How to Find a Great Pilates Class

Pilates is hard. It looks hard. It feels hard. I've heard people say that they don't like Pilates because they went to a class in the past and their backs felt worse afterwards, their neck and shoulders tighter, and they were just so sore the next couple of days.

You may have some muscles soreness over the next 48hours just from using muscles you don't usually use. This is to be expected. If you use the muscles regularly it soon goes away. 

"But I'm sore in other muscles, NOT the ones we were exercising..."

How does this happen? Why do some exercises make our neck and shoulders or lower back, or even other muscle groups, tight and sore? Pilates is supposed to help fix these kinds of things isn't it???

And the answer is a resounding "YES!" Pilates is supposed to fix that by strengthening the core to take the pressure off these other muscle groups which end up doing the work of stabilising the body when the core is week. Why isn't it working?

Whether you liked, or didn't like a Pilates class, think back to what it was like...

How many people were in the class?

Hopefully, there are a small enough number so that the instructor can check on each person for each muscle group during the class, ideally each exercise.

Did the instructor explain which muscles you should have on/activated?

Because Pilates isolates one or two muscles for each exercise, you need to know where to feel it. If you feel a different muscle being used, then you are not strengthening the target muscle and will not be able to improve the target area.

Did the instructor then actually check that you were using those muscles?

To tell if you're using the muscles that are being targeted, the instructor will palpate the muscle to see if it is activate or not, or to show you exactly where you should feel that muscle working. This could be just inside the hip bone to palpate Transverse Abdominus, or on the side of your glutes to see if you're activating Glutimus medius, for example.

"Lift the pelvic floor and check that your TA is on. Now, make sure"

Did the instructor explain which muscles you need to relax?

Some muscle groups have been covering for our inactive core muscles for years. Our lower backs taking the strain when we lift instead of the core and legs. Neck and shoulders tighten to reduce the movement from the natural oscillation of the body which keeps us balanced. Our cores were designed to do all that work, but we have let them fall away as we become more sedentary: seated for work, play and movement between locations. As a population we used to move more in our work and play. We would walk or cycle to move around but now most of us drive or are driven on public transport.

So, those muscles that have been doing that cover work for the last however many years, now need to be retrained to relax. This does not come automatically. We need to focus on those muscles and intentionally tell them to relax. Then check on them regularly to make sure they stay relaxed. They've had years of automatically turning on. We need to undo that. It can feel harder than activating the target muscles at times, but is just as important. If these larger cover muscles are on, then our stabilising muscles will have a harder time correctly activating and strengthening to support us.

Did the instructor then actually check that you WEREN'T using those muscles?

The instructor may check your shoulders, lower back, six pack, glutes and thighs to make sure you are not using these muscles in some exercises. I had my neck and shoulders tight for every pose when I first started. Ryo, his glutes and six pack. We're learning to turn them off and just use our core and the isolated muscle. If we are distracted, they still come back on at times, so mindfulness during the exercises is also important.

Did the instructor encourage you to stop & recover when the focus muscle was tired?

Be sure to stop the exercise if you feel that muscle has lost its strength, or if you start to feel other muscles taking over the hard work. You want to encourage to the correct muscles to get stronger, not the cover muscles to take over.

Was there stretching at the end of class?

After working out any muscles we should always take the time to stretch those areas to help lengthen the muscles out again to maintain flexibility. By maintaining joint, muscle and facial flexibility performance can be improved and muscular injury becomes less likely.

How was the class you were thinking about?

How many boxes did it tick? Some of these things you can start to do yourself within the classes you go to. Observe where you hold tension then turn off those other muscles, for example.

If you are going to start a Pilates class, make sure the instructor is taking care of you. Not some people, not most people but all people in the class. Newer students should get a bit more attention until they learn which muscles should be on and off, but the instructor should still be checking on all participants in the class to make sure old muscle activation patterns continue to be broken and the new ones built up.