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Pilates Pitfalls 

It's popular, but is it safe?

Pilates is all about using your mind to control muscles. Named after its inventor, Joseph Pilates, who called it Contrology, the exercises emphasize flexibility and core strength. Pilates exercise programs may appear gentle or even relaxing to observers, while participants readily acknowledge the exercise program provides a challenge, especially to muscles in the abdomen and back.

That may mean beginners can get into trouble with movements that look deceptively easy. “Staying within your comfort zone is important,” says Kristy VanMarle, who does Pilates in Liberty Lake. “I have a friend who injured herself recently when a substitute was teaching. She wasn’t familiar with the exercise and overextended herself. It wasn’t the instructor’s fault; you just need to listen to your own body.”

Ben Greenfield, an exercise physiologist in Spokane, says, “On several occasions, I’ve had clients who have complained of upper neck, cervical pain or low-back lumbar pain. Upon examining their Pilates practice, I discovered they [were using] harmful and incorrect movement patterns.”

Greenfield has found the most common Pilates-related injuries come from the “Stomach Series,” in which participants lie on their backs looking toward the navel. “Unfortunately, rather than simply performing a gentle nod, many people crane their necks in this position, which causes excessive bending of the lower cervical spine and subsequent neck pain.”

Another frequent injury is in the lumbar spine when an individual forcefully presses the low back into the mat. “If your abdominals are straining to hold a position and you feel simultaneous low back pressure, it is likely that you are posteriorly tilting the pelvis and causing harmful disc compression,” says Greenfield. Striving to maintain a neutral pelvic position throughout the exercise can help with this.

To avoid injury, beginners are better off sticking with midrange movements and working on developing control before increasing the range of motion. Any position that causes pain should immediately be released and avoided in the future. It is also key to keep good posture in mind throughout the exercise sequence. That means maintaining the normal inward curve of the neck and low back during exercise.

Remember, you’re not just training your body how to do the exercise but also developing understanding of your body positioning and limitations, so you need to progress in a gradual fashion. Start with moves such as standing and bending with good breathing and posture control. Then advance to more intricate moves as you gain body control and awareness. Just because the rest of the class is doing a move doesn’t mean you have to do it yet if you’re not comfortable. Ask for a substitute or scaled-down version of the exercise.

Because Pilates has become so popular, there are a number of different programs for training instructors, requiring a broad range of instruction times, with some better than others. Keep in mind that a certified instructor does not necessarily equal a good instructor. And there are a handful of excellent instructors who may have minimal certifications but bring extensive years of experience and personal study to their classes. If you want to avoid getting hurt, Greenfield says, “Be wary of any instructor who simply performs the entire workout along with the class rather than frequently navigating throughout the room and providing instruction on proper form.” He doesn’t recommend joining group classes with more than 15 participants per instructor, especially if you are a beginner.

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