Years ago, professional dancers discovered that Pilates is one of the best forms of conditioning for top-tier performers. Now, professional athletes have embraced the discipline so they can hit the ball farther, run faster and jump higher. These pros, like NFL receiver Justin Brown shown below, are taking away five key benefits from Pilates training—stability for flexibility; explosive power; precise movement; longevity; and efficient whole-body workouts.
1. Stability for Flexibility
Recent research demonstrates that stability leads to flexibility. More specifically, deep core strength in the abdominal muscles directly leads to improving the length and flexibility of the hamstring muscles, and this is critical for increasing speed. The muscle groups are linked in a force couple in which if the abdominal muscles are weak or inactive, the hamstrings become overused and less flexible.
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Instead of static stretching, improving core strength to increase hamstring length can promote a longer stride length, directly increasing speed, particularly for basketball and hockey players.
With Pilates, athletes work through dynamic flexibility exercises while maintaining core stability. Professional athletes enhance their capacity for holding one section of the body firm and moving another, building muscle relationships that provide a gain in core strength and flexibility simultaneously and ultimately lead to that much sought-after increase in overall speed.
Mat exercises that promote hamstring flexibility by increasing core strength include Leg Pull Front (above photo).
2. Explosive Power
The spring resistance of the Pilates’ reformer and jump board create the optimal environment for plyometric training. Athletes learn to rebound and explode with control, a clear asset for basketball players and wide receivers.
One key to explosive power is the concept of triple extension—i.e., the coordinated extension of the ankle, knee and hip. Effective triple extension requires strength, range of motion and timing, all of which can be taught using the reformer or the push-through bar. The plyometric move can be performed with lighter weights to reduce wear and tear from traditional training, and each movement leads athletes to improved core stability.
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Achieving explosive power throughout Pilates requires learning footwork and jumping on the reformer jumpboard.
3. Precise Movement
Pilates emphasizes the mind-body connection and trains professional athletes to put thought into every movement. Increasing awareness of overall movement and body position in space results in improved agility and alignment. More mindful and efficient movements translate to fewer injuries and improve execution on the playing field.
Consider a hockey goalie with bilateral quadriceps tendonitis. His lack of core stability and healthy movement patterns shut down his gluteals to the extent that he was forced to hold himself in the goalie position with his quadriceps, overworking the tendon and experiencing pain that took him out of the play. Exercises such as Eve’s Lunge on the reformer, the Cadillac trapeze and Standing Squats at the tower helped this player find and rehearse a more balanced squat position, where he could effectively share the load with his gluteal muscles. He was also able to decrease hip stiffness with repeated movements such as Knee Stretch and Down Stretch and Upstretch on the reformer.
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Precise upper body movements are critical for athletes like the NFL wide receiver who needs to have a good catch radius. Pilates movements increase the length of the arms by building balance through the latissimus dorsi, biceps and pectoralis muscles, stabilizing the spine while creating that desirable strong, long reach. Conversely, a short and powerful latissimus dorsi, bicep or chest muscle draws the arms to the sides of the body and turns the palms and shoulders inward, and a typical weightlifting routine for football can limit a wide receiver’s reach.
Exercises that are effective for more precise movement are Prone Pressouts on the long box on the reformer, Seated Push-Throughs on the Cadillac, and Long Back Stretches with the Pilates ring (photo above).
Professional athletes experience the same effects of aging as other adults. At the age of 30, adults begin to lose the connection with their hip joints for balance and mobility and begin to lose overall muscle mass, especially in the fast-twitch muscle fibers. The areas that weaken most rapidly are the paraspinal muscles, the gluteal muscles, the tricep muscles and the calf muscles, all of which are key targets for aging athletes. The Pilates repertoire addresses these areas by building muscle balance and working against postural changes that come with age. The resulting healthy movement patterns can prevent overuse injuries and keep professional athletes in the game.
An NHL player approaching age 30 was increasingly limited by episodes of low back pain. Stiffness and weakness around his hips and ankles were causing stress to his back. Training in his skates limited the mobility of his hip and ankle joints and ultimately weakened the strength of the muscles in those areas. Pilates was the only exercise method that not only relieved his symptoms, but got him back into play. Simple exercises such as Pilates Footwork on the reformer, Bridging variations and Side-Lying Legs were easy additions to his program that helped him return to the ice.
