by Susan Morse - January 6th 2004
The program Pilates, the sometimes-doctrinaire core fitness program developed by German fitness enthusiast Joseph Pilates, reinterpreted for the exercise-wary if not downright fitness-resistant.
"Pilates for Wimps" (Sterling Publishing, 2003) uses humor and reverse psychology to try to win over the unconverted. One criterion for determining whether you're a wimp, offered by author Jennifer DeLuca (whose credentials include the ultimate: study with Joe's disciple, Romana Kryzanowska): "You're curious about Pilates because you've heard it's done lying down."
In Pilates, explains DeLuca, every exercise is meant to work and stretch your entire body, energizing you and improving posture and muscle tone. The mat program (as distinguished from the studio version, which uses pulleys and weights) focuses on strengthening "the powerhouse" -- the region between the rib cage and pelvis -- to increase stability, control and flexibility. A basic routine, DeLuca argues, is adaptable to all levels and, once learned, forgiving of pressed time schedules.
Background Who me, a wimp? Not as an exerciser in general, though aging parts and a collection of sports injuries have brought out wimpish tendencies in group classes (gotta watch that competitive spirit) and regimens that can't be adapted to sore knees, bad backs, etc. While I have some experience with yoga and calisthenics, I am a Pilates neophyte.
Equipment needed If you follow DeLuca's instructions to the letter, you'll want: a small unobstructed wall area; two neckties or bathrobe belts; carpeting (or a mat or a couple of towels to lay on the floor); two thick blankets or pillows; two light weights; a chair. But for the basic routine the only essentials are the carpet and the ties. I used stretch bands instead of the ties.
Start-up experience Instructions are clear and accompanied by copious photographs illustrating the moves. The author's background as a professional dancer and her inclusion of a brief muscle anatomy lesson in the introduction inspire confidence in her knowledge and instruction. Some of the initial challenge will come not so much from individual exercises but from having to interrupt what's meant to be a flowing routine to consult the book for the next step.
Observations and surprises Like yoga, Pilates involves focus, control and deep breathing. The control comes from isolating targeted muscles in an exercise and, as nearly as possible, immobilizing other areas -- avoiding wasted movements. This can be tricky, but practice helps.
While the author says the basic routine can be done, eventually, in 20 minutes, clearly that's something to work toward. I needed 45. I found the program compared well, in terms of instruction and degree of challenge, with a beginner's Pilates class given at the National Capital YMCA. You'll need to add an aerobic component -- a brisk walk or run a few times a week -- to meet all your body's exercise needs. The program offers modifications for those with back or knee issues or limited flexibility, as well as for making the exercises more challenging.
After trying the program for three weeks or so, interrupted by flu, travel and other exigencies of life, my skill at some exercises increased and my ab muscles sometimes felt mildly sore. But since the exercises were interspersed with workouts at the gym, I couldn't credit the Pilates routine entirely. Also, the effort wasn't sustained enough to test claims that the program translates into better posture or more flexibility. I have no trouble believing that's possible.
Best for Exercise neophytes as well as veterans curious about Pilates or looking for a core fitness routine they can do on their own.
Sustainability rating (on a scale from 1 to 10): 8.
Bottom line A good and sustainable program for core strength and flexibility for all but the most advanced practitioners.