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December 29, 2007 1:00 AM   Subscribe

Help me get ready for a Pilates class!

I'm pretty out of shape -- extra fat, not enough muscle -- and I have been encouraged by my SO to take a Pilates class with her. Great! But everyone who I've told this to has said, with a degree of don't-say-I-didn't-warn-you, "you know it's really hard".

So my question is: what can I do now, before the class starts in 3 or 4 weeks, to get myself ready for what will possibly be a pretty strenuous twice-weekly activity? The class is a basic/beginner's class, FWIW.

Additionally, what equipment will I likely need? Is there stuff that would be worth picking up now?

Finally, any info related to Pilates, exercise, or getting an underworked butt in gear would be appreciated.
posted by rossination to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
But, seriously. Why not do some jogging every other day? It will get you out of the house and get some fresh air, and you'll get used to doing aerobic work. You can get pretty far in 3 or 4 weeks with running (especially if you go in a straight line and don't loop back, yuk yuk). You might want to see where you can jump in on the Couch to 5K regimen, and stick with that for a few weeks. Seems to me that the best preparation for this kind of general "hard workout" class is good cardiovascular training, and if you're able to do at least some running, I don't see the harm in jumping into the middle of the Ct5K plan wherever you feel comfortable.
posted by lostburner at 1:20 AM on December 29, 2007

Pilates focuses on core strength, so anything you can do to get your abs a bit more used to being worked would be helpful. Crunches (regular & twisting for obliques) are probably useful. It will probably not be very aerobic, but more like what you think of as strength training.
posted by judith at 1:32 AM on December 29, 2007

I've not tried Pilates, but have practiced Yoga. Unless your class provides one, you'll need a mat. lostburner's Couch to 5K suggestion is excellent--at least get a walking routine going and drink adequate amounts of water, if you don't already. About.com has an article about preparing for the first class.

It will seem hard and you'll get sore. In Yoga, if the instructor moved through postures that were too difficult or if I wasn't feeling well that session, there were alternatives or rest poses one could use. I would hope that would be the case in a beginners' Pilates class, as well.

Enjoy yourselves!
posted by bonobo at 2:00 AM on December 29, 2007

It wasn't that hard for me, and I'm terribly out of shape. It helped that I was swimming and doing Yoga at the same time, but after a week you get the basics. As bonobo mentioned, if one pose hurts or is uncomfortable there are alternatives.

Our classes didn't use anything except mats and the occasional water bottle. I'd imagine that your instructor would let you know if you need anything.
posted by divabat at 2:23 AM on December 29, 2007

I've been doing Pilates for about three years now. I think the place to start at the very beginning is with breathing and proprioception. You can probably find many descriptions of Pilates breathing; here's my take on what I do. (I'd talk your SO into taking you through a routine or two, too.)

If you have a mat or a comfortably carpeted surface, lie down on your back and take a moment to listen to your body. Bend your knees if you need to. Feel where your spine is. Find your body's mid-line and line yourself up as well as you can. (This is a lot harder than it sounds, especially if you have old injuries. You may need some help lining yourself up.) Don't forget to line up your head with the rest of your body. Now take a moment to imprint that feeling onto your mind. Take some time. Relax deeply. This is a bigger deal than it may seem; if finding a neutral position is all you have time to do on some day, it's still worth pulling out the mat.

Now take a breath -- not an exaggeratedly deep breath, but a good generous slow breath. Let the breath expand your lower ribs at your sides and back. Don't let your chest pop up; try imagining a connection between your bottom ribs and pubic bone and keep that imaginary line from stretching.

So, you've gotten as far as inhaling. Now, the exhale. Place your hand on your lower abdomen and, as you exhale slowly, try to bring your belly button down to your spine. (This may feel strange.) It may take a few tries, but you'll feel a powerful muscle come on deep in your lower abs, the transverse abdominis. That muscle is your friend. You will become very familiar with it.

Have you ever done any Kegel exercises? In Pilates, you'll often be called upon to exercise your pelvic floor at the same time as your transverse. It'd be a good thing to brush up on.

Okay, so there you are on the floor and you've been breathing. Might as well do an exercise, huh? I'd start with a little gentle roll-up bridging. There's a description here. (I was taught, however, to exhale through the entire lifting process, stopping to inhale as I need to. Styles vary. Talk to your SO about the breathing patterns in your class so the instructor doesn't confuse you.) The thing to remember is that you're bringing flexibility to your spine. So you'll do it slowly. There will probably be places where your vertebrae don't move easily. Imagine your spine is like a string of pearls, and you are lifting one pearl-vertebra at a time from the mat. Feel the hamstrings and deep abdominal muscles turn on as you lift up. Now lay your spine back down again, one vertebra at a time. Hooray!

This is a handy thing to know how to do, by the way, when your back is sore. Just the beginning of the movement where you gently tilt the pelvis can be very useful.

If you google around, you'll find many Pilates exercises to do. I like planks (especially side planks), leg circles, rollbacks.. there are a zillion of 'em. But one you really cannot skip is Hundreds. You'll absolutely be called upon to do Hundreds in class. There are a lot of ways to modify Hundreds, but I think it's easiest to start with thighs perpendicular to the floor, knees bent 90 degrees. (Check your pelvis at this point; it may have shifted, and you may need to re-establish firm contact between your tailbone and the ground.) Keep your arms at your side and stretch them down to your toes. Now, keeping your traps relaxed, roll your upper body up into a curl. (I exhale as I do this; again, styles vary.) For now, you may just barely get your shoulders off the ground; no worries. Breathe in, counting to five; breathe out, counting to five. That's one. Now do it nine more times. If ten is too many, then do fewer -- I started with five, as I recall. (I also recall that I found them pretty unpleasant. It does get better.)

