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Down to the Core

Pilates workout can improve flexibility, core strength, body awareness

The swan extends the spine and strengthens back  muscles.

Colin Shelton fully realized the healing power of Pilates a few years after a skiing accident that tore one of the tendons in his knee, resulting in surgery and pain. A dance student and an avid climber, he tried physical therapy, but it didn’t help him get back to the level of ability that he needed for his pursuits.

At the advice of his dance instructor, Shelton started practicing Pilates while recovering from surgery and got hooked right away. “In outdoor sports, the ability to remain in control of your body and to react appropriately when things start to go wrong can mean the difference between a couple of bruises and a trip to the ER,” says Shelton, now a Pilates instructor at the YMCA in downtown Pittsburgh. “Pilates certainly builds strength and flexibility, but its real payoff is the improved coordination and body-awareness that lets you deal with unexpected situations."

Created in the 1920s by Joseph H. Pilates, The Pilates Method is series of controlled movements focused on improving flexibility and strength, as well as balance and harmony of mind and body. Performed either on an apparatus machine or a mat, Pilates can be practiced by people of all levels of fitness while providing a revitalizing workout, especially on your core abdominal muscles.

“It’s great to have people come in and have a problem and then leave better than when they came,” Shelton says. “In general I’ve found Pilates to be a good complement to other training programs, but not a replacement.”

Pilates especially helps with muscle imbalances in the lower back, which can develop due to many people’s tendency to strain their dominant side of their body during sports such as swimming and rock climbing. Pilates pulls everything back into alignment and focuses on coordinating and balancing your upper and lower body.

Pilates helps the most with full-body activities that require fine motor control.

As for the mental stuff, Shelton says that Pilates or some similar training “should be a requirement for anyone doing intense athletics because it teaches bodily awareness that doesn’t always come naturally.”

“It’s important to think about your body, where you are in space and where you’re going … The more mindful you are of your body, the closer you can push to the edge of your limits, and the less likely you are to get hurt,” he says.

Pilates is based on six principles: centering, concentration, control, precision, breathing and flowing movement. For more information, go to