The Pilates Phenomenon: Where do we go from here?

Ten years ago, Pilates took the industry by storm; today, Pilates teachers and business owners answer one question: What happens next?

This spring, CNBC reported that Pilates is the nation’s fastest-growing activity, with 8.6 million participants, up more than 450% since 2000, based on the most recent report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (Rovell 2010). In reality, participation may have peaked mid-decade (American Sports Data Inc. reported 10.5 million participants in 2004), but clearly Pilates has staying power. The 2010 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Trends report (see page 22) found that Pilates continues to grow while several other mind-body formats are declining. The American College of Sports Medicine ranked Pilates in its top 10 trends for 2010, along with two close cousins, core training and functional fitness.

So far, Pilates has had quite a ride in the fitness industry, but it hasn’t been without bumps. As programming gets ever more creative, Pilates advocates have raised questions of safety, adequacy of training and method authenticity—and some experts ask whether Pilates and fitness really belong together, after all.

Two Worlds Collide

“In the ’80s, people thought Pilates was some kind of training for pilots,” laughs Kathy Corey, owner of West Coast Pilates, developer of the CORE Band™ and an active leader in the Pilates community for over 30 years. “I remember when I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times on mind-body exercise, the editor asked me if I’d lost my mind—because nobody was going to want to read about that. But Pilates had fairly steady growth until around 2000, when it just exploded.”

The rapid growth this decade surprised Corey. “I never thought Pilates would become as mainstream as it has. I always thought it would be more accepted by a select group. But I think it’s so popular because it’s very versatile—there’s something in it for everyone—and because it makes people feel better. When you have something that makes people feel better, they’re going to come back.”

Nora St. John, education program director of Balanced Body® University, believes that the popularity of Pilates may also have to do with its long-term appeal. “I have clients who have been with me for 20 years. The fact that you can keep learning is very seductive to clients.”

An increasing focus on core training, integrative exercise, mind-body fitness and functional fitness has brought the universes of fitness and Pilates together, says St. John. “For a long time, Pilates offered one thing and fitness offered something else. Now the two worlds are coming together, especially at the more advanced level, such as in personal training. You see more fitness in Pilates studios and more Pilates in fitness clubs.”

Equipment usage is another area where Pilates professionals are seeing growth and overlap with the fitness world. “Instructors, fitness professionals and Pilates enthusiasts alike are showing interest in workout routines that incorporate a combination of large and small equipment, used at the same time,” says Lindsay G. Merrithew, president, chief executive officer and co-founder of STOTT PILATES®. “With a trend towards multifunctional, multipurpose Pilates equipment, it is clear that facility owners and at-home exercisers want to use their equipment in a number of ways, without limitations.”

Of course, there can be sparks when worlds collide. “The last 10 years Pilates has been on a very fast train,” says Michael King. He has been working with the Pilates technique for more than 27 years and is the founding director of the Pilates Institute in London. His Pilates programs are taught in at least 26 countries worldwide.

“The growth has been great, but there have also been challenges,” says King. “I think what has happened is similar to what happened to fitness in the 1980s. Fitness club owners used to be fitness enthusiasts themselves, but then clubs became corporate, and big business became part of all our lives. It used to be that people who had personal experience with Pilates ran studios. Today, Pilates is often big business, and we see the market dominated by equipment companies fighting with their own branding. It reminds me of the shoe companies in the early days. They created a platform for learning, but we had to remember that it isn’t the shoe that makes a great instructor—it’s knowledge and skill.”

Pure Principles, Plus Innovation

The thorniest philosophical area in Pilates continues to be the debate between “classical” and “contemporary” Pilates. Nearly every conversation is shadowed by the question “What would (founders) Joseph and Clara think about this?”

“It’s all interpretation of what we think Joseph Pilates would do, but no one really knows, because he’s [no longer with us],” says Ton Voogt. Voogt and his longtime collaborator, Michael Fritzke, worked with famed Romana Kryzanowska for over 10 years in New York City, where they were teacher trainers for her original international Pilates certification program. They co-own ZENIRGY LLC and created the revolutionary TRIADBALL™, two DVD lines and several Pilates certification programs.

