Why We Love Props For Pilates

yespilateshundredswithband-articleFrom exercise bands to BoSUs to stability balls, props can add challenges, assistance or variety to a regular Pilates workout.  The right prop can make a hard exercise easier and a simple exercise extremely challenging! Targeted use of props can also help spice things up for clients who have been practicing Pilates for years and need a little pizzazz thrown into their workout.

So why do we love props?  The first reason is simple and perhaps the most important: props help facilitate the proper execution of an exercise. They help clients achieve neutral, fire into the “right” muscle group and activate dormant muscles that have not been doing their job!  Pads and cushions help clients begin an exercise in as close to neutral alignment as possible, which is essential for a biomechanically correct, pain-free Pilates practice.  We would not survive at our New York studio without pads to place under clients’ heads to bring the cervical spine into proper alignment when supine or cushions for them to sit on to bring the pelvis into neutral.  Pilates Rings and Small Balls between the ankles or knees on certain exercises can help engage inactive inner thigh muscles and help clients deepen their abdominal contraction.  Arc Barrels or BoSUs can be effective teaching tools for prone spinal or hip extension exercises.  Placing the lumbar spine in flexion on the barrel helps deactivate the often over-active erector spinae of the lower back and can help clients isolate the erector spinae of the upper back or activate the hip extensors without going into lumbar extension.

Second, props help build the strength or awareness necessary to perform the “real” exercise properly.  The original Pilates exercises are fabulous and effective on their own, but some people just can’t do them right….yet!  Props can be the stepping stone a client needs to succeed in a Pilates mat environment.   The “Roll Over,” for instance, can be challenging for many individuals who lack either abdominal strength or spinal flexibility (or both)!  By performing the “Roll Over” on an Arc Barrel and beginning with the hips elevated, the client can build the strength necessary to execute the exercise properly without using momentum and jeopardizing the lower back.  Similarly, for those with tight lower backs (such as the authors here), the “Roll Up” can be absolutely lovely holding a 4 lb mini-body bar.  Of course one needs to be careful with the shoulder girdle given the extra weight, but this little bit of extra weight adds leverage where it is needed to assist with articulation of the spine through the tight spot.  As another example, those clients seeking to transition from “Hundreds” with bent knees to “Hundreds” with straight legs but still find maintaining a strong imprint challenging benefit from using an exercise band around the feet.  The band helps support the weight of the legs, and thus allows the abdominal muscles to build the strength necessary to maintain imprint, protect the lower back and support the lower body simultaneously.

Finally, we love props because they introduce muscle confusion training into a Pilates mat workout, which helps any body get more out of their Pilates routine.  Simply put, the muscle confusion training principle states that muscles adapt to a specific type of stress and need to be challenged in varied ways in order to continue experiencing results.  Muscles improve from being subjected to new and different stresses and challenges which is exactly what props can provide.  Athletes cross train for this very reason, as the body benefits overall from allowing certain muscles fibers to rest and others to engage.  Moreover, incorporating props into a Pilates workout can help prevent the well-known plateau effect and even boost clients over a “road block” that keeps them from progressing.  Use of props can kick up the intensity of the workout quite effectively without placing undue strain on the body.  In fact, research shows that something as simple as performing a bench press on a stability ball is 62% more effective than a bench press with the same weight conducted on a regular bench.  (Source)

Pilates props with Katherine and Kimberly CorpFurthermore, muscles performing the same action day after day “get bored” just as clients get bored with the same workout!  Varying a workout ensures that clients continue to see results and stay interested.  Pilates enthusiasts who regularly work out on the Pilates equipment already benefit from the muscle confusion training practice as integrating all equipment into sessions over the course of a week or month allows muscles to perform in different ways each workout.  Thus, just as “Side Bends” activates different muscles groups on the Ladder Barrel, Cadillac and Mat, so to does “the Hundreds” challenge the body in different ways using the Stretch Band, the BoSU and the Pilates Ring.  Focusing on different muscle groups and adding variety will not only enhance core stability, but also turn your Pilates routine into a fabulous cross-training program, which will improve your overall fitness and decrease your risk of injury.  (Source)

With all the props available today, one can quickly become overwhelmed when deciding which props to choose. Is your goal to challenge your client?  Help her do an exercise correctly?  Target his core?  Facilitate better alignment?  Knowing the merits of each prop and which ones best suit your clientele’s objectives is the first step to integrating props successfully into your Pilates workouts.  We have included a chart below to highlight the various benefits, but please keep in mind that the categories are exercise specific!  The exercise band, for example, can assist the “Roll Up” but challenge the “Double Leg Stretch.”  Also, one very dangerous trap to fall into is watching others use props and then copying them in your sessions.  Never EVER use clients as guinea pigs!  Incorporating a prop often changes the emphasis of the exercise, so be sure to try the exercise with the prop first before teaching it to an unsuspecting client.

In conclusion, we offer three basic rules of thumb to follow with regard to incorporating props into Pilates workouts.  First, choose a prop with a specific goal in mind for the client or class you are teaching.  (In other words, do not choose a prop because you, personally, are bored and need some entertainment!)  Second, remember that most clients can focus on one thing at one time.  Thus, multiple props used simultaneously tend to destroy — rather than enhance — the integrity of the exercise.  Though the picture to the right is humorous, you clearly want to avoid this scenario with your clients.  Finally, because props do change the original exercise a bit, be mindful of what is gained — and what could be compromised — with the addition of a prop.  Shoulder Bridge on the BoSU, for example, helps activate the core because of the instability, but the hamstrings may cramp because of the increased effort required to stabilize.

Pilates Props Table

The Pilates repertoire has not only withstood the test of time, it continues to impress and amaze both the fitness and medical worlds with its benefits.  Make sure to honor this system with thoughtful use of props that enhance the client’s overall Pilates experience.

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June 26, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Pilates on Fifth Postings, Pilates Posts, The Pilates Center of New York Postings, UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com Postings. 1 comment.