On Pilates and Core Strength


As the author of The New Rules of Posture, you might think I’d be a paragon of deep abdominal core strength. Sadly, not true. In fact, shortly after the book was published I was beset by an embarrassing bout of low back pain—a sure sign of low toned abs. And this wasn’t the first such episode—I’d been plagued by a back that “went out” pretty regularly for 15 years. Because I’ve been a proponent and practitioner of Rolfing© Structural Integration, I continued to assume that the pain was due to misalignment, and that more structural bodywork was what I needed. But I also saw the occasional chiropractor. During the bout mentioned, the DC gave me a sacral belt—a wonderful contraption that cinched my sacroiliac joints together, imitating the work that my abs should have been doing. While the belt greatly diminished my pain, it was demoralizing to wear when teaching my “new rules of posture” classes. I wasn’t walking my talk! Finally it occurred to me that the Pilates work I recommended in my book might actually be the ticket for me. About this time an old friend happened to send me a photo of myself in 1965. I’m wearing my favorite dress of all time and I probably weigh about 110 lbs. But you can see my under-active belly, right through the linen. Looking at that photo, I was looking at a life-long habit.

After a year of occasional private Pilates lessons and some mat classes, I can absolutely testify that Pilates can save a life. And, my enthusiasm prompts me to share a few observations and caveats about Pilates. It isn’t for everyone.

First of all, because Pilates has become such a household word, you should know that not all schools that train Pilates instructors teach the same thing. It’s important to work with teachers who understand that the deep core muscles can best be accessed when the lower back maintains a neutral curve, that is, when there is a slight space between your lower back and the mat when you are lying on the floor. This understanding was not part of Joseph Pilates’ original teachings, but has been embraced by teachers who have kept up with recent research into low back pain. See Australian researchers, Carolyn Richardson, et al.

Second, I recommend 8 to 10 private sessions before attempting a mat class. The work looks much easier than it is, and in the natural impulse to “keep up with the class”, it can be easy to perform the exercises imprecisely. This can result in your not accessing the correct abdominal muscles, or worse, injuring yourself. I asked my private instructor to spend our sessions teaching me the mat class exercises. That meant we spent hardly any time on those sexy-looking machines. But you can’t take a machine home with you for practice.

Finally, I recommend Pilates especially for those people who have the lethal combo of low back pain and under-active abs. If you’ve always had a little “pouch” that you couldn’t get rid of, no matter how careful you are with food, that might be you. The downside of Pilates is that strength-building takes precedence over coordination and flexibility. For people who are already strong but lack fluidity and grace, I believe there are better ways to spend your workout time. Just as a steady diet of carrots can turn your skin yellowish, a steady diet of Pilates-only workouts can promote a stiff, muscle-bound appearance.

© 2012 Mary Bond