As a health and fitness editor and certified personal trainer, it's fair to say I'm pretty attuned to my body. For example, the piriformis on my right is perpetually tight and I have a tendency toward quad dominance that I'm working to fix. But enough with the science-y sounding stuff—you get the point. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what that ache was, or what this move worked. But one foot on the Pilates reformer and I was quickly reminded just how much more there is to learn.
If you've never tried Pilates, or only think of it as a workout DVD from the '80s, you're missing out on some serious muscle shaking—the kind that makes you sweat without ever moving faster than you do when getting out of bed. (How does that happen?!) I first walked into a reformer-based Pilates studio three years ago. The reformer is that mysterious machine with springs underneath. It can sometimes go by different studio-specific or licensed names, but they're all relatively the same thing. Back then, after I got over the fear of falling off the carriage—the springy moving platform—I went to classes fairly regularly. But a few months later when my classes ran out, I sort of let my newfound interest dwindle.
Fast-forward to about a month ago when I was invited to a couple events at local Pilates studios. I thought, "This is the perfect excuse to pick up the practice again." (I'm a lover of Spinning, HIIT, and barre, so I'm ALL about that cross-training and thought if nothing else, this would at least stretch my sore muscles after a tough ride.) After the first 10 minutes or so (it takes some time to get your sea carriage legs on, OK?), I started to remember just how great this felt! I began to notice that my pelvic alignment needed some readjusting (I thought all my work at the barre fixed that!), and then I felt some really good work in my back and sides of my body. By the end of class, I felt re-energized—I found new goals to make, rediscovered muscles I'd totally forgotten about, and noticed areas of my body I didn't even realize I was neglecting. Here are some of the muscles I found, along with some insight from Amy Jordan, owner and instructor at WundaBar Pilates, on how the technique so expertly targets those tough-to-reach spots.
Pilates forces you to fire up deep intrinsic muscles like the multifidi, which runs the length of and surrounds your spine, and the transverse abdominis, which is essentially your body's natural girdle. Stabilizer muscles do just that: stabilize. They stabilize your spine, your pelvis, and your core. Focusing on what's happening inside and holding strong in your middle is what allows you to control the movements instead of letting gravity and momentum pull you and the carriage back to neutral.
"What I like to always say is that we move from the inside out," says Jordan of the Pilates technique both on and off the machine. "We get deeper than the muscles. We move from the bones outward focusing on bone alignment and how they rotate around the joint." This type of functional exercise takes what you learn in class and applies it to how to move outside. All that core work has helped me stay strong and upright even when I'm sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. Plus those deep core muscles (P.S. Your core is both your abdominals and back—think of it as a band that wraps around your middle) are responsible for flat abs. What good is a six-pack if it's sitting on a bloated belly?
The move that burns: Think you have a strong core just because you plank regularly? You're in for a real treat when you try to plank or mountain climb on a moving carriage. Standing on the front platform, face the carriage and grab the sides with each hand as you slide the carriage back, coming to a high-plank position. Holding steady without moving the carriage is hard enough, but when the instructor asks you to do the same while you perform mountain climbers, it takes things to a whole new level—activating your stabilizers is the only way you'll get through it. P.S. This is usually the "warm-up"!
You might have trouble just pronouncing the name of this muscle (it's actually two muscles working in tandem), but it's even harder to actually find the iliopsoas. Pilates helped me do it! The iliopsoas connects the lower spine and hip with the front of your thigh. The tiny iliopsoas is not something you'll ever see in the mirror, but you'll certainly feel its effects. Jordan explains that it plays an important role in many everyday movements. "It allows you to bend side to side and flex your spine [curl forward]," she says. "If it's tight, you'll have weak abdominals and it greatly affects your posture."
Although I know it's there, it was difficult to really "feel" the iliopsoas at work (there's lots of sweating and shaking happening on that machine, after all). Jordan suggested I try the trick below during my next class.
The move that burns: While performing a lunge with one foot on the platform and the other on the carriage, draw the carriage all the way in as you raise to standing, allowing it to touch the bumpers (between platform and carriage). She said that I should then imagine that I could pull the carriage through the platform as if trying to blast through it. Aha! There you are, iliopsoas.
You know, the area that sort of cups your booty? This is really just the top fibers of your hamstring, says Jordan. Okay, so the hamstrings are not exactly a small muscle, nor one that we generally fail to target, but hear me out. I squat, I dip, I bridge, I lunge, I curl, I press—all of which work my hammies, glute max, and with a few tweaks, my glute med. But it's your "under butt" that's responsible for giving you a round, lifted tush. Or unfortunately, if left alone, a pancake booty. A few classes in and I already felt the backside of my legs tighten and my glutes seemed lifted as a result.
