Mat classes are the most affordable way to reap the benefits of Pilates. Taught across the country at gyms and private studios, group classes mean you don't have an instructor cuing and correcting your every move. Make the most of your time on the mat and be mindful of these common mistakes I've seen in classes over the years.
Not Going Deep
There are many benefits to Pilates, but getting in touch with the deep abs, aka the transverse abdominals, is, to me, the most important. If the deep abs are working, then all four layers of ab muscles will be working right along with it, making for a very stable torso. In class, use every exhale as opportunity to reengage your abs and pull them into your spine with a little lift up. If the abs are pooching outward, you're only working the top layer of the abs and training them to pull away from the spine — the opposite effect of what you want.
Momentum Is Not Your Friend
Deliberate pauses are built into the choreography of many Pilates exercises to prevent momentum from taking over the motion. The Pilates method was originally named Contrology (the study of control) to emphasize this very concept. Going slowly is key. Jayme Boyle, the group fitness coordinator and Pillates mat instructor at the SF Equinox, explains the importance of forgoing momentum like this: "Slower pace means you’re turning on stabilizing muscles and you’re creating more isometric contractions." And I have to agree. Pilates is not a race.
Mat classes are often centered around a series of abdominal exercises with the head held off the floor unsupported, like the hundred and single leg stretch. In these challenging moves, it's easy to gaze at the ceiling, as if begging for help from heaven, with the chin jutting out. This creates some serious neck tension. The chin should be pointed down toward the chest as if you're holding, not juicing, an orange between these two body parts. This head and neck position also helps to round the upper spine. If your upper abs are weak, the correct position will be challenging. Keep working — you'll get stronger.
Skipping the Scoop
When working on your back, in the majority of Pilates exercises, you want to keep your low back rounded, with the vertebrae making contact with the floor. Scooping your low abs to round the lumbar spine works them tremendously — which is great because you want stronger abs — and protects your lower back, which is really the point of this whole endeavor. Don't think of this movement as tucking! Think of it as using your abs to lengthen your back.
Whether you're in a reverse plank doing a leg pull back or stretching your back with the saw, your shoulders should be anchored down, not up by your ears. Hunched shoulders create undue tension in the neck and upper body; plus it's plain ole bad posture. Focus on the shoulder blades sliding down your back, giving you an elegant swanlike neck. Read more on the mechanics of keeping your shoulders down here.
Pilates is a mind-body exercise, meaning you need to stay focused on your movement throughout class to help connect the brain and the brawn. Creating mental images of what is happening anatomically helps build the mind-body connection. Learn how imagaining soapy shoulder blades and string bikinis help with this.
Keeping It Just on the Mat
Pilates has the power to make every activity better. You should think of mat class not only as a workout, but a body lab. Take the sensations, body awareness, and posture cues you have learned in class out into the world. The lessons learned on the mat can help you ski, bike, and run better, but they will also help you avoid back pain on long car trips and neck pain from spending too much time at a computer.