“The reality is that when you talk to ‘first-generation’ teachers, such as Romana—the ones who worked directly with Joe and Clara—they all had such different experiences. That may be one reason we get a lot of different perspectives about what authentic Pilates is,” says Voogt.

Despite the fact that Voogt and Fritzke come from a generally “classical” background, they are strong believers in innovation. They point out that Pilates was initially created for military men as a fitness discipline before it became a favorite of dancers. “Pilates is actually a really good fit for fitness; it was never meant to be just for dancers or for rehabilitation. The beauty of Pilates is that it can be adapted. We’re in favor of evolving. Just don’t call it Pilates if it goes too far. Call it Pilates-based.”

Voogt and Fritzke note that the phrase “classical Pilates” sometimes implies rigidity or a lack of open-mindedness about the method. “You never heard that term 10 years ago, and I think it gets misconstrued,” says Fritzke. “Joseph Pilates himself said, ‘I teach for the body in front of me.’ He believed in adaptation for every client.”

St. John agrees, saying, “Joseph Pilates was a serious innovator, and he innovated until the end of his life. I think he would have wanted us to keep growing.”

While innovation is welcomed even among many Pilates “purists,” straying from the basic principles of the Pilates method is not. “If you’re not teaching the principles, it’s not Pilates,” says Kevin Bowen, education director at Peak Pilates® and co-founder of the Pilates Method Alliance®. “If you know the principles well, such as working with breath and [having] a commitment to working with the body as a whole, you can carry those principles into any setting.”

Corey adds that some diversity among teachers is inevitable, no matter how “pure” your approach. “We’re like a wheel, and at the hub we have Joseph and Clara. As teachers we come from our own backgrounds and experience to create the spokes. My mentor, Kathy Grant, who worked with Joseph Pilates, told me that even if you try to teach an exercise exactly as your teacher did, with the exact breathwork and repetitions, you won’t be able to do it, because as soon as you do the exercise, it becomes your own.”

More Mind-Body Focus

Is it “real” Pilates if it’s in the gym? Some experts believe that the true mind-body essence of Pilates is simply not suited to the noisy, distracting club environment, especially in group settings. However, many believe that the determining factor is not location, but quality of instruction.

“Consumers may not have a good experience in Pilates if they don’t feel the muscle work and they completely miss the mind-body connection. They can go through the exercises like robots,” says Leslee Bender, founder of The Pilates Coach and the Bender Method. She has certified thousands of Pilates trainers internationally and has produced over 25 DVDs. “Stellar instructors will have you feel everything. That comes with practice and with passion.”

Tom McCook, founder of Center of Balance, a personal trainer and a nationally recognized fitness and movement specialist, focuses on the mind-body connection and incorporates the Franklin Method®, meditation and life coaching along with Pilates in his studio. “I think the mind-body perspective needs to be emphasized for clients, so they pay attention to the movement, center before they begin the exercise, and get the most out of what they’re about to do. Without the mind-body connection, clients can miss the maximum benefit of Pilates.”

More Comprehensive Education

Most instructors agree on two ideas: inadequate instructor training is one of the scariest issues in Pilates today, and more comprehensive education is the direction of the future.

“I think today more teachers are integrating anatomy into their training,” says McCook. “They’re spending more time on education. You have to put the hours in if you want to become a competent teacher. I tell teachers to be realistic and consider that education will take years rather than months.”

Reservations abound for “weekend trainings,” which don’t allow enough time to develop competency. However, weekend modules can provide a practical, affordable format for ongoing training.

St. John explains that modular weekend trainings are typically meant to be part of a total program of training. “We tell our teachers that you’re going to need to put in a lot of hours. We are constantly developing new education programs because we believe so strongly in the importance of comprehensive, high-quality education. Right now there’s a huge range of skill level out there, and when education is on the low end, it’s always a disaster. It can be unsafe and create negative experiences for clients. It’s the opposite of what you want to have.”

