If you still think of the molten center of the earth when you hear the word "core," where have you been hiding? The popularity of Pilates mat classes over the past decade has exploded. And like any popular form of exercise, it is continually growing and changing.
You wouldn't have found resistance bands like Therabands and Dynabands in the studio when Joseph Pilates began teaching his method of stretching and strengthening back in the 1920s. "But if you look at footage of him teaching at Jacob's Pillow, he did have a rigged up a system of cords -- like bungee cords -- attached to the wall," says Lisa Wheeler, Reebok Global Master Trainer and International Fitness Presenter. "So even though using resistance bands in a mat class is a more modern invention, you can still trace the practice back to Mr Pilates."
Resistance bands are popular because they're inexpensive -- usually around $5 -- and easy to transport if you're traveling. In a Pilates setting, they are useful to both beginners and more advanced students. "Beginners can use the bands to assist with extreme ranges of motion," Wheeler says. "The band can help them learn to recognize their core and find correct positions."
More advanced students use the bands to add resistance and give their muscles a challenge. "These things are everywhere -- in classes and dvds -- I use them in all my classes," says Tracey Mallet, Pilates Master Instructor and creator of the Pilates dvds 3 in 1 Pregnancy Systems. "Even if a student doesn't need to use a band for assistance or resistance, we use them to add variety to the routines. It keeps people interested."
Both Wheeler and Mallet agree that using a resistance band can cause you to lose good form. "If you feel tension in your neck, something's wrong," Wheeler warns. Pilates is useless -- and a bit dangerous -- if you lose your form. It's all about proper alignment. If you have extremely stiff hamstrings, like many people do, a band can help you support your leg in a lower position until your core is strong enough to hold it there without a band. But if your lower back starts arching up and loses contact with the floor, youire not doing yourself any favors by using the band. A good teacher will be able to help you modify movements using a variety of techniques, so if something doesn't feel right, ask!
If you do use a band, it's important to be sure you're using the correct weight for what you're doing. Mallet instructs her students to use a heavy supportive band for assistance -- these are usually steel grey in color. Lighter, stretchier bands are best for resistance.
You can increase or decrease the resistance by increasing or decreasing the length of the band. If your gym doesn't have a ready supply of resistance bands for its classes, you can always bring your own. They are readily available at department and sporting goods stores, or ask any physical therapist to cut you off a piece -- she's probably got a big roll of the stuff stashed in her office. "I generally use the straight pieces of rubber in my classes," Wheeler says, "but you can use the tubular kind with handles on each end -- just use whatever you've got handy."
Many Pilates mat classes also add in traditional sculpting and toning exercises using resistance bands. "I find people want a well-balanced class," Mallet says. "If they only have time for one class, they want Pilates. But they also want some upper body sculpting. Pilates does have some wonderful upper body exercises, but most students will never progress far enough in the discipline to get to those exercises -- mainly because they don't have access to the Reformer or other apparatus. Resistance bands allow beginner and intermediate students to mimic the exercises we do on these specialized and very expensive machines."
So, whether you're a beginner who needs a little help with her roll-ups, or an advanced student who needs a challenge, resistance bands can be a great way to pump up your Pilates routine!
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