmetry and poor posture. And it is this poor alignment that leads to wear and tear over time. Wear and tear on our joints often cause chronic back or neck pain or may require us to need a replacement knee or hip.

Doing Pilates regularly can make major differences and enable us to counter some of these problems. And whilst Pilates is not the panacea of all ills it helps create greater body awareness and improves both our strength and flexibility.  Standing exercises on one leg and side or IT Band stretches can help improve balance and proprioception and thus help prevent falls. Back extension exercises such as Dart or Swan help counter years of sitting hunched over a desk by strengthening upper back muscles and exercises that strengthen our core help support our spine.

As Joseph Pilates, the founder of the movement, said “if your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30 you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”

I certainly know that I need to do Pilates on a regular basis otherwise I start to stiffen up and ache and I know that my students have all reaped the benefits of regular Pilates classes.