Jordan says Pilates, both on the mat and on the machines, focuses on both strengthening and lengthening the body, which is why you feel even the upper fibers of your larger muscle groups—that full extension reaches farther and deeper than you would with a shorter movement. You work against the pull of the springs and ropes to create long, lean, and toned muscles while also developing strength and stability in your core.
The move that burns: Standing with one foot in the middle of the back platform, opposite foot pointed and resting lightly on the pedal (a lever on the back of the machine), you'll lower down into a Pilates version of the pistol squat. If you think barely tapping your other foot on a moving pedal is a modification for the real-deal, think again. It's actually harder to retain focus and weight over the standing leg because that darn pedal tricks you into trying to put weight on it. Doing so will cause the pedal to fly to the floor and bring you along with it—not so graceful.
Bicycles and side planks will target your obliques, sure, but just one class into my rekindled relationship with Pilates and I felt sore near the front of my upper ribcage. I was used to thinking about the side of my body as my hips, or waist, but this was different.
You have two sets of oblique muscles—internal and external. Bicycle crunches work your external obliques, helping carve chiseled ab muscles. But static side planks work those internal obliques, which, just like the transverse abdominis, help keep your middle tight and tiny. With your legs crossed on the carriage, resting on your toes and hands on the back platform, pike your legs as you rotate slightly to one side and the other and—BAM!—you've just met your internal obliques. P.S. They're going to burn later. (Want more ab work? These 12 classic Pilates moves double as ab exercises.)
The move that burns: Fair warning, it might be difficult to lift your hair dryer in the morning. With your palms on the back platform, you'll place the balls of both feet on the back end of the carriage underneath a strap that essentially holds them in place. Push the carriage to the front to get into plank position. Next, you'll unhook your right foot, cross it behind your left, and resecure it under the strap. This allows your left hip to drop slightly. You'll squeeze your core to maintain a stable upper body as you pike your hips to the sky, holding for a few seconds before repeating. The rotation creates a burn in your internal obliques like no bicycle crunch could ever think of accomplishing.
Teres Major and Teres Minor
Underneath your rear deltoids (back of your shoulders) are two small but important muscles called the teres major and teres minor. Why are they important? They, along with the much larger latissimus dorsi, help to tighten the armpit, eliminating arm flab. Triceps presses and push-ups work toward this goal too, but engaging the muscles in your back is what really sculpts upper arms. I felt these muscles engage in many of the resistance movements we did using the cables attached to the reformer.
Jordan says Pilates helps to open up your chest, which can become tight from slouching over your desk all day, by focusing on the entire backside of your body. Performing resistance movements like side twists, rows, and reverse flys using the cables attached to the reformer help balance out my hardworking muscles and are a much-anticipated part of class following a long day at my desk.
The move that burns: Kneel in the middle carriage facing to one side and grab the handle of the resistance cable with the hand closest to it (so, if the right hand is near the back of the machine, grab with your right hand). Keep your torso completely stable as you bring the cable across your body diagonally, from hip-level on your right to eye level on your left. This punching movement coupled with stability allows your back to take on the brunt of the work.
Although Jordan reminds me that Pilates is a head-to-toe workout, it's such a great thing when you find a workout that you feel really targets your inner thighs. (Am I right?!) Zipping in and extending out, using the platform as your balance and the carriage as your challenge against momentum, really targets those adductor muscles. (Learn more about the anatomy of your leg muscles.)
Jordan says strong adductors are important for knee and hip stabilization. You can really lock in those muscles by staying connected to your big toe and second toe during movements, making sure not to angle your weight into the outside of your feet. Each class typically includes a move where one foot is on the front platform, another on the carriage, toes are out slightly, and you use the foot on the carriage to move against the spring's resistance into a wide second position. Now—after you make sure you don't fall in the middle of the machine or pull a muscle—you use your inner thighs and core to draw the carriage back into the platform in a slow and controlled movement. I never knew my adductors were capable of such things until Pilates.
The move that burns: To bring yourself into a wide second position, you'll place one foot on the front platform, another on the carriage toward the edge, toes turned slightly out. Allow the carriage to open as you squat down into a deep plié squat. Next, harness the strength of the inner thigh that's on the platform as you squeeze that leg in, bringing you to standing position. When you focus on using that adductor muscle, you give it some action that would normally go to dominant muscle groups like the glutes.
These are just a few of the muscles I've been recently reacquainted with, and if you try a Pilates reformer class (which you absolutely should!), you might not necessary feel the burn in your under butt like I did. Everybody is different. But I guarantee that if not there, then surely somewhere you'll find muscles you never even knew existed. Happy piking.