Pilates Anatomy

Chapter 10

Customizing Your Pilates Program

It is time to practice! Consistent practice is essential to reap the rewards of Pilates, and a well-structured program is key to maximizing gains from each session. You must consider many factors when customizing a program to your needs. Certain factors may change daily, while others remain consistent. Factors to be aware of are body type, past injuries, medical restrictions, age, gender, fitness level, and movement skills. Choose exercises wisely to maximize benefits and minimize the risk of injury.

There are different approaches to structuring a Pilates program. Joseph Pilates had a very specific sequence of the exercises he devised, a sequence still used by some people today. Other approaches have only a remote resemblance to Joseph Pilates’ classic sequencing. It is particularly challenging to apply standard scientific principles of program design to a full-body Pilates mat program because so many of the exercises center on the powerhouse, the core of Pilates. However, structure is important to promote muscle balance, logical progression, and flow and continuity; in addition, structure offers an environment for creativity.

An important issue to consider is whether the program has a bias toward muscular strength or endurance. A program with an endurance bias will entail relatively high repetitions with lower resistance. (In mat work, resistance is provided by body weight and gravity only, unless small apparatus such as circles and bands are introduced.) In contrast, a strength-based program will use fewer repetitions of a particular exercise, but the load on the muscle will be greater, and the muscle that is worked to the point of fatigue must be allowed to recover for 2 or 3 minutes before being worked again.

The frequency and duration of a session are influenced by many factors, including your current fitness level, skill level, health, and schedule. When starting, it is generally recommended that you do 2 or 3 workouts of 20 to 60 minutes each per week. As you become more proficient, you can perform longer workouts, up to 90 minutes, more frequently. Remember, it is preferable to do a short session than no session at all. If you have limited time, are working hard, or are traveling, don’t forgo your routine, just shorten it.

The sample programs shown in tables 10.1 (page 194), 10.2 (page 195), and 10.3 (page 196) use a sequencing that will encourage the development of muscular strength for some exercises and muscular endurance for others. Realize that certain Pilates exercises are designed primarily to develop important coordination skills, such as spinal articulation and core stability. The overload to the muscles in these exercises is simply insufficient to offer much potential strength benefit, and so these exercises can be readily interspersed between exercises that have more of a strength bias to offer active recovery time.

The programs in tables 10.1, 10.2, and 10.3 incorporate elements from each chapter: foundation, abdominal work, spinal articulation, bridging, sides of the body, and back extension. It is good to begin an exercise session with a general warm-up that includes movements to increase the internal body temperature and moderately elevate the heart rate, such as brisk walking or calisthenics. Follow the general warm-up with a specific warm-up of foundation movements described in chapter 4. Think of the specific warm-up as a series of movements that prepare you for the specific movement demands of the workout that follows. The warm-up prepares not only the body but also the mind. It offers an opportunity to transfer the focus from outside to inside, to bring awareness to the work and set the tone for the session.

Abdominal work is an important part of the program and a key element for a strong and well-functioning powerhouse. Abdominal work is complemented by spinal articulation. In Return to Life Through Contrology, Joseph Pilates wrote, “If your spine is inflexible at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young”. Bridging exercises, which often use the hip, back, and shoulder extensors, provide necessary balance. Foundation (warm-up) and abdominal work use primarily the flexors, so bridging exercises are a welcome change in both muscle focus and direction of motion. Alternating from flexion to extension and vice versa is a consistent element in the work of Joseph Pilates. Exercises for the sides of the body are important for all activities, whether everyday, recreational, or professional. Finally, back extension should be included in every program, if at all possible. The importance of this category cannot be overemphasized and has been discussed in greater depth in chapter 9. Modern society, with all its wonders, has led to certain postural and alignment ills, such as round shoulders and weak upper backs. A strong back can help remedy these imbalances and prevent the repercussions that arise from them.

The sample programs provided are of varying levels and draw appropriate exercises from each chapter. When beginning a program, start with exercises noted as fundamental that are suitable for your current fitness and health. Omit any exercises that cause discomfort or that are contraindicated for you. Prepare your body well for each new exercise and for the more advanced programs. As your skill increases, gradually add intermediate-level and then advanced-level exercises. This will allow improvement, challenge, and variety. As you progress and your control improves, increase ranges of motion and try variations. In Pilates, making an exercise more difficult often does not equate to greater strength demands (increased resistance) but instead relates more closely to neuromuscular coordination and timing. Remember, this process takes time and much practice. Work up to these programs and then beyond. Do not rush, for the process itself is so valuable and beneficial. View this as a lifelong journey and part of your commitment to well-being.

Many of the more challenging exercises include modifications, and you may need to use them. Do not limit yourself to just these modifications. If needed, seek professional advice to help create ones that are optimal for your body. Creating modifications demands knowledge of the human body, knowledge of the exercises, awareness of restrictions and medical history, and a great deal of creativity. It is a very exciting aspect of Pilates practice. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you work with a teacher and continue with regular self-practice, no matter what your level.

Finally, remember that the programs offered are only samples. They should be practiced, mastered, enjoyed, and ultimately changed around, keeping your practice fresh, challenging, and fun.