As a former fitness journalist, I have spent hours upon hours trying different forms of workouts. From traditional strength training to barre, dance, spinning, running, rowing, boxing and yoga, I’ve thrown my hat in the ring multiple times but never really found my thing. That is, until classical pilates. A system of exercises created by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, classical pilates is a sequence of exercises (mat-based and equipment-based) that create strength and flexibility throughout the body and correct imbalances.
In the spirit of finding a form of exercise I could follow for a long time (consistency is always better than flash-in-the-pan habits when it comes to fitness) and that would reap serious compound health benefits, I followed a classical pilates regime for a month at north London studio Exhale London. Here’s what I learned during the 30 days, as well as a quick refresher on the differences between classical and contemporary pilates.
How does classical pilates differ from contemporary pilates?
If the word pilates brings to mind thoughts of packed in reformer beds, pounding club-esque music and fast-paced movements that feel impossible to keep up with, know you’re not alone. Contemporary pilates has a “base” in the classical movements prescribed by founder Joseph Pilates but, often, a base is all it is.
Classical pilates is never performed to music and is usually executed in a pre-determined series and sequence. Not only that, but classical pilates uses a range of equipment not commonly seen in pop-culture pilates studios.
“A fully equipped classical studio houses various types of equipment that all give a different feeling and work different parts of the body, all while giving the muscles different feedback to work on,” explains Gaby Noble, the founder of classical pilates studios Exhale. “These include the universal reformer, cadillac, wunda chair, high chair, baby chair, barrels, neck stretcher, a pedi pole and many other pieces that allow our clients to get the full classical experience for their bodies and mind. When worked like this, it’s an incredibly powerful system.”
What I discovered following a classical pilates routine for 30 days
1. I felt stronger and more stable than ever before
As the month progressed, I felt stronger and more stable throughout my entire body – noticeable even in small moments like standing in line at the supermarket or sitting at my makeshift home desk. My posture improved and I felt that I was standing more upright, supported by my newly engaged core (or, powerhouse, as Pilates would say).
This isn’t a surprise, says Gaby, building deep strength within the body is a key part of classical pilates.
“Classical pilates focuses on building on the fundamentals. This means you can begin to flow through the exercises as you become more advanced – rather than speeding through the exercises to raise your heart rate and ‘feel the burn’,” explains Gaby.
“You can certainly still feel the body working, but the focus is more on a full mind and body connection, using the ‘powerhouse’ (the pilates term for your core, glutes, inner thighs and back muscles) to work from a strong center . Classical pilates works the body equally to build uniform strength – it goes deeper into the muscles rather than focusing on ‘superficial’ muscles or individual muscle groups (eg your legs, glutes or stomach) to avoid any imbalances.
“Resistance is added with springs and through bodyweight, which means you’re only ever pushing against a force that you can handle. This not only limits possible injuries but allows you to practice pilates regularly without experiencing inhibiting aches and pains for days after – something that can happen through high impact training.”
2. The tower has become my new favorite piece of pilates equipment
When I first stepped foot in the Exhale studio I had done a number of contemporary reformer classes at other studios and dabbled in mat-based pilates. What I didn’t expect was to discover a totally different piece of equipment I enjoyed more.
The tower, a mat-based workout with all equipment on a structure fixed to the wall, is a form of pilates that uses arm and leg springs, a roll-back bar, a push-through bar and poles. It follows a more creative structure than the reformer (which always follows a set sequence in classical pilates) and builds uniform strength.
“Not as many people know about the tower and they are missing out,” says Gaby. “It’s a more creative workout, as you can use the leg springs, arm springs, push through and roll back bar in any variation to modify the exercises.
“The springs not only add resistance to the exercises, but they also support the body and aid alignment. Unlike the reformer, the tower has less support which can feel more freeing and also more intense!”
3. I associated my workout with feeling calm and in control of my day, as well as looking after myself
We all experience stress in our daily lives. It’s a facet of modern living trying to work, socialise, perform self-care and keep up with the long list of commitments that come with being a human adult. In my opinion, I never want my workout routine to add any more stress into my life. A dark room with ear-splitting music and a barrage of shouted instructions now feels more like a punishment than a fun way to move my body. Don’t @ me, I was a firm friend of those forms of exercise for a long time.
Classical pilates and, specifically, the airy Exhale studio, created pockets of blissful calm in my day. I even found myself looking forward to 7am classes. The class sizes are small which means instructions are highly personal and adjustments are explained thoroughly and there’s no music playing. Rather than distract myself with trying to hear above fast-paced lyrics, I could focus on my alignment, the cues being given and noting where I had improved on the class before.
My workouts felt measured and controlled and I knew I would leave each session having done something good for my body and my mind – a truly priceless feeling.
4. I could do things at the end that seemed impossible at the start
Classical pilates equipment can look intimidating at first glance. A cacophony of arm and leg springs, poles and bars, there’s a lot going on. As you work through a class it becomes clear what they’re all for and when they should be used, but, yes, it’s more than just a mat and springy ring. Add to that, seeing influencers and celebrities performing gravity-defying exercises on equipment like the cadillac. Oo-er.
However, chipping away at exercises that, for a number of reasons, were out of my grasp at the beginning of the month, and building my skills was transformative to my confidence.
There was no expectation at Exhale that you walk in brilliant at pilates. In fact, it’s required that you undergo a private 1:1 induction before joining a group class to familiarize yourself with basic movements and the equipment. Instead, it was the carefully considered cueing by the teachers that made me stronger and better class by class.
“In Exhale teacher training, we learn the intention behind every movement. The teacher knows the exercises inside and out, so they are able to cue individuals based on what their needs are within the exercise. Rather than shouting orders, they read the body and use language that they feel is necessary to get the best out of the individual,” explains Gaby.
“We maintain this by keeping small class numbers so that we can still give personalized advice and encouragement when clients go deeper into the work. Our team are trained to look at the body in front of them, train the eye for detail and how the body moves as well as shift our style and cues based on who is in front of us.”
Exhale is a fully-equipped classical pilates studio with locations in Primrose Hill and North Finchley. All Exhale teachers are classically trained. Find out more or book an induction at exhalepilateslondon.com. You can also find Exhale on Instagram.
Main image: courtesy of brand