Do real men really do pilates?

There's nothing unmanly about being strong and flexible.
There's nothing unmanly about being strong and flexible. Photo: iStock

We've all seen him at the gym or on the beach. Huge pecs, massive biceps, no neck to speak of, and spindly chicken legs.

Less noticeable is his nemesis, the lightly framed metrosexual man who seems utterly devoid of muscle mass.

Kevin Privett: More men are showing up to pilates classes.
Kevin Privett: More men are showing up to pilates classes. 

Which are you more likely to find in a pilates class? Neither, and both. In an unlikely twist, a utopia of stretching, sweating and defiance of gender conformity could yet bring them together.

Practitioners of the discipline are keen to invite more men to experience benefits including 'improved posture, core strength, muscle tone and flexibility –to build stronger bodies'.

Put down the dumbell

NU Pilates studio owner Paul Torcasio is one seeking to dispel the 'curls for the girls' perception. Pilates practitioners are particularly targeting weights-fixated men, arguing they are missing out on a number of benefits that perfectly complement weight training.

Paul Torcasio, studio owner of Melbourne's NU Pilates.
Paul Torcasio, studio owner of Melbourne's NU Pilates. 

So will the gym bunnies come over to the 'soft' side?

The discipline was created by a man, Joseph Pilates, who came from a background of boxing, self-defence and wrestling - nothing soft about that.

Classes in this country remain female-dominated, but that seems to be gradually changing.

Sydney Pilates instructor Kevin Privett says: "For a year I taught two classes at a gym in [Sydney's] Maroubra where on a weekly basis more men would show up to pilates."

However, in my first-ever Pilates class at bodymindlife in Sydney's Surry Hills, there's just one other male participant and nine women in the room (Privett says an 80:20 gender ratio is common).

We begin by stretching on a Reformer – a bed-like structure with multiple springs for resistance stretching. It's as fun as it sounds and this, combined with Kevin's mellifluous voice, provides a veneer of calm to help overcome the difficulty of the stretches. It's a refreshing change from the motivational grunts and shouts of encouragement from the trainers at my gym. My mind is relaxing even as my body works hard.

Privett says this is all part of the aim to nurture awareness between body and mind: "It is a thinker's form of exercise," he tells me.

As tough as CrossFit

Our Beyoncé warm-up track morphs into Janet Jackson and our light stretches progress into hard abdominal workouts. This is as tough as any sit-up or 'dish hold' I've done at Crossfit, but the focus on breathing distracts me so my core strength tightens as my mind further loosens.

I'm asked more than once to "find your centre". As a newbie I'm not quite sure what this means. The women either side of me seem to have found theirs, though – their concentration is second only to their perfect posture. Just like ballerinas, they look graceful, but not dainty; they no doubt have abs to rival any boxer's.

Suddenly, Kelis's Bounce starts playing and Privett rushes over to change it: "That song's a bit hectic for this kind of class," he announces, and skips it. The next track is by Boy George ("much better!") and the woman opposite me grins. The well-muscled man who is my sole brethren is deep in the zone and barely notices.

Emblazoned on the walls in neat, large calligraphy are quotes from Pilates himself (who died, aged 83 in 1967): "Through Pilates the unique trinity of a balanced body, mind and spirit can be attained. Self-confidence follows." Another audaciously promises: "In 10 sessions you'll feel the difference. In 20, you'll see the difference. And in 30, you'll be on your way to a whole new body!"

These bold claims are echoed by Torcasio, owner of Melbourne's NU Pilates studio. "We see men come in who've been in chronic pain; their injuries have affected their movement and their quality of life," he says.

"After a progressive NU Pilates program they're stronger, stable and moving beautifully. Then they can return to the things they love: golf, cycling, team-sports. We've trained ex-AFL and VFL players who swear by our pilates classes. They come in limping with old injuries, and emerge stronger and pain-free."

Richard Lloyd-Jones, an IT manager from Melbourne's West St Kilda, has been attending two NU Pilates classes a week since February, after his female colleagues talked him into going. He "felt an affinity for it immediately" and notes it has had a particularly positive influence on his running and alleviated the need for regular physio visits.

Another bonus could appeal to the upper-body obsessed gym bunnies - no more leg days: "Initially I worried how I'd fit it in with my gym sessions. I've found I don't need to do legs in the gym now; they get enough of a workout during pilates."

'You have to laugh'

Does Lloyd-Jones ever feel emasculated? "Some positions are definitely a little compromising, and you have to laugh. But you're too busy maintaining the position and working the muscles to worry about how you look."

As for any associations with hipsters or wimpyness, Torcasio says: "Australian men are as progressive as any in the western world. Just get them in the door to experience the benefits – then they're hooked."

One of the most manly things you can do in life is to sacrifice your own sense of masculinity, and not feel anything less than what you already are.

Pilates isn't unmanly but, even if it was, I'd still go for the benefits. 

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