St. John and other teachers note that a shakedown of sorts may already be in progress. Unqualified teachers and studios are struggling in a challenging economy; increasingly sophisticated clients know the difference between a good instructor and a poor one.

“The marketplace does work,” says St. John. “If you care more about making money than quality, you won’t do well.”

Says Bowen, “At first it was hard to sell clubs on the idea that you need well-trained Pilates instructors, but that’s changing. There is more understanding that quality programming and instruction pay off with long-term results and profit.”

Bender is an outspoken advocate for safety and in-depth education. “Injuries are a serious concern. Many Baby Boomers can’t do the movements that are being asked of them in some of these classes. They could work up to them with careful, progressive training, but they’re not getting that in a big mat class. Teachers need to understand the biomechanics of human movement and the basics of functional fitness.”

Bender adds, “I’m not saying throw out current exercises, but evaluate them. There can be detrimental effects to the lumbar spine from [doing] flexion exercises for an extended period of time on a flat surface. We need instructors who think critically, teach rather than perform and make sure the exercise fits the client, rather than the other way around.”

More Group & Fusion Programming

Group Pilates programs, especially group equipment classes, undoubtedly cause the greatest quality and safety concerns. Some instructors feel that group sessions are simply a bad idea; others believe they hold great potential for offering Pilates benefits to a broader range of people. “The industry had to become creative to address the economy, but quality instruction is critical to safety and success in the group setting,” says Bowen.

Group, small-group and fee-based personal training in Pilates are all finding their way into the diverse fitness arena. “Large gyms, studios and community centers have been offering Pilates mat work classes for a very long time, but many found that reformer and Stability Chair™ classes were more successful as a fee-based personal training program,” says Merrithew. “Owners designate a space in their facility exclusively for private, semiprivate and small-group Pilates trainings so that fee-based exercise does not interfere with group exercise programs.”

Another growing trend is fusion exercise, which merges Pilates with other disciplines. STOTT PILATES has produced a series of DVDs titled Pilates-Infused™ Yoga, which teach a unique hybrid of yoga-specific poses while also considering the STOTT PILATES principles. Pilates is being combined with sport-specific programming and plyometric exercises as well.

One of the most creative examples of fusion in the industry may well be the combination of Pilates and indoor cycling created when Mad Dogg Athletics Inc., which developed the Spinning® program, acquired Peak Pilates last year.

“I know there’s a lot of rumors floating around about where this will lead,” says Bowen. “This is the first time integrated fitness has come together this way in the industry. The truth is that there’s a great synergy. It’s given us a chance to tap into new markets, such as places that offer Spinning but not Pilates. The interest from the Spinning community has been great, and we’re teaching Pilates fundamentals to Spinning instructors so they can become better teachers from a more holistic approach.”

Exploring New Markets

The versatility of Pilates may be its best asset for the future. Experts believe that a number of markets have yet to be fully developed, including men, older adults and teens.

STOTT PILATES has created “Specialty Tracks” to educate instructors on working with postrehab patients, athletes, the active-aging population, teens and pre/postnatal women. Reaching out to new markets can also spur innovation. In creating programming specific to rehab and postrehab clients, STOTT PILATES has developed reformers that are higher off the ground (for easier mounts and dismounts) and allow for a greater range of functional movement.

More specialization of skills is also anticipated. “Now we have Pilates in hospitals; physical therapy clinics; spas; football, rugby and tennis clubs; [and] many golf clubs,” notes King. “Pilates will become much more specialized.”

More Creative Equipment (Big and Small)

While some instructors prefer a simpler approach, the growing influence of equipment is clear. Apart from the rising popularity of working with large and small equipment at the same time, says Merrithew, there is increasing interest in offering Pilates circuit training, in which groups navigate through the studio, using all equipment options available.

“The most sought-after equipment is durable, multifunctional and fit for small spaces,” he adds. “Many health club facilities looking to break into the Pilates market cannot dedicate one room solely for Pilates exercise. But facilities can increase nondues revenue [by providing] equipment that can be stacked or rolled away when not in use.”

