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Conditioning with Pilates

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"People feel better when they do Pilates," Mary-Jane Bell Amrein says. Mary-Jane is the founder of The Pilates Center. "Pilates is not an aerobic workout. It is not a weight-loss program. Some people do change their shape, but most people feel better because their bodies are stronger and more balanced. The exercises feel good. People don't leave the studio feeling like they've been beaten up."

The people who do Pilates exercises are a varied group, some for mobility, some for muscle strength, and some for improved balance or athletic conditioning. Mary-Jane has seen the popularity of Pilates grow and the satisfying results in her clients. "We have a lot of golfers who have less pain when they play. Pilates complements the golf movements – the joint rotation, the mobility."

Mary-Jane has a master's degree from Virginia Tech. "I worked for Virginia Tech as an extension agent," she says of what brought her to Williamsburg in 1978. She oversaw the local 4-H program, among her other duties.

"I have a minor in nutrition. Even with that interest in nutrition, I always battled a weight problem. I had a hard time enjoying exercise," she admits. "I would try running, but hated it." She kept trying to find physical activities she could have fun with and keep doing.

"That brought me to aerobic dance," she explains. "This was in 1981. I answered a newspaper ad to audition to be an aerobics instructor." She learned about aerobic dance while still working as an agent at the James City County Extension Office.

The more she did aerobics, the more she enjoyed it. She taught classes for the Recreation department as well. After about a year and a half of teaching, she wanted to learn more and went to Dallas, Texas to be certified by Dr. Kenneth Cooper. "He was the one who coined the phrase aerobics in the 1960's and wrote books on it."

Mary-Jane started a side business in aerobics. "I called my company Aerobics Plus. I used to teach out of schools and churches in the evening, and I worked as an extension agent during the day." Eventually she left the Extension Agency and focused on her aerobics business. She still held the classes in schools and in church halls. "I realized that in the summer, the classes were unbearable – most of the schools didn't have air conditioning, and we couldn't open the windows. We would be in the cafeterias where the floors were linoleum on cement, so we were killing our legs. I had had enough. I opened a studio at the K-Mart shopping center. I was there for five years."

From the K-Mart shopping center, she moved to the Williamsburg Shopping Center. There, she started hearing and reading about Pilates. She offered more classes than aerobics at her gym. She also had weight machines, spinning programs and even off-site water aerobics. "It was a lot going on."  She liked what she heard about Pilates and bought two Reformers for the studio. "The staff had never heard of Pilates Reformers. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. If the staff hadn't heard of it, no one else had either." That was the case. She felt she needed to prove the investment in the new machines was justified.

"That was in the 1990's. I started offering Pilates sessions for reduced rates just to get people to try it." Her clients started seeing results fast. "Even for myself. I was teaching a lot of aerobics classes and after a month or two, people in my aerobics classes said my body shape was changing and wanted to know what I was doing differently. I had taught aerobics for 15 years, and now people were seeing a difference."  Mary-Jane says the changes were in the shape of her muscles. "Pilates makes muscles become long and lean. Bodybuilding is the extreme other end of the exercise spectrum, producing short and squat muscles from lifting heavy weights. We do movements that lengthen the body, not shorten it. Technically we're doing eccentric contractions, not just concentric contractions. We get both at the same time."

She explains Pilates exercises were developed in the 1920's by Joseph Pilates. "He was German and had worked as a type of physical therapist with prisoners of war during the WWI. The equipment (the Reformer) looks like a bed. He took a bed and added springs and ropes to it for muscle stretching and lengthening. His patients recovered more quickly than the others."

Joseph Pilates moved to New York and opened a studio. "He was rehabbing ballet dancers who didn't want bulky muscles," Mary-Jane says. "Famous choreographers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine studied body movement under his guidance and incorporated Pilates' exercises in their warm-ups."

In the late 1980's, Hollywood stars made it a trend in popular culture. "Back in 1985, no places in Williamsburg did it," Mary-Jane says, "and there were only two places in Virginia (Richmond and Norfolk). It was hard for me to get information on it. I was the third place in Virginia to offer Pilates."

She says Pilates is about resistance. "We have springs here on the machines. Weights are a form of resistance, and springs are a form of resistance. Because of the way the equipment moves, Pilates works a lot of muscles, plus it is spine-based. The important thing with the spine is that you have four natural curves (neck, shoulders, lumbar and hips). For the body to be strong, you want to maintain those curves. The way most of us sit takes the curve out of the lumbar spine. That can reduce the strength of the spine by 50 percent. That's big."  The Pilates exercises attempt to maintain the integrity of the spine while working out. Mary-Jane uses mostly one-on-one sessions until the client is well-versed in the technique. "You have to understand your breathing and how it facilitates the exercise. Clients need to understand the postures. It's hard to teach six people at once how to do that." Her goal is to strengthen the muscles that support the spine, so there are less structural issues for the client.

"Pilates focuses on balancing muscles while keeping the integrity of the spine," Mary-Jane says. "You don't go as hard as you can, but you go as long as you can while keeping your spine neutral. It's not about weight or poundage, we use springs." The equipment is versatile enough that everyone from tri-athletes to people with walkers or leg braces can each get the appropriate workout for themselves.

Mary-Jane attended a workshop on muscle activation and incorporates that into her Pilates work as well. "It's about balancing muscles and muscle activation. People come to me when nothing else works. This is the way to see when one muscle overworks for another muscle."  She saw this when working with a woman doing Pilates. The woman complained that she had a bulging muscle. "I could see that the muscle was overworking," Mary-Jane says. "Logically, that would have been because her hamstring was hurt. I put my hand there as she moved and sure enough the hamstring muscle wasn't contracting." The other muscle was over-compensating for the hamstring.

The muscle activation techniques allowed Mary-Jane to access and correct muscular imbalances. "It can eliminate pain or fatigue because it allows the muscles to work together, as they should." The pain comes from one muscle working harder for the other. "This isn't Pilates, but related in that it's balancing the work of the muscles."

Muscle activation techniques were developed for professional athletes. An example Mary-Jane saw was with a young swimmer who came to her with shoulder problems. "He would do breaststroke and butterfly," she says of his swimming. "I checked all his upper body muscles. I give them grades. An A muscle is a very strong muscle. An F is total muscle failure. All of his upper body muscles were Ds and Fs. I was shocked." She couldn't understand why he could give so little resistance when she isolated each muscle.

"After we worked on his muscle activation, he had swim practice that night. He called to say that he shaved two seconds off his time for the butterfly." For a swimmer, two seconds was exciting. They worked on his legs the next session. "His legs were weak. How was he kicking? I figured out that he was using his ligaments, [and] that was how he got his stretch. Plus, he worked really hard. When he came in the third time, he said he had shaved 12 seconds off of his time. He qualified for meets he had never made before. He was using his muscles properly, and it improved his performance."

For athletes, Mary-Jane Bell Amrein says when you take away any issues of one muscle compensating for another with muscle activation techniques, athletes become more efficient in their movements. Pilates exercises can lengthen and strengthen the muscles for a balanced performance.

By Greg Lilly, Editor
Meredith Collins
Collins Group, LLC
Next Door Neighbors magazine
WilliamsburgNeighbors community website
(757) 560-3235

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502 Strawberry Plains Road, Williamsburg, VA 23188