Pilates exercise offers athletes so many benefits. Often described as the secret edge for athletes, it gives more power, strength, increased range of motion, flexibility, and balance. Most noted by athletes though is a greater economy of movement. After only a couple of sessions, many athletes note feeling lighter, faster and more compact than before, with the related impact on performance on the sports field, swimming pool or the track. The feeling is akin to a full body tune-up, so let’s discover why this is in more detail.
It’s not just about core strength
When mentioning the term “Pilates”, many are often quick to respond with comments around “core strength”. Although core strength is a necessary and important part of overall fitness and body strength, arguably the concept is overemphasised. Core strength is important, but you don’t need an overabundance of it. To understand this better you might want to think of it this way – pelvic floor exercises are important too, particularly for women, but you don’t need to do a huge amount of them every day. In fact, if the pelvic floor is working adequately you don’t really to need to concentrate on it at all.
The same applies for athletes in relation to core strength. Some athletes have enough core strength, but can benefit greatly from other components of Pilates exercise. Recent findings have discovered that too much core strength can result in lower back pain*. Excessive gripping and clamping down on the obliques and transversus muscle can put added strain on the lower back. It’s really up to a professional to ascertain if an individual is weak in their “core” or if they simply need to work on conditioning the body or balancing out weak areas.
General muscle conditioning
As with any gym work, Pilates can help dramatically with muscle conditioning and also tones the muscles. The difference with Pilates compared to other gym workouts though is that the deeper, synergistic muscles are recruited, known as the ‘local’ stabilisers, rather than the primary muscles. These stabilisers are responsible for controlling joint movement and managing the stability of the joint. When a joint is not stable and not held in the correct alignment, it can be damaged through repetitive stress.
Proprioception is used to describe the sensory information that contributes to our sense of position of self and movement. It is used to control our bodies as we move, to keep joints in place, and to coordinate and balance the body.
Whether or not a Pilates workout incorporates the use of machines, there is always a strong focus on control. Pilates machines do not fully stabilise your body like a gym machine which encourages you to work on one muscle, such as your biceps. Instead, when working with Pilates equipment, you will have to recruit many stabilising muscles in order to perform an exercise. A lot of concentration is required, and the individual has to make many subtle changes in the body to correct their alignment and balance and work on the required posture or action. The athlete, therefore, increases their proprioception skills, coordination and balance.
The athlete develops a greater understanding of how her or his body feels and which muscles respond in certain movement patterns. It also helps the athlete to recognise and then work on areas of muscle weakness, soreness or tightness that might otherwise be overlooked.
Pilates requires concentration and focus because you are moving your body though very precise ranges of motion. It requires concentration in finding a centre point and the right muscles to activate in order to control your body through each movement. The mental focus required in a Pilates session has a carryover effect of an increased ability to focus and concentrate on any task at hand, whether it be mental or physical – great for the aspiring athlete.
Regular Pilates practice assists with greater control of the breathing and oxygenation and can even increase lung capacity. The breath is a foundation of Pilates movement. The exercises are coordinated with inhale and exhale patterns, and the breath is used to initiate and support movement. It is not uncommon to notice an increase in thoracic or rib size in individuals who do a lot of Pilates. This is due to activation and use of the intercostal muscles.
Balancing muscle groups
Pilates is wonderful for assessing the body in detail and both noting and correcting imbalances in strength. Almost everyone benefits from this; however, athletes that are involved in unilateral sporting activities such as tennis or golf will benefit the most.
Pilates can help with injury prevention in several ways. The athlete becomes more focused and mindful of their movements and muscle imbalances are corrected, lessening the chance of wear and tear on joints. Flexibility is increased, decreasing the chance of muscle tears and the spine is given greater stability and support, once again lessening the chance of injury.
There is a lot of focus in Pilates on controlled lengthening of the muscle, as well is increasing muscle strength through range of movement. This results in many muscles being elongated and hence more flexible. In particular, muscles of the hamstrings, lower back and shoulders are considerably lengthened and more flexible due to Pilates exercise.
Increases rotational strength
For some athletes, rotational strength is imperative. Freestyle swimmers, for example, require as much rotational strength as possible to twist their upper body, lift their shoulder up and then take the elbow up as high as possible out of the water. More flexibility and strength in the torso enables the athlete a far greater range of movement. This in turn gives the athlete a lot more power to propel the body forward through the water, to wield a racket, or to throw a ball.
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