Creativity has also flourished in the development and use of small props. “I believe in different strokes for different folks,” says Pilates teacher and presenter Norma Shechtman, MEd, MA. “Sometimes one piece of equipment will help one person really feel the exercise, while another person needs a different type of equipment. Pilates is highly individual. I like to use everything—bands, foam rollers, magic circles, the little balls, the BOSU® Balance Trainer, tennis balls, tubing, gliders. I call it ‘Pilates With Toys.’”

Moving Into the Medical Arena

The blockbuster trend in Pilates is the move toward applications in rehabilitation, physical therapy and other medical areas. Pilates is being prescribed by doctors, and reformers are showing up in physical therapists’ offices. For physical therapists who invest in training, Pilates can present an alternative income stream with far less paperwork. For Pilates instructors, the medical community is a growing source of referrals.

“In the medical arena, Pilates has been amazingly successful,” says St. John. “Physical therapists who adopt it love the simplicity and flexibility. Therapists are often limited in the number of times they can see patients and are often restricted to treatments that address isolated parts of the body, while Pilates moves the body as a whole.”

“This is our next great area to explore,” says Corey, who works with physicians and explains the benefits of Pilates for treating arthritis, scoliosis and aging-related conditions. In a program sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Merck, Corey creates “Pilates prescription pads” that physicians can pass on to physical therapists; then she meets with the therapists and the Pilates instructors. “We’re creating a circle of events to link the patient, physician, therapist and instructor.”

The medical trend will also be a catalyst for increased professional standardization in the Pilates community. Says King, “I believe that just as with osteopathy and the chiropractic field, we will see Pilates instructors become more regulated, respected professionals, which will open the door to insurance coverage and raise the quality of practice to new levels.”

More Unity (With Diversity)

Can everybody just get along in the diverse Pilates community? Yes, say experts who see more unity than conflict in the future. “We all have one thing in common—a focus on how to help the client,” says St. John. “At Balanced Body, we want to support different programs and partner with other teacher trainers. We believe there are lots of ways to learn and teach Pilates. The big picture is what’s important.”

Says Bowen, “Sure, everyone can co-exist. We believe in quality education, above all, because you can have the best equipment in the world, but you need the quality of instruction to go with it.”

Fritzke and Voogt believe there is actually much less polarization than there once was in the Pilates community. “I think people are starting to have more respect for each other. Pilates grew so fast that there was a lot of scrambling among companies to prove themselves, but now people are becoming more comfortable with the diversity that exists.”

Pilates has been more fractious in the United States than abroad, say Fritzke and Voogt. “The history of Pilates is American, and maybe that has made us more sensitive here.”

Although the questions of certification and standardization in Pilates are still hotly debated in the United States, King notes that Pilates is government-regulated in a number of countries around the world. “When we provide training in these countries, we answer to external verifiers who make sure we maintain standards,” he says. “In Spain and the United Kingdom, we now have degree courses in Pilates offered at universities. I think this takes us in a positive direction and moves Pilates into new areas of recognition.”

“Bringing the community together is an ongoing challenge. “We have a ways to go, but the direction is toward unifying rather than judging,” say Fritzke and Voogt. “The question isn’t about what’s right or wrong, but what works best for the client.”

Corey sees greater community in the future, as well. “It’s like ice cream. Pilates would be boring if we were all the same flavor. The more styles you learn, the more people you can reach. This is about integration of mind, body and spirit—and it shouldn’t be a mean spirit. It should be the spirit of unity.”

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Mary Monroe

IDEA Author/Presenter
Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.
References
American Sports Data Inc. 2005. 2004 SUPERSTUDY of sports participation. Rovell, D. 2010. Survey: Pilates exploding, darts & billiards plummeting. CNBC Sports Business Section (Mar. 30).

Rovell, D. 2010. Survey: Pilates exploding, darts & billards plummeting. CNBC Sports Business Section (Mar.30).
July 2010

© 2010 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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