Let’s hear it for the boys! Why Pilates isn’t just for girls

So there are a fair few misconceptions out there about Pilates but I think this is probably one of the more common ones. Some men are put off trying Pilates, seemingly believing it’s ‘just for women’ or is ‘too easy’ to be real exercise. Now Pilates definitely is for women but it can be of equal value to men too. On top of that an exercise system that calls for flexibility, strength and concentration and is used by elite athletes worldwide seems unlikely to fall into the ‘easy’ category.

I think it is fair to say that Pilates was originally developed by a man for men. The beginnings of Pilates saw Joseph Pilates trying out a new exercise system to help with the rehab of injured soldiers in an internment camp during the First World War. After this he moved to New York opening his first studio where Pilates as it is now understood began to evolve. His first clientele along with professional dancers were male boxers and wrestlers showing just how suited it has been for men for the start.

This is partly because of the emphasis on controlled flexibility. This is not about pushing joints as far as they can go but is instead about encouraging a full range of motion at joints without the restriction of tight muscles. Men are physiologically more predisposed to muscle tightness than women, particularly around the pelvic area which can translate into tight lower backs, calves and in particular hamstrings. This is a really common theme amongst the men I see in my practice and is something which regular Pilates can address over time.

Along with flexibility the other key way in which Pilates can help men is in getting the smaller stabiliser muscles to wake up and do their bit. Many men suffer from low back pain in general and sciatica and disc problems in particular. In these cases getting the deeper abdominal muscles or core to work and stabilise the spine is absolutely crucial. This understanding that there are layers of muscles and that we need to work them all is really fundamental to Pilates. As such whilst Pilates will address the more superficial muscles (such as the rectus abdominus which gives the traditional six-pack appearance) it also goes a lot deeper.

This is often very apparent in the upper body – men who have spent a lot of time in the gym tend to have very overdeveloped global muscles, which is great until you ask them to lift their arms overhead! This is a classic example of too much gym work resulting in people becoming muscle bound and as a result having a limited range of movement. Traditional gym work with weights can be great but I would advise it in conjunction with a Pilates program to help create a strong, integrated and flexible body. Professional athletes have understood the benefits that this kind of comprehensive program can bring their performance for a long while now with everyone from Tiger Woods to the English Cricket team having said Pilates is a valuable part of their routine.

Men are often concerned that they are going to be the only man in the class. Whilst in the past this has perhaps been the case in recent years I have personally noticed a real increase in the number of men doing Pilates, both on a 1:1 basis and in a group setting and we now have several men in most of our group classes. Once they experience the benefits it can bring whether that be pain relief, injury prevention or just better movement they can often be some of it’s biggest enthusiasts, adding substance to the idea that Pilates can be just be just as valuable for men as women.

Postnatal Pilates

So I recently completed an article on Postnatal Pilates for Pilates Near You.  It includes info on when it is safe to start exercising, what to avoid and specific postnatal exercise issues such as disastasis rectus.

Click here to take a look.

If you are interested in getting back into exercise after childbirth then let us know - we hold a dedicated Postnatal Pilates class every Saturday morning that is ideal for new mums.

 

Sciatica & Pilates: Does it Work?

As a Pilates teacher I see a lot of sciatica.  Probably two out of every three people that come to the studio report having suffered from sciatica or sciatic like symptoms at some point. Increasingly it seems that sufferers are being referred on to Pilates by their GP or other clinicians, as well as plenty of people coming after hearing about the benefits it can bring by word of mouth. But are they right to be looking to Pilates to help sort out this painful condition?

 In terms of referring patients on I would say yes, absolutely, as long as it is to an experienced, highly qualified teacher who works in a suitable environment. There is no point in someone who experiences chronic sciatica attending a packed gym Pilates class of no specified level with a different teacher each week. This is something which takes care, time and attention to help. But team someone with sciatica up with a professional teacher either in a small class or 1:1 setting and the results can be excellent. To give you an idea in my five years of teaching I have never come across a client who hasn’t found that Pilates has benefitted their sciatica – be that management of the pain or a complete recovery from all symptoms.

 So what is sciatica? Well the answer isn’t totally straightforward. In a literal sense sciatica is essentially a symptom rather than a condition in itself – pain resulting from the compression of the sciatic nerve. This is a major nerve (the longest one in the body) which runs from the lumbar spine all the way down both legs. This location means that the resulting pain can often radiate – from the low back or buttock all the way down to the foot. It can be the result of a structural problem in the lower back such as a herniated disc which compresses the nerve but this is not always the case, and in some cases no identifiable cause will be found. It is also important to remember that a disc problem does not necessarily result in sciatic type pain – in fact not all disc degeneration is symptomatic so just because someone has a disc problem they won’t necessarily experience sciatic pain and vice versa.

For those who do experience it sciatica can range from annoying to seriously debilitating. Symptoms include low back pain, shooting or tingling pains from the buttock into the thigh, muscle weakness down the leg, pins and needles in the affected area and cramp in the back of the leg and calf – however this is by no means an exhaustive list. I’ve met clients where it has stopped them from being able to work and others for whom it just bothers them from time to time.

 So how can Pilates help those suffering from sciatica? The key here is gently and slowly to release the tight areas (such as the lower back and hamstrings) and then working to correct the imbalances which will have built up over time. This means plenty of low-level core work to help support the lower back as well as sorting out the imbalances that can be found in the lower limb (it is often the case that those suffering from sciatica will be more dominant with one leg than the other). At a deeper level this is going to mean getting the muscles that have stopped working (generally the local stabilising muscles closest to the skeleton) back to functioning in a correct way again. It can be a lengthy process but for those who have been suffering for months or even years it really is worth persevering and from a teacher’s perspective I have found it incredibly rewarding to see what a difference this kind of work can make.

On a practical note in my experience I have found that the excellent calf stretch (below) can often be a good place to start, especially for those who wake up with cramp at night.

How to:

1.  Get a yoga block or something of a similar thickness – a decent hard back book about the size of an old fashioned yellow pages (before they got really thin!) – should do the trick.

2.  Put it on the ground and then bring the front third of your foot on to the block. Have the heel heavy on the ground.

3.  You can moderate how strong the stretch is by the placement of the other leg. The further forwards the other leg is the stronger the stretch will be. I would aim for a moderate stretch and then hold it for 45 seconds breathing deeply and standing up straight.

 

Moderate stretch
Moderate stretch
Strong stretch
Strong stretch

Tip – If you suffer from cramp whenever you try and stretch try taking the foot the other way first (pointing the foot), before you try the stretch.

 

Please note that before doing any exercises or stretching you should consult your doctor. This article is in no way a substitute for medical advice and shouldn’t be followed instead of any medical advice you may have been given.