The benefits of Pilates and why you'll discover muscles you never knew existed
A class at Ireland's best-equipped Pilates studio in Clontarf will stretch you to your limit and you'll discover muscles you never even knew existed.
I'm stretched out on my back on a bench called the Cadillac, gazing at what appear to be fluffy handcuffs above my head.
My legs are swung to the far left-hand side of the bench, where my toes curl around a pole. My arms are above my head, tightly gripping a pole on the opposite side. The result: the whole right-hand side of my body is stretched as I take on the shape of a human letter 'U'. I did not think my body was capable of this.
"Breathe in and breathe out," reminds my instructor Anna. Ah yes, breathing. Always a good idea. That's why I'm slowly going purple. I take a long shaky breath and my side stretches out even more as my lungs expand. Holy God.
Second breath and my body is slowly ceasing to feel like it's been scissored in two. Third breath. In fact, this is beginning to feel rather good.
"Now for the other side," announces Anna. Damn.
I'm in Pilates Centre in Clontarf for a private Pilates Tower and Chair lesson with studio owner, Anna Wilson. I'm not a novice to Pilates, although you'd be forgiven for thinking so. I first got into it in Sydney a few years ago and since then, have taken part in all kinds of classes - in school halls, gyms, studios and one-on-ones in private homes. But I have never been in a studio with equipment like this.
"We're the best-equipped studio in Ireland," says Anna, who trained at the Pilates Centre in Boulder, Colorado - otherwise known as the Harvard of Pilates training. "We have chairs, reformers, towers, foot correctors, spine correctors, the Cadillac, barrels, Swedish bars, a neck stretcher and even a breathing tool which teaches you how to extend your breath."
Right now, I'm working on the Tower, an upright frame incorporating springs and bars that provides resistance and supports me as Anna guides me through movements that seem to defy gravity. Before I know it, I'm balancing on pretty much just my shoulders, legs high above my head as I grip on to the bars and remember to breathe.
Pilates is a full-body workout, but I usually do mat-work classes where it's all too easy to let your arms hang limply by your sides occasionally, or give your legs a break when you're doing upper-body exercises. With the Tower, my hands and legs are constantly meeting resistance, either in straps or against the bars of the apparatus (turns out those fluffy handcuffs are for grabbing on to). Soon, muscles I didn't even know existed are burning. As is my core.
Almost all Pilates core work is taught to come from the deepest layer of the abdominal wall, known as the transvers abdominus.
As I lie on my back for the next exercise, raise my head and chest and slowly swing my legs from side to side, the resistance from the foot straps means I really have to remember to hold in my abdomen as tight as possible. Soon, I'm panting.
I thought Tower Pilates would be easier, given that I have so many supports to hold on to. But it turns out, that's not the case.
"Tower Pilates helps you balance your muscles," explains Anna. "You've got a little bit of support to help you do a full-body exercise, which might sound easier, but it actually makes for a harder class. If you don't have support, you're probably just using your pet muscles, the ones you go to all the time.
"Having the support in place helps you to get away from using your pet muscles and find underused muscles. It means you'll have to really work out, it's going to be hard. You should be shaking using your underused muscles."
Well, I'm shaking like a leaf right now so I must be doing something right. Thankfully, we're done with the Tower and next up is the Chair.
This looks like a harmless bit of equipment - a padded seat with a spring-loaded paddle on the base. But once Anna sets me up and I place my feet on the paddle, I'm immediately taken aback by how heavy it is.
"Now for footwork," says Anna, and I start a fairly simple exercise of pushing the paddle up and down with my feet. Except it's not that simple at all - within seconds, some new-found muscles right above my knees are burning like hell.
I like to think my leg muscles are fairly strong from running, but there is no way I have ever worked my legs out in this way before. Next up are one-sided leg exercises, where I quickly discover that while my left leg is okay, my right one is weak and shaky.
Like the Tower, the Chair is about discovering which muscles are weak and need more attention. Anna sees a lot of athletes, tennis players and golf players, who come in to improve their weaker muscles and achieve full-body balance. It may look like a small piece of equipment, but it's capable of giving a full-body workout, with exercises from push-ups and tricep presses to full-body extension exercises and, ahem, the upside-down push-up.
That's is what I'm attempting right now. With my arms gripping the sides of the chair, I breathe deeply, squeeze my poor abdominal muscles one last time and lift my legs as high off the floor as possible. Ouch.
"That's a full-body workout right there," says Anna encouragingly, as I shuffle out of the studio and straight for the water cooler. And she's right. The next day, I'm still feeling the after-effects on those newly discovered muscles, but I'm also feeling taller and more flexible with better posture.
I'll definitely be back for more.
The Pilates Studio in Clontarf offers group Tower and Chair Pilates classes for €22 (€16.50 when you buy 20 classes) and private sessions for €60. Visit www.pilatescentre.ie for a full class schedule
The Pilates Centre in Clontarf teaches classical Pilates, in the same way as its founder, Joseph Pilates, who created the exercise in the 1920s. It's a series of controlled movements that help to strengthen your core, posture and breathing, while giving a full-body workout.
Devotees report improvements in flexibility, posture and abdominal strength and decreases in back, neck and joint pain. It's suitable for everyone, including older people.
As well as increasing your abdominal strength, Pilates is good for strengthening your pelvic floor, making it an excellent choice of exercise for pregnant women and those who have recently given birth.