3 Ways Pilates Makes Everyday Life Easier

When we talk about the benefits of Pilates, sometimes we bypass the practical benefits of being able to move better in daily life. Instead, the Pilates side effects of flat abs and a longer, leaner look play into our cultural biases and are the first things mentioned. But Joseph Pilates was interested in creating a system of exercise that resulted in bodies that moved gracefully and efficiently throughout life, not just in the studio, on the mat, or in a sports setting.

Let's see how Pilates improves regular life moves, making them safer and more balanced and graceful. By comparing three examples, walking, stepping up, and reaching, and then turning to three foundations of Pilates movement, hip differentiation, shoulder stability, and stabilized rotation, you will learn how Pilates builds strength, flexibility, and balance into everyday moves.

Awareness is one of the most powerful tools you can bring to any aspect of your life, including exercise. My hope is that these brief examples will increase your awareness of how Pilates exercises integrate real-life movement, and that will lead to a much greater experience of all the benefits of Pilates.

Walk and Climb with Grace and Ease

pilates for walking
Pilates instructor and author Gary Calderone. Marguerite Ogle

In figures 1 and 2, our model, Gary, doesn't have a good, deep bend at the hip as he goes to step up and walk forward. That lack of differentiation between the pelvis and the leg means that as he moves his leg, he has less stability and more compensation through his spine and torso.

In figure 1, Gary's whole right hip wants to go forward with the leg. You can also see how that has sent his body a little off balance so his upper body is not squared up to where he wants to go. A little exaggeration of that move would torque his low back as his right hip went forward.

In figure 2, we have the classic hike of the hip just to get enough clearance to step up. How do you think constant hip-hiking feels to the lower back? Not good. How about getting tipped off balance sideways every time you take a step? That's what's happening. These kinds of little things can build up to be big irritations like back pain.

Take a look at the photo on the right. Do you see how nicely lined up Gary is to step up and move forward? His shoulders are squared. His hips are squared. He is organized along the midline of his body to move forward, not side to side or twisted. It looks easy and natural.

The big key to Gary's improved form here is that he is letting his leg come forward and his knee come up without affecting the rest of his body. He's doing that by keeping his right hip down and instead of hiking his hip up, he is bringing his thigh up by allowing a deep crease where his leg and pelvis meet (for a better view of the hip flexion, see pilates knee folds), and bending his knee. Can you imagine how that might translate from walking to bike riding or rock climbing and beyond?

Examples of Beginner Pilates exercises that promote hip/leg differentiation -- getting a nice flexion at the hip while keeping the pelvis stable include knee foldssingle leg stretch, and leg kick front and back.

Balance and Reach with Core Support

shoulder stability
Marguerite Ogle

Ouch, my neck. Ouch, my back. Ouch, I can't lift anything heavy off this shelf because my shoulder has lost connection with my core. I think I might fall over.

You get the picture: In figure 1, Gary is showing a typical reaching up move, something you might do to get an item from a shelf. You can see that if he goes any further he's going to be working hard to keep his balance and his neck is getting crunched even now. Gary's shoulder is lifting out of its connection with his torso -- and with every bit it does, he's losing the power and stability that come through the core. What if the item on the shelf was heavy? It would be difficult to control and necessitate ungraceful, inefficient gyrations just to bring it to chest level.

Now, look at how core-connected Gary is the photo on the right. You can see that his shoulder girdle is still integrated with the rest of his body, and you can sense how he is reaching out from the stability of his core. He could easily go further -- he could even get up on his toes and not be too far off center to reach for something of consequence. He would go straight up, and straight down, and not hurt his neck or lose his balance in the process.

In Pilates, we start working with shoulder stability with fundamental exercises like arm reach and pull and angel arms. Then we move on to strength and stability challenges with lots of arm-supported plank exercises and on to greater challenges from there.

Turn and Twist Safely

turning the spine
Saving the neck by distributing effort along the spine. Marguerite Ogle

This is my favorite example of how helpful Pilates training can be in daily life. Look at what a limited range-of-motion Gary has in the two photos on the left. In the bottom photo, he is pretending to drive because that is one of the ordinary times we all need to be able to turn fully, without tipping our body or hurting our neck. In the left-side versions, Gary's torso is barely turning and his neck is taking all the stress. Someone else might have a different version of this and take all the twist at some other part of their back.

The point is to see what Gary shows on the right: With a flexible spine and stability from the pelvis, the effort of a twist can be safely distributed along the spine. Look at how much more of a turn Gary gets as he lengthens his spine out of a stable pelvis and spirals out of that with his torso, chest, and head comfortably giving him a good view behind.

Examples of Pilates exercises that teach turning from a stable pelvis include chest lift with rotationsaw, and spine twist.

This has by no means been a complete review of how Pilates exercises relate to daily life moves, but it is enough for you to begin to see the connections yourself. As you progress with Pilates, gaining strength and flexibility, it won't be far to go to see how these connections support more challenging activities like running, dancing, and sports. Though we have looked at things in parts and had specific examples of exercises for each kind of move, remember that Pilates is full-body exercise. It is designed to create uniform muscular development and ease of motion throughout the body. Learn more about what it means to get in shape with Pilates