Why You Need Pilates in Your Life

Celebrity trainer Brooke Siler dishes on the many body benefits of practicing Pilates

November 8, 2013
Pilates Tips: Brooke Siler pic
Beth Bischoff

Consider Pilates today’s best-kept fitness secret—it’s the force behind many of Hollywood's hottest bodies, and practicing it regularly results in that long-and-lean look we’re all after. And while the A-list training method used to be confined to private studio sessions, group classes have been popping up in gyms across the country, leading many fitness junkies to wonder: Should I be doing Pilates?

In a word: yes. The benefits of the core-centric practice can't be ignored. Often thought of as yoga’s younger, cooler sibling, Pilates combines the best of flexibility and strength training, tapping every muscle and transforming your body in record time. Mat classes alone can burn up to 600 calories per hour, rivaling even the most "hardcore" workouts you’re already doing.


But Pilates still feels inaccessible to many, so to get more insight into how and why you should incorporate the practice into your fitness routine, we picked the brain of Pilates pro Brooke Siler, owner of re:AB Pilates Studio and author of The Women's Health Big Book of Pilates.

You have personally trained celebrities like Madonna, Liv Tyler, Zooey Deschanel, and Kirsten Dunst, and it seems like celebrities really flock to Pilates. Why do you think it’s so popular in the celeb circle?
Whether they’re modeling, acting, or performing, celebrities are often involved in a physical art, and that necessitates a lot of control over your body. Pilates is something that combines the best of your gym workout, your yoga workout, and your cardio workout. It’s such a one-stop shop, and since celebs really value their time, a methodology that gets everything done at once is often the best fit. The aesthetic of Pilates is also very desirable. It doesn’t build bulky muscle, and it creates very streamlined silhouettes.

So for the layperson—how many times per week would you recommend doing Pilates to really start to see results? How often to get, say, Jennifer Aniston’s legs?
The more you do it, the faster you’re going to see results. What I often say is that it’s kind of like learning a new language. If you were looking to learn French, you'd have to ask yourself—if I go one hour a week, how much French am I going to learn, and how quickly am I going to learn it? Whereas if I go every day and I spend an hour, and then I’m practicing each day on my own as well, how fast will I learn it then? The reason I compare it to a language is that once you learn it, you don’t need to go that often. You can go down from 4-5 times per week to 2 times per week and still maintain your physique.

Will Pilates alone help me lose weight?
Pilates was not meant originally as a weight loss technique, so people who are looking to lose a substantial amount of weight might want to combine it with an additional bout of some kind of aerobic activity and a good nutritional program. Pilates is cardiovascular, but it’s anaerobic, so it’s much more akin to interval training—which most top trainers recommend for peak athletic performance—because your heart rate goes up and down throughout a session. So while Pilates is a great cardio workout, it’s not aerobic in that your heart rate isn’t peaked for a steady 45 minutes like it would be on a run.

Speaking of cardio: Say I’m a runner, a biker, or I play a sport. Is Pilates a good compliment to other activities?
Absolutely! That’s what’s great about Pilates—it will help you do whatever else you do that much better. I often recommend doing it with other forms of exercise. With Pilates, you’re stretching and strengthening at the same time. Many people who like to do cardio, be it running or whatever, don’t stretch, but they’ll often strength train. But if you do Pilates, you get the strength element by using your own body’s resistance, or the resistance of the equipment, and you’re getting that important element of stretching with it as well.

Are those mat classes at my gym actually beneficial? Is that “real” Pilates?
I think people think that the mat is easy and that the equipment is the hard bit, but it’s kind of the opposite. Joseph Pilates designed the equipment so that you could get strong enough to do the mat, and I don’t think most people know that. And that’s why the mat classes are watered down a lot, because they have to cater to a mixed level of students who may not be ready to manage their own bodies without any support.

And as for the benefits of mat classes, it totally depends on the teacher. A mat class at your gym with the right teacher could be phenomenal, but you may or may not be doing what Joseph Pilates actually prescribed. But if you’re doing his method with an authentic teacher who knows how to push you, then absolutely you are in the right place, and you may not need the studio.

How can I verify that my instructor—whether for Mat or Reformer classes—is the real deal?
There are a few ways to gauge your teacher's pedigree. You can go to ClassicalPilates.net, a directory of authentically trained teachers trained within three generations of Joe Pilates himself. For example, I’m second generation because Joe trained my teacher Romana Kryzanowska. My apprentices, then, become third generation upon graduating. Second, you can ask the gym or the instructor what program he or she was certified under. No program worth its salt certifies people in under 600+ hours—my training program is 720+ hours—and the ideal is someone who’s certified in the entire system of Pilates and not just one facet. And third, you can go right to the source and leaf through Joe Pilates' book, Return to Life Through Contrology, and see if the exercises you’re doing in class are the same as in his book—or mine! Pilates is an athletic workout so you should be sweating and your body should start to change within ten classes. If not, find a better teacher!

If I can’t afford studio sessions, and my gym doesn’t offer classes that are up to snuff, can I do Pilates at home? (I don’t have a Reformer, by the way.)
Yes! In my book, I’ve added resistance with bands. While it’s not exactly the same as the studio equipment, the bands offer a nice addition to your “pure,” just-your-body, standalone workouts. But it’s still limited in terms of how many exercises you can do with the bands versus how much you can do in a fully equipped studio. We have hundreds of exercises at the studio, and the equipment is really fun, and each piece offers a different way of getting at your muscles. It was designed to be a full system, so when you’re doing the mat, you’re really only getting one-tenth of what’s available to you. But, that said, if that’s all you’ve got—one-tenth—that’s better than nothing! And you can absolutely, 100-percent change your body with mat work alone.

We’ve all heard of the Hundred, but what’s your favorite all-around toning move that you can do at home, no equipment required? 
I love the Pilates Pushup. It has a nice combination of movements in it, and because it’s one of the few standing moves—it goes from standing to planking to push-upping and back to standing again—it ups the cardio component. When you go from up to down to back up again, your heart has to pump more, so it’s nice as both a warmup and as an ender. It’s great for you to work on your balance and your stability, which really fires up your feet and ankles, which are so critical to your pelvis and how you hold your upper-body posture. People don’t recognize how much their feet and ankles affect everything—their knees, their hips, their shoulders, even. It really is the best all-around move.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Start standing with your arms in the air.

2. Round down with control. As you’re rounding, one of the principles of Pilates is to try to articulate your spine, trying to segmentally roll down your spine like you’re rolling up a tube of toothpaste, one little joint at a time. Place your palms on the floor, bending your knees if need be.

3. Walk out into your pushup position and do three pushups. [Not pictured] Fold back up by pushing off your arms and coming into an upside-down triangle. Stretch out through the back of your legs by pushing your heels down to the mat, and then with very strong abdominal control, push off your hands and walk your hands back up towards your feet. Stretch the whole backline of your body by drawing the forehead to your knees. With soft knees, use your Powerhouse—tummy, tush, and inner thighs—to roll yourself back up to standing one joint at a time and lift your arms up. Repeat the entire sequence three times.

MAKE IT HARDER: While you’re down in your pushup position, you can also add any number of pushup variations, and there are a bunch in my book. I like turning into a side plank and doing each side and then folding back up and walking up.

Ready to get a Pilates body? The Women's Health Big Book of Pilates will transform your form into a long, lean, fat-burning machine.