If you want to fix back pain, get stronger and carve abs start doing pilates

It's always seemed pretty wild to me that Pilates is named after its creator Joseph Pilates, who only died in 1967. Joe Pilates! It's like discovering there was a Sally Yoga or Mike Jogging.

Pilates has been a regular entry in my workout schedule for about 18 months, since a physio recommended it to treat a painful glute imbalance. That problem has improved a lot — so have my movement patterns and core strength.

There are two forms of Pilates: mat, which is just you and your body weight on the floor; and reformer, on a contraption that resembles a medieval torture device. I prefer mat, because the reformer's cables and buttons scare me a bit, but your mileage may vary.

Pilates for men

The big boast of Pilates is that it strengthens and tones muscles without making them bulky, which is probably why it's long been coded a workout for girls. (In the crowded Saturday-morning mat class I attended at Flow Athletic in Sydney, there were only two other men.)

Needless to say, it's as good for men as it is for women. If you're a guy who's never attempted Pilates, here's what you'll realise minutes into your first class: "How weak you actually are," says Bodylove Pilates founder Ali Handley, whose Sydney studio recently kicked off men-only reformer classes.

Handley explains men tend to generate power from big muscle groups like the lats, pecs, and quads. Pilates, especially reformer, switches those off — forcing smaller, neglected stabiliser muscles into action. It's pretty confronting when you can deadlift 100-plus kilos but bodyweight Pilates reduces you to a quivering mess.

Breath and control

The big reason you should do Pilates is because it sharpens what's scientifically known as proprioception and what's New Age-ily known as mind-body connection. That means it teaches you conscious awareness of how your body is moving, and the importance of breathing and muscle release, which all makes you less unco.

"Everything [in Pilates] is controlled," says Handley, who likens classes to "moving meditation" because of the mental focus they demand.

Pilates for first-timers

Yes, you can start Pilates even if you have the flexibility of a steel rod, and/or if you're coming back from injury. "It works hand-in-hand with physiotherapy, because it's grounded in anatomy," says Handley. 

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She adds newcomers should pay close attention to the "assault" of cues from their Pilates instructor — and expect to be touched to correct their form.

"Those hands-on adjustments that help people find positions are really important," she says. "I'm a very handsy instructor!"

Three most useful cues I've learned from Pilates

Tuck your tail between your legs. This one transformed my plank, the ultimate Pilates move. Tail-tucking tilts up your hips, flattens your lower spine, and transfers the weight deep into your abs. If your lower back hurts when you plank, try this cue while sucking your bellybutton to your spine. (You'll achieve a similar effect by lying face up and pressing your spine into the floor.)

Lace your corset tight. This cue teaches you to brace your core, a seriously underused skill. Try it during legs day at the gym — it makes heavy squatting and lunging much sturdier.

Lengthen from the crown of the head, like you're a puppet being pulled up from a string attached to the top of your skull. It helps align your spine during Pilates and other forms of training, and also improves posture. Who doesn't want an inch or two added to their height?

According to Sam Downing, the secret to wellbeing is just to keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also a writer focusing on everyday health.

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