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Pilates Takes to the Field

9 May 2017
By now most people have heard of Pilates. But what is Pilates? Staff at the School of Science and Health, University of Western Sydney reviewed 119 Pilates research papers in order to define Pilates. They defined it as “… a mind-body exercise that requires core stability, strength, and flexibility, and attention to muscle control, posture, and breathing.”(Wells, Kolt et al. 2012) In expert hands, Pilates' allows the difficulty of exercises to be modified and therefore tailored to individuals. Specific goals can be set and individual limitations can be addressed through Pilates exercise. Intensity and complexity can be increased over time as the body and mind adapt to the exercises.

Elite sporting clubs around the world incorporate Pilates into their athletes’ weekly exercise routines. The rationale for including Pilates within an athlete’s training schedule is usually to prevent injuries, improve performance and complement existing rehabilitation programs (e.g. weight training). For example, players in the English Cricket Team regularly practice Pilates to maintain the power of their bowling action and prevent overuse injuries. Australian aerial skier and winter Olympic gold medallist Lydia Lassila travels around the world with her own Pilates equipment to prevent and rehabilitate low back pain. Kobe Bryant travels with his own Pilates instructor to maintain his agility and flexibility.

But is Pilates only for the stars? No. Pilates is incredibly popular in the recreational sporting population. In people without back pain or other injuries, Pilates can improve abdominal muscular endurance, dynamic balance, and back muscle flexibility. (Campos, Dias et al. 2016). These improvements may help to prevent future episodes of injury and help people perform better at work or in sport. Interestingly hamstring strains are one the most common musculoskeletal injuries seen in all football codes. Lack of flexibility, specifically short muscle fascicle length, can be a limiting factor for sporting performance and can contribute to muscular injuries.(Timmins, Bourne et al. 2015) In a small study of soccer players, Pilates improved hamstring flexibility.(Chinnavan, Gopaladhas et al. 2015)

The founder of Pilates, Joseph Pilates, came from a background of boxing, self-defence and wrestling, which at the time were male-dominated sports. Joseph Pilates originally used his method to train German soldiers who were rehabilitating from their injuries. Today, Pilates exercises are often used to treat chronic low back and pelvic girdle pain and are viewed by some as a form of exercise only for women. However, Pilates can lead to greater control of the muscles of the trunk and pelvic floor and thereby improve core stability for both genders. By incorporating breathing techniques and movement control, Pilates can strengthen weak areas and promote a more efficient transfer of energy from the trunk to the arms and legs – a key component of sports performance.

Image: Pilates Reformer

As a Sports Physiotherapist and AFL Pilates instructor I have seen the benefits of Pilates in improving movement patterns and performance in footballers. Both professional and recreational athletes can use the principles of Pilates to improve co-ordination, mobility and flexibility all of which are essential for optimum sporting performance. Pilates exercises can target aspects of strength and flexibility that everyday exercises cannot. Pilates can help athletes recover from injuries and help change patterns of movement that can lead to future injuries.


Campos, R. R., et al. (2016). "Effect of the Pilates method on physical conditioning of healthy subjects: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 56(7-8): 864-873.

Chinnavan, E., et al. (2015). "Effectiveness of pilates training in improving hamstring flexibility of football players." Bangladesh Journal of Medical Science 14(3): 265-269.

Timmins, R. G., et al. (2015). "Short biceps femoris fascicles and eccentric knee flexor weakness increase the risk of hamstring injury in elite football (soccer): a prospective cohort study." British journal of sports medicine: bjsports-2015-095362.

Wells, C., et al. (2012). "Defining Pilates exercise: A systematic review." Complementary Therapies in Medicine 20(4): 253-262.


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