As you've probably guessed from all this verbiage, the thing I've found about Pilates is that it's not just physically difficult -- and I assure you, it can kick your ass -- but it's also surprisingly hard on the brain. You get in the habit of paying intense attention to what you're doing physically. I found I could get some surprisingly good training for my Pilates class in my daily life just by checking my body positioning and muscle use while I was doing things such as standing at the stove or carrying out the garbage. Once you get some of the fundamentals down, you'll see how to apply those principles to ordinary functional movement.

As for equipment, you really don't need much. A comfortable mat is the main thing. I also like to use a foam roller for some exercises -- I picked one up for about twelve bucks at Ali and Joe's Friendly Foam in the U District.
posted by sculpin at 2:49 AM on December 29, 2007 [7 favorites]

The breathing exercises mentioned by sculpin are good, but you may want to check out a beginner's DVD for a taste before going to class. I like Jennifer Kreiss's videos -- she gives plenty of transitional instruction for each exercise/pose and for moving between them.

And don't get discouraged -- I started doing Pilates after back surgery and was overweight and had an incredibly weak core due to the back problems leading up to surgery. The first class is hard -- the second one a bit better -- but after a few classes I felt 2 inches taller and was able to continue much better through all the poses.

Be SURE to buy your own mat -- using gym mats can get you a staph infection. Oh, and you don't want to eat within a couple of hours before the class. Bring a water bottle, though, and a towel to prop you up if you need it.

Good luck!
posted by mdiskin at 3:40 AM on December 29, 2007

Honestly, I think I'd just show up for the first class. I'd get there a little early and tell the instructor that it's your first time doing pilates. You might try to make sure that your first class isn't one that's usually really crowded. If you're feeling really super rich and ambitious, you could sign up for a private lesson or two before you take a class, so you can have some one-on-one attention.

The thing about pilates is that it's really good exercise, but only if you do it right. Otherwise, it's very little exercise at all. It all depends on whether you get the knack of holding you stomach muscles in the right way while you do the exercises, and it's easy to fall out of form accidentally. When you start out, it's nice to have someone monitoring you to make sure that you're doing it correctly, because if you're doing it incorrectly, it's kind of a waste of time.

Don't let people freak you out about pilates. It's not that hard, and you'll get better at it quickly. Also, you know that to really get in shape, you need to do some cardio too, right?
posted by craichead at 6:00 AM on December 29, 2007

Jogging would be good - but if you don't exercise at all right now it might not be realistic. What about minutes walking (maybe change your commute?) with 5 minutes stretching?
posted by shothotbot at 8:09 AM on December 29, 2007

I couldn't possibly be more out of shape if I deliberately tried to be fat and lazy -- but when I took a beginner's pilates class, I had no problem with it. I couldn't do everything in the class successfully, or hold all the poses for a long time, but the expectation was that I was working towards it during the class. I think you shouldn't stress too much -- sure, take up walking and hydrate yourself, because they're good for you, but you should be able to go to class and participate and pick up the skills you need as part of the class.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:08 AM on December 29, 2007

I wouldn't worry about this kicking your ass. Pilates was invented as a form of physical therapy for WWI soldiers and originally, the Pilates cadillac machine was actually just pulleys hooked up to hospital beds. I started training on the machines because I had a severe back injury and it was a LIFESAVER for me (it's cost prohibitive where I live now... I miss it a lot). But the point I'm trying to make is that Pilates is not MEANT to strain your body, but rather the opposite. It focuses on core strength, and with the exercises you use your body weight as resistance to exercise pretty much every muscle of your body simultaneously while still lying down half the time.

I mean, how many workouts can you lie down through?

You weren't clear about what kind of class you're taking... is it a mat class with floor exercises or is it on the Pilates machines (like the reformer & cadillac)? They're different exercises entirely, and the quality of instruction can differ too. Sometimes people will teach Pilates mat classes in a gym without actually knowing anything about Pilates, but to work on the machines you have to have a trained professional training you and monitoring every single breath you take and precise movement of your body, because you won't get the most benefit from the exercises if you're doing them wrong. If it's a group mat class just be careful. If the trainer suggests you do something and it feels like you're hurting yourself, don't do it. Do some kind of modifier until they get to the next exercise. Do not continue an exercise if it is hurting.

Pilates is based on six principles. The main things they'll want you to work on in Pilates are building core and ab strength, as well as coordinating fluid movement and breathing (breathing in Pilates is super important, similar to yoga). One thing I would try doing is lying down with your knees up and finding your neutral spine position so you know what that means. (That'll come up a lot.) Also, learning how to contract your stomach muscles while still breathing as well as how to scoop in your abs in a c-curve (that's one's hardest for me because of my back). The most important thing in Pilates is not about being super athletic and kicking ass, but about learning to control every movement, breath, and placement of your body parts. That's actually what's hardcore about it, not that the exercises are particularly hard. It's just an intricate and detailed practice.

About.com actually has some surprisingly good stuff on this. Here's a page on preparing for your first class. It's going to be great for you! It's my favorite workout, hands down, and it has amazing results. So good luck. :)
posted by miss lynnster at 1:56 PM on December 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

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