It's easy to feel skeptical about Pilates when so many überskinny celebrities—Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gisele Bündchen—attribute their slim physiques to this seemingly simple and trendy approach to strength training. For me, the question was: Could Pilates work on my curvy, barely 4-foot-11-inch body? My guess: probably not, seeing as how I have a full-time desk job, no personal trainer, and don't subsist on baby food and detoxes for weeks at a time. I needed something more hardcore with free weights, heavy machinery, and lots of cardio...right?
Well, maybe not. It didn't take long for me to conclude that Pilates, developed by gymnast Joseph Pilates during World War I as a way to rehab soldiers, is the real deal. Joseph's most popular regimen involves 34 exercises that require no equipment and rely only on controlling your own body weight to increase strength and flexibility. You've probably seen a few moves before—the bridge, the push-up, and scissor-leg kicks. Equipment-free moves are the foundation of today's modern Pilates mat classes, which is what I tried. After a month, I had learned my lesson: Working against gravity offers plenty of challenge. Pilates is hard, in a good way.
WORKOUT 1: I stumbled into the gym at 5:15 a.m. for my first class, somehow managing to place contacts on my eyeballs at such an ungodly hour. Turns out, I didn't need 20/20 vision to see that these Pilates people don't mess around. Their physiques are walking examples of the ideal toned body. And to my eye, they looked better than the weight lifters in my gym—bulging muscles replaced with enviably sculpted, lean muscle mass.
I tried to follow the instructor as she performed perfectly straight leg lifts and small and wide leg circles with her toes pointed and hips stationary. But I wobbled to and fro, knees slightly bent most of the time. Not too far into the class, I noticed that parts of my body are pretty darned heavy. Having trouble holding a leg aloft made me realize that I wasn't as strong as I'd hoped. One surprising area of weakness: my neck.
I asked the instructor if I was doing something wrong. No, she said. Neck strain is common for Pilates newcomers because people don't typically hold up their head and neck while in a reclined position. (Many moves require both your head and legs to be lifted off the ground—at the same time.) She gave me a tip: Keep your shoulders relaxed and down, not crunched up toward your ears during the movements. If your neck is still tense, lower your head to the mat until your core gets stronger.
Pilates was proving persuasive. More than one exercise had my muscles quivering. But quivers showed I was pushing them beyond their normal limits, which is what a good strength-training routine is all about.
WORKOUTS 2-5. Travel can sabotage any exercise routine, and I had to leave town for a few days. To make sure I didn't miss a workout, I packed a few DVDs: 10-Minute Solution Quick Sculpt Pilates, Mari Winsor's Cardio Pilates, and Weight Loss Pilates with Kristin McGee.
The 10-Minute Solution DVD has five workouts and comes with a toning ball that inflates in seconds. This was love at first exercise. Many moves required squeezing the ball between your ankles or legs (a real challenge for inner and outer thigh muscles).
Winsor's DVD was different because she acts as a coach while three models demo the exercises. Her constant directives, such as to maintain control of my "powerhouse" (the fancy Pilates term for your core—everything from the top of your shoulders to the lower part of your butt), helped keep me focused.
McGee's 20-minute workouts lived up to the weight-loss promise by elevating my heart rate with a quick combination of arm circles, leg swings, small jumps, and full-body plié squats. A series of these will have anyone sweating. I even learned what could be the secret to McGee's amazingly toned arms: a move called The Hundreds. It keeps your feet elevated, your core contracted, and your arms pumping up and down for an agonizing 100 reps.
WORKOUT 6: The DVD routines paid off. When I returned to the gym, my form had vastly improved, and I was much more comfortable and in control of my body throughout the workout. My leg circles were straighter, and I could hold some of the more advanced positions, like the side plank with one leg lifted. It was encouraging to see improvement in such a short period.
We also added a new tool: a toning circle. This 14-inch ring was used much like the ball, but since it was larger, forcing your arms and legs farther apart, it intensified the workout.
It was in this class that the breathing technique finally clicked: Exhale as you engage your muscles—for example, as you crunch your abdominals—and inhale as you move out of the position. Expelling the air targets the transverse abdominus—the deepest muscles of your abs—and helps amplify each move.
WORKOUT 7: Here's another great thing about Pilates: It's the perfect midday workout. I didn't have to be concerned about coming back to the office looking like a drowned cat, which is what happens when I run during lunch. And all I needed was my mat. (A mat is usually provided at class, but many moves require your face to make contact with it—gross. I hope they're cleaned between classes, but it's worth purchasing your own.) The hour flew by, and I returned to work feeling strong and fueled.
Pilates left me feeling longer, leaner, and light as a feather. Which in turn made me more aware of what I was eating. I especially liked the whole-body aspect of Pilates—it seemed every muscle had to be in synergy to complete even one rep, which is different from the isolated moves of weight lifting.
Now, when I want to feel strong, I bypass my dumbbells and assume the plank position on the floor. Try it, and hold for one minute. For even more of a challenge, slowly alternate lifting an opposing arm and leg off the floor while keeping your body steady: You'll be convinced by Pilates, too.