5. Efficient Whole-Body Workouts
The Pilates method comprises whole body movements so the exercises themselves are efficient. A 15-minute workout of compound movements challenges all of the body’s muscle groups. Professional athletes use this as a time-saving addition to their normal conditioning routine. The movements are a new and challenging experience to their bodies, keeping workouts fresh. Eight different pieces of equipment are used in Pilates to challenge the athlete, but all it takes is a mat to start building athletic capacity.
Here is a 15-minute mat workout routine to get started:
Straight Back Bridge and Single-Leg Bridge
This is one of the best exercises for strengthening the gluteal muscles, because it limits the use of the iliotibial band. Basically, it eliminates cheating. It is also an effective core strengthening exercise that will lead to improved hamstring length and improved reach in the upper extremities.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Inhale deeply, expanding your ribs to the sides.
- Exhale as you keep your spine and pelvis in line and raise your hips up.
- Keep your arms straight with your palms facing down, and press them into the floor in opposition.
- Inhale as you hold the top position, and then exhale while you return to the starting position.
- Keep you hips level, your knees in line with your second toes, and your feet flat on the mat as you perform the exercise.
- Repeat 8 times.
- Start over with one leg raised into the tabletop position. Perform the same movement while balancing on just one leg for 8 repetitions and then repeat on the other leg.
Leg Pull Back
This exercise builds deep core strength to assist in the force couple that controls the pelvis. Greater core strength results in an increase in hamstring length without stretching.
- Build a plank position from all fours and position your spine in neutral.
- With your feet together, reach one leg at a time from the floor toward the wall behind you. Hold your spine still and move only at the hip.
- Repeat for 8 repetitions, alternating sides.
This exercise incorporates both stability and flexibility while encouraging precise movement and thoracic rotation, important for all swinging and throwing sports. It also increases the catch radius for receivers.
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you in a long sit position. If you are unable to sit up fully due to short hamstrings, try opening your legs wider. If you are still not in an upright position, sit on a small box or a yoga block. It is important to keep your knees straight to get the benefits of this exercise. Raise your arms out to your sides just below shoulder height.
- Keeping your hips and legs completely still, rotate your chest to the right as you round forward to reach for your left foot with your right hand. Reach your left hand behind you and turn your thumb down to place your shoulder in inward rotation. Look back at your left hand and focus on rotating your ribcage while reaching your arms in opposition. Your hips and legs should remain stable in the starting position during the rotation.
- Return to the start position and rotate to the opposite side.
- Keep your movements slow and controlled and repeat for 8 repetitions on each side.
Airplane (Pilates Arabesque)
This exercise is an efficient tool for creating muscle balance at the hips, increasing strength of the paraspinal muscles and improving balance.
- Hold onto a counter or table with both arms outstretched and bend forward from the hips.
- Position your spine in neutral (flat back) and keep your knees straight and your feet hip-width apart.
- Keep your head behind the window of your arms and lengthen the back of your neck.
- Attempt to raise one leg back with your knee straight while maintaining the spine position. Be sure to stay over the standing leg and keep its knee straight.
- Once in this position, tap the toe of your back leg to the floor and raise it 8 times.
- With your back leg raised, let go of the counter and bring your arms to your sides. Hold for 10-20 seconds.
- Repeat with the other leg.
This exercise builds balanced range of motion in the hip joints, resulting in less strain on the spine and more fluid cuts and turns. When an athlete makes a turn or swings a bat or stick, the hips move in opposition—one hip in internal rotation and the other in external rotation. This exercise builds a relationship between the hip joints.
- Sit on the floor with one leg bent at the knee in front and the other leg bent at the knee in back. If this is painful in the hip or knee joints, sit up on a box for the first few weeks until your flexibility improves.
- Once in the position, work to get your pelvis aligned with the front wall and your spine straight.
- Hold the leg position while reaching from side to side for 5-8 repetitions.
- Reposition your legs in the other direction and repeat.