The truth about how pilates improves posture
The truth about how pilates improves posture
Pilates exercise was founded by Joseph Pilates during the 1920’s. Pilates is a mind-body intervention that focuses on core stability, posture, flexibility, strength, breathing, and movement control (1). It is the focus on posture and the control of body position that underpins why Pilates is great for improving posture and giving long lasting relief from postural pains and strains.
What is ‘good’ posture?
Since we were kids we’ve been encouraged to stand up straight and hold ‘good posture.’ This isn’t easy and as quickly as we can change our posture to being ‘up tall’, we’ve slumped, slouched or stooped back into our old position and habits. Why has this always been encouraged? In part it’s to help us fight the fight against gravity. Gravity wants to bring our chin and shoulders forward and can place additional tension through the neck, shoulders and back. It is most often through the fatigue of these muscles that lead to postural pains and headaches.
Each of the body’s muscles has an optimum length-tension relationship. This means that the muscles ability to do its job in providing strength (tension) is influenced by the position (length) it is in. Therefore our postural muscles are in a stronger position and can work more efficiently when they are not in a fully lengthened or shortened position. This is where the term ‘good posture’ comes in, allowing the optimum length tension relationship for postural muscles. It is often debated as to whether there is an ‘ideal’ posture. Every person is very individual with different positions and postures being ‘ideal’ for them. The key then is finding this position and then strengthening to encourage and maintain it.
Effectiveness of Pilates in Correcting Posture
This optimum length-tension relationship is where Pilates can be effective for low and mid back pain as well as chronic neck pain (2). Pilates based exercise has been shown to promote changes in habitual posture by enhancing spinal, scapular and joint flexibility (3, 4) and strengthening shoulder, lower back and abdominal musculature (3, 4, 5).
What do the studies say about Pilates benefiting posture?
Some studies show that physically active people have less chance of developing kyphosis (an exaggerate forward thoracic curvature – hunched forward) compared to sedentary people (3). Opposing extension exercises as well as exercises involving a large number of muscle groups may decrease the deformity or delay the deforming process, aiding the maintenance of ‘good’ posture. In this context, the Pilates method is effective in reinforcing efficient movement patterns and strengthening (3, 6).
Despite the popularity of the Pilates method of exercise and claims of improving postural alignment, few randomized controlled trials have been conducted to measure its effect on postural alignment in healthy adults. Research had shown improvements in thoracic kyphosis (thoracic spine curvature) in 34 healthy older adults after 10 weeks of Pilates mat work (4) and in 19 healthy adults after 12 weeks of Pilates mat work and apparatus training (2). One study has also indicated that the Pilates method can reduce the degree of non-structural scoliosis, increase flexibility and decrease pain in young women (7).
A recent randomized controlled trial by Cruz-Ferreira and colleagues demonstrated that pilates based exercise enhanced the postural alignment of healthy women, as measured by angular positions of the shoulder, head and pelvis. Large improvements were seen over the 6 month study period for the postural resting position of the cervical or thoracic spine (4). Similar findings have also been shown in other studies on the effect of pilates on posture. Emery’s 2010 study showed that after pilates based training subjects showed smaller static thoracic kyphosis during quiet sitting and greater abdominal strength. In addition to improving abdominal strength and upper spine posture, the program was effective in improving stabilizing core posture as shoulder movements were performed. Since deficits in these functional aspects have previously been associated with symptoms in the neck–shoulder region, the study’s results show support for the use of Pilates in the prevention and management of neck–shoulder (postural) disorders.
Other benefits of Pilates
In addition to its positive effects on strength and posture pilates has also shown to have many other significant benefits. Two systematic reviews have revealed that significant improvements in pain and functional ability for persistent low back pain can be gained through Pilates (1, 8). Pilates also has numerous other benefits including improvements in strength, motor control and endurance (8); reduction in body fat percentage, fat mass, waist-to-hip ratio and blood pressure (10)
Pilates exercise has diversified with the extension of its use in different contexts. Changes relate to the modification of exercises to suit different client needs and abilities, and updating of traditional techniques to align with evidence updates. Its ongoing focus on movement control and posture, results in Pilates being an effective method to increase strength and flexibility to improve posture.
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Lewis Craig (APAM)
Physiotherapist, Clinical Pilates Instructor
- Wells, C., Kolt, G. S., & Bialocerkowski, A. (2012). Defining pilates exercise: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 20(4), 253. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2012.02.005
- Emery, K., De Serres, S. J., McMillan, A., & Côté, J. N. (2010). The effects of a pilates training program on arm–trunk posture and movement. Clinical Biomechanics, 25(2), 124-130. doi:10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2009.10.003
- Smith , K. and Smith , E. 2005. Integrating pilates-based core strengthening into older adult fitness programs implications for practice. Topics Geriatr Rehab, 21(1): 57–67
- Kuo , Y. L. , Tully , E. A. and Galea , M. P. 2009. Sagittal spinal posture after Pilates-based exercise in healthy older adults. Spine, 34(10): 1046–51.
- Cruz-Ferreira, A., Fernandes, J., Kuo, Y., Bernardo, L. M., Fernandes, O., Laranjo, L., & Silva, A. (2013). Does pilates-based exercise improve postural alignment in adult women? Women & Health, 53(6), 597. doi:10.1080/03630242.2013.817505
- Junges, S., Gottlieb, M. G., Baptista, R. R., Quadros, C. B. D., Resende, T. D. L., & Gomes, I. (2012). Effectiveness of Pilates method for the posture and flexibility of women with hyperkyphosis. Braz J Sci Mov, 20(1), 21-33.
- Al ves de Araújo, Maria Erivânia, Bezerra da Silva, E., Bragade Mello, D., Cader, S. A., Shiguemi Inoue Salgado, A., & Dantas, E. H. M. (2012). The effectiveness of the pilates method: Reducing the degree of non-structural scoliosis, and improving flexibility and pain in female college students. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 16(2), 191. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2011.04.002
- Patti, A., Bianco, A., Paoli, A., Messina, G., Montalto, M. A., Bellafiore, M., … & Palma, A. (2015). Effects of Pilates Exercise Programs in People With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review. Medicine, 94(4), e383.
- Junges, S., Jacondino, C. B., & Gottlieb, M. G. (2015). Effect of Pilates exercises in risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: a systematic review. Scientia Medica, 25(1).