top of page

The What, Who, How, and Why of Pilates from a Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist: Part 4.5

After a “brief” hiatus, we are back to wrap up this series on the “why’s” of Pilates, finishing with...


Pilates is a movement retraining system and has sport-specific applications for improving motor control and mobility. If you are a golfer, you might spend time on asymmetrical, crossbody movements that target rib and pelvic synchrony and dissociation to improve trunk control during your swing. If you are an Olympic weightlifter, you might practice slow, controlled movements with increased time under tension, loading muscles at various ranges of motion to increase mobility and improve catching positions. Or if you are a swimmer, you might work on shoulder mechanics to increase stroke efficiency and decrease risk of injury with overuse.

Regardless of the sport, the principles of Pilates can be adapted to create a beneficial program for almost any athlete.

1. Axial Elongation

Pilates emphasizes posture, alignment, and length for spinal health and efficiency of movement. As we age we tend to lose height, which is often related at least in part to spinal changes. The curves in the spine may become more exaggerated and the height of the discs between vertebrae may shrink. While some of this is considered “normal” aging, we can combat the effects by engaging in regular exercises that emphasize elongating the spine and loading or mobilizing from a position of length. When the spine is long, we have the potential to generate more power and be more efficient with our movements, which translates to increased athletic performance. Don’t believe me? Try lifting your arms overhead with a round in your upper back. Now try again from a tall spine. Did your arms rise higher? Probably not going to catch many rebounds in the first position. Now imagine slumping and trying to throw a ball or swing a racket or lift a heavy weight. Not only are you less capable from this position, but it probably doesn’t feel very good and your risk of injury is higher. Furthermore, how does your breathing feel? Probably difficult to take a deep breath, right? This brings us to our second principle…

2. Breathing

Breath is the foundation of movement. As mammals, a requisite for life is respiration and as such we have to find ways to breathe and move simultaneously. In swimming, the athlete must learn how to time breaths to maintain speed and rhythm, but also replenish metabolically hungry muscles with much needed oxygen. With weightlifting, the athlete may Valsalva (exhale against a closed glottis) to stiffen the spinal column and move a maximal weight. In competition archery, the athlete will choose when to exhale so as to facilitate optimal accuracy of the arrow reaching the target. Pilates trains a variety of different breath patterns— forceful exhales, prolonged inhales, rapid respiration cycles, diaphragmatic action under load— all to enhance the versatility of the athlete. As it is said in the Polestar Pilates method, “Breath is a tool, not a rule.” We learn how to breathe efficiently in a variety of ways, and then apply the most effective breath pattern to the task at hand.

3. Core Control

If breath is the foundation of movement, then core control is the foundation from which we move. If we are unable to generate and regulate pressure in our trunk through the combination of muscle tension and respiration, then we are as effective as a car driving on flat tires. Pilates is known for its challenging repertoire of core exercises that target the entire cylinder of the core: front (rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis), back (spinal erectors, multifidi), sides (obliques), ceiling (diaphragm), and floor (pelvic floor). What is most special is how these movements do not just isolate the core musculature; they also challenge the athlete to integrate core work with breath and functional movements. Core control is necessary whether the spine is stable or mobile, and Pilates trains both beautifully— which is a nice segue way to our next principle…

4. Spinal mobility

In Pilates we emphasize segmental motion of the spine in all planes of motion (as appropriate for the individual’s health conditions and medical history). As Joseph Pilates famously said, “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” Our spine is designed to move like a snake winding through the sand. The snake achieves its movement through the cumulative motion of each of its body segments. We don’t often see a snake bending at right angles, yes? Similarly, when our spine becomes rigid, we tend to get our motion from just a few segments, which increases our risk for injury, pain, and instability. Pilates emphasizes spinal articulation to promote fluidity with trunk movements and corrects mechanics that take any single segment to end range of motion, where it is more likely to fail. Be like a snake, be supple, be fluid. 🐍

5. Upper and lower quarter organization

Pilates exercises provide an environment for relearning alignment and mechanics of the upper and lower extremity, which can save an athlete’s career by preventing common injuries. The hip and shoulder are two of the most mobile joints in the body, and with that extra motion, comes an increased risk of instability if the musculature around these joints is not conditioned to support the demands being placed on them. If we want to be able to generate a lot of power an end range of motion (say with a soccer kick or a baseball pitch), then we need to have the appropriate mechanics to protect the joint through that range. We often see hip and shoulder injuries in athletes that may be prevented or at least mitigated by improving muscle activation sequencing and joint alignment throughout an athlete’s entire range of motion. For the shoulder we talk about the positioning of the head, neck, and scapula in relationship to the arm, whereas for the hip we think about the positioning of the rib cage, low back, and pelvis in relationship to the leg— and we can translate these alignment concepts to any joint of the body.

As Polestar Pilates instructors, we cue the bones of the body because with proper alignment, proper muscle sequencing and activation is likely to follow. Our bodies are incredibly smart like that. Cueing muscles may result in inappropriate muscle recruitment and restricting muscle tension. But if we think about the geometry of the body through the action and try to achieve those shapes in motion as efficiently as possible, the desired outcome is highly probable. I have actually adapted this strategy of cueing to my physical therapy practice, and now cue muscles as a last resort.

6. Full-body integration

Finally, Pilates puts all the pieces together with total body exercises that incorporate all the principles above. These tend to be more advanced movements that require intentional movement and focus while learning them, but eventually become habitual and seemingly effortless as a Pilates student progresses. This is how the Pilates student transitions from consciously competent to unconsciously competent, and this is how the athlete can benefit from Pilates, by generalizing more efficient whole-body movement strategies and patterns from the Reformer or Chair to the field or court.

These six principles are vital for athletic performance. Basic Pilates as a cross-training modality can enhance an athlete’s skill generally as a mover, but a little creativity and individual tailoring of the exercises can enhance the athlete’s competence at their own sport.

1 Comment

Great info! Thanks for putting it together to help be understand it and my body better. And ultimately how best to support my body!

bottom of page