Sure, it sounds like a ballet move. And its reputation was built with models, Broadway dancers and, for goodness sake, Madonna. Get over it. The 80-year-old discipline of Pilates can give you the bulletproof core you need for power and stability on the hill.
Pilates encompasses some 500 stretching and strengthening exercises that focus on pulling the abdominal muscles inward to stabilize the spine. The goal is to move certain body parts while using the abs to keep the rest of the body still. Anyone who has struggled to keep his upper body quiet on the hill will understand the skiing connection. And many skiers who've tried it have success stories to tell.
Take Chris Puckett, a 13-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team who now lives and coaches in Steamboat Springs, Colo. A training accident in 1998 left him with a broken knee joint, two sprained ankles, a broken finger, a broken nose and six broken teeth. He couldn't bear weight on his right leg. "I was a mess," Puckett says.
That's when an acquaintance persuaded him to try Pilates. "I was skeptical at first," Puckett says. "I didn't see how core strength would help heal my leg."
But by correcting imbalances throughout Puckett's body, Pilates did more than heal his leg. "The next season was my best ever," he says. "My strong core and flexibility gave me the confidence to come back and ski strong."
With testimonials like Puckett's-and with devotees ranging from the Oakland Raiders conditioning coach to New Jersey Nets all-star Jason Kidd-it's clear that Pilates is no infomercial ab routine. So what's the difference? It's threefold, says Lindsay Ross, co-owner of Body Dynamics in Boulder, Colo., the training center where Puckett learned Pilates. First, Pilates targets the deep ab muscles that stomach crunches and the like ignore. Second, it works the whole body, not just the abs. Third, it demands concentration and body awareness. "It teaches your mind how to control your body and introduces you to muscles you didn't know you had," Ross says. In fact, the mind-control aspect is so strong that founder Joseph Pilates originally called the workout "Controlology" (and you thought the name "Pilates" was bad marketing). If you're looking to shut your brain off while you train, Pilates is not for you.
One look at the Reformer-the central piece of Pilates equipment-will confirm your need to concentrate. This contraption looks like a cross between a rowing machine and a spring-loaded torture device. Its springs work either to assist you or resist you, depending on the exercise. The Reformer can help your balance, attests freestyle skier Alex Wilson, a seven-year U.S. Ski Team veteran who placed 10th in moguls in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. "It forces you to use your stabilizing muscles, so it's better than a weight machine. It also requires more flexibility, which is so important for moguls."
Even if the Reformer makes you nervous, don't count Pilates out. It uses several other machines (of varying degrees of complexity), as well as mat exercises.
Puckett-and almost anyone else who's attempted Pilates-recommends taking classes or, if possible, working one-on-one with an instructor to start. "At first it's difficult to grasp the concept of how to use your core," Puckett says. Ross suggests taking two or three hour-long Pilates classes per week. But unlike some Pilates fans, she doesn't advocate neglecting other strength and cardio training.
Like any workout, don't expect instant results. "It builds slowly," Puckett says, "but you can see improvement in a few weeks. And in a few months, it's easy to do things you didn't think you could do before."
To avoid injury and get results, start with at least five to seven sessions with an instructor. Private lessons run anywhere from $40 to $100 per hour. Group classes are OK, but should have no more than five students. To find a qualified instructor, visit pilatesmethoddalliance.org or pilatesbodyworksintl.com. Once you've learned the basics, many studios will let you use their equipment for a fee and many mat exercises can be done at home. For exercise descriptions, check out The Pilates Body by Brooke Siler or The Everything Pilates Book by Amy Taylor Alpers and Rachel Taylor Segel.