At some point in the last decade, the badass prison-cell workout of a German circus performer and boxer interned in England during World War I got co-opted by soccer moms and college coeds. But more recently, some of the toughest athletes in pro sports have discovered the benefits of Pilates and added it to their training.
“It’s hard,” says NFL defensive back Johnson Bademosi. “I’ve been training for football for 10 years, and the first time I tried Pilates, I felt like a child—I was really struggling.”
Named for its inventor Joseph Pilates, who eventually brought it to the U.S., the system involves bodyweight-only exercises, typically on a piece of equipment called a reformer, which uses pulleys that let you focus on range of motion instead of resistance. That’s one reason athletes like Bademosi find it so tough—it activates lesser-used muscles and fully recruits the core.
“It’s hard to prepare for what’s needed on the field by just lifting weights,” says Bademosi. “Pilates challenges you with really unfamiliar movements.”
Says Stanford University’s Nanci Conniff, who works with pros like Bademosi, Andrew Luck, and Jeremy Lin, “With Pilates, you’re strengthening the muscles that are closer to the bone. You’re always working in extension, to lengthen instead of shorten muscles,” which can counteract the tightening and stress of sport-specific, high-impact training.
Here, some reformer moves Conniff has modified to suit any workout space and athlete.
Pilates for CrossFit
Conniff recommends that CrossFitters add exercises like the Saw (read the how-to, here) and Swimmers to their warmup, as a way of prepping for big, explosive moves. “These build strong muscular connections in the intrinsic core, and greater flexibility in the hips, which helps protect the lower back,” she says.
Swimmer: Lie facedown, arms stretched overhead, keep legs together and straight. Reach through the top of your head for the most extension you can manage, chin tucked slightly, eyes looking down. Raise your right arm and left leg about 6" off the ground, floating your head and chest up off the mat. Hold this position for 10 breaths. Alternate arms and legs.
Pilates for lifters
"These Pilates moves create pelvic stability for heavy lifts, and for increased flexibility and range of motion in the hamstrings, hips, and low back,” says Conniff.
Double leg kick: Lying facedown, bend knees to reach heels toward your butt. Arms reach behind your back, fingers laced, elbows bent, head turned to the right (if you can’t lace fingers, use a resistance band to connect the hands). On inhale, kick both heels to your butt two or three times quickly, then exhale as you stretch legs and arms out long, lifting your head and chest with eyes looking forward. Lower to starting position with head turned to the left, and repeat for six to 10 complete breath cycles.
Teaser: Start with your spine, head, and shoulders anchored to the floor, legs lifted up to a 90° angle at your hips and 90° again at the knees, arms raised slightly, about chest high. Sweep arms overhead then back downward toward sides, simultaneously extend legs up and out straight, lifting your body up into a V-sit position; hold for a few breaths. Finish by rolling back one vertebra at a time, to starting position. Repeat three to five times. (Make it more challenging by carrying a medicine ball.)
Pilates for endurance sports
Conniff says runners and cyclists and anyone else who puts their body through repetitive movements can use Pilates moves to add core strength and stability, as well as increased mobility in their spine, hips, and shoulders.
Single-leg kick: Lie facedown, propped up on elbows, legs stretched long and pressed together. Lift the torso from the floor, creating as much space between your flesh and the floor as possible, keeping the pelvis and thighs down. On exhale, bend your right knee to kick your heel toward your butt two times quickly then inhale as you stretch the leg to starting position. Repeat 10 times each leg.
Kneeling bicycle: Kneeling on your left knee, with right leg extended straight out to the side, lean left, placing your left hand on the floor. Raise your right leg until your foot is just below hip height. Exhale while swinging right leg forward; inhale as you bend right knee, sweeping the leg back as far as possible. Repeat five times, switch legs.