Pilates for Pre-hab

Pilates is part of the current fitness trend of mind-body classes, like yoga. However, did you know that the Pilates method uses many of the same principles used to help injured athletes recuperate? Pilates exercises are low-impact and focus on control, alignment and precision, to prevent injury to the body.

Pilates is used by more athletes as a means to cross-train. By strengthening the core muscles, it helps the body create more efficient movement and improves flexibility to help prevent injury. Athletes who have better core strength are thought to have better dynamic control of their movements, and are less likely to sustain injuries, which has been used to prevent injuries including ACL tears and ankle sprains.

The basic premise of Pilates is core strength. Your body's core is basically the musculature and bony structure of your torso, the area between your neck and your hips, and serves as the "powerhouse" of all movement. In order to move properly, your body will first stabilize the core before initiating any movement no matter how small. Pilates focuses on ideal posture, muscular balance and stability, thus promoting the proper firing of muscles through movement. Obviously, good posture will help you stand taller, look leaner, breathe better and eliminate back pain. When performing physical activity, like running, the core is needed to hold the body upright through the movement. A strong core will help keep you running tall and help you keep your endurance.

At the same time, Pilates training can improve your posture and help you address any muscular imbalances that you have created in your training regimen. For example, runners only move in a front to back (or sagittal) fashion. They have strong quads, hamstrings, gluts, and calves, all of which move your legs forward and backward. They generally be tight and weak in their inner thighs, deep hip muscles, and IT bands, all of which move the legs sideways, but also provide stability to the knees and hips. Pilates exercises have been created to correct this exact problem, and will be able to balance the legs, help the runner stand taller and help prevent overuse injuries.

Pilates work also stresses pelvic and spinal stability, and is the basis of your core. A strong, stable pelvis that Pilates training creates will allow for proper, safe movement, and will also provide strength for your frame, in this case your spine, to be built upon that. A stable pelvis will result in a stable spine, helping you, the athlete, stay away from back injury.

How can you use Pilates for prehab? Here are five easy Pilates Mat exercises that you can easily do in the gym or at home:

The Hundred

This classic Pilates exercise trains abdominal endurance and enhances breath and control. This is a great Pilates warm-up exercise.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and up in the air, your knees and hips form 90-degree angles (otherwise known as table-top position).  Support your lower back by gently lowering your lower back toward the floor by drawing your abs in towards your spine.

Inhale: Reach your arms straight up to the sky. Exhale: As you reach your arms back down to the floor, lift your head and shoulders off the mat. Keep your eyes on your kneecaps.

Start to pulse your arms with a quick rhythm, inhaling for the count of five pulses, exhaling for the count of pulses. Keep doing this for 10 repetitions. Pause at the last exhale, and then gently lower your head towards the floor.  

The Swan

This exercise extends the spine and stretches the chest.

Lie on the mat face down. Place your hands right underneath your shoulders. Engage your abs by feeling that you are lifting your belly button from the floor and turning your pubic bone to the mat. Inhale: Lengthen your spine, sending energy through the top of your head as you lift your upper body. The elbows are close to the body, the head stays in line with the spine, and the hips stay on the mat.

Exhale: Keep your abdominals lifted as you release to the mat in a sequential and controlled fashion Repeat Swan three to five times using an even, flowing breath to support the movement.

Side Bend

Side Bend is a more advanced exercise that strengthens the oblique muscles, as well as the inner and outer thighs and the shoulders. It challenges alignment and posture as well.

Begin sitting sideways with your legs folded to the side. Put your top foot on the floor in front of the other, heel to toe. Place your supporting hand on the mat in line with your hip and a few inches past your shoulder. Before you press up, draw your abs in, drop your shoulders, and lengthen your spine.

Inhale: Press into the supporting arm and straighten your legs to lift your pelvis away from the mat. Reach your arm overhead, keeping your shoulders down. If you have your balance, take the stretch further by reaching into a side arc with your upper body. Make sure you are pressing through the supporting arm and getting good lift out of the shoulder. Return to start position and repeat three to four more times on each side.

Hip-Extension Series

The hip-extension series (also called the Buttsky Series) is tougher than it looks. The series focuses on hip extension, without using the lower back. It's a great balancer of the torso and helps strengthen the deep hip extensors, releasing the hip flexors.

Lie on your stomach, resting your forehead on your hands. Pull your belly button off the floor and turn your pubic bone towards the floor. Hold this position through the entire series. Energize the legs by reaching your feet towards the wall and squeeze the leg muscles. Begin by lifting your thighs off the floor, keep your legs straight. Do this five times. Then add scissor kicks in slow motion, leg circles, and heel taps (separately). Do each five to 10 times without stopping. You should feel your muscles working in the legs and glutes. The legs don't lift high, and you should not feel your belly pressing on the floor.

Karen Tickner