by: Karen Springen
Jan 20. 2003
A FEW MONTHS AFTER SHE GAVE BIRTH TO HER SON, New Yorker Abbe Aronson decided it was time to get hack into shape.
Following the lead of ultra-toned celebs like Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Julia Roberts and HalIe Berry, she turned to Pilates. The trendy regimen focuses on what devotees call the body’s “core “—more commonly known as the torso. After working out for three years with instructors at Brookc Suer’s Manhattan gym re:AB, Aronson, now 34, lost 10 remaining pounds of pregnancy weight, plus 40 more pounds. It hasn’t been easy; Aronson says she leaves the gym panting withexertion. But the results are worth it. “This is the first exercise I’ve ever started,” she says, “that I haven’t thought of 20,000 reasons not to go to the gym today.”
Aronson is part of a growing army of converts to core-strength training. Fans swear that working the torso—from the neck to the lower back, including the abdomen and the back and hip muscles --stabilizes and lengthens the spine, improves balance and circulation, creates a cinched waistline, prevents back injury and streamlines the body without bulking it up. Although there are no scientific studies to hack up these claims, most experts say core training can indeed help. “Any strength training is beneficial because it increases muscle mass and boosts the metabolic rate,” says JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The traditional strength training has been better studied at this point, butconceptually this should still provide benefits.” The idea behind core training “has been around since the dawn of time,” says Walt Thompson, a professor of exercise physiology at Georgia State University and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. “We’ve always talked about large muscle groups. What’s a larger muscle group than the abdominal and the erector muscles of the hack?” Thompsonsays he doesn’t mind that health clubs, authors and trainers have picked up the ideaas a new way to market their products and services. “As long as it gets people moving,” he says, “I’ll go for it.”
The godfather of modern core training was Joseph Pilates, a German gymnast and boxer, who developed his exercise techniques a century ago based on the theory that the torso is the body’s “power-house.” Until recently the technique was used mostly by dancers (famed choreographer George Balanchine used to send members of his company to Pilates). But in the last few years, as Hollywood got with the program, Pilates studios and knock-offs began to spring up all over the country. Done properly, Pilates requires intense concentration: no zoning out on the treadmill while watching MTV. “We’reteaching you to have an invisible belt around your core like a corset, says re:AB’s Siler, author of “The Pilates Body.”
Unlike running and high-impact aerobics, which can jar the joints, Pilates is a no-impact workout that includes a series of specific movements tailored to the individ-ual. Special apparatus is often part of t he routine. Siler says good Pilates trainers focus on what each client needs. For runners, that might mean stretching the muscles; for dancers, whose muscles are already stretched, that would mean strengthening joints. As great as this sounds, consumers should be wary. Virtually anyone can use the word “Pilates” without actually practicing the technique.
There are only about 500 people in the world certified as “authentic Pilates trainers by the Pilates Guild (Pilatesguild.com) and several thousand more certified by various other groups (cheek out pilatesmethodalliance.org) Look, in any ease, for qualified instructors with many hours of experience. Pilates also face plenty of competition from newer core—training regulations. Reebok’s system includes a series of individualized exercises, performed with the company’s own “core hoard,” that hone agility, balance and torso muscles. Jonathan Urla, a certified Pilates trainer, founded Yogilates and wrote a book by the same name. He incorporates Pilates elements into traditional yoga. “Pilates can he a little too rigid:’ he says. ‘There’s always this emphasis oil doing things preeisely and perfectly.” Gvrotonies (done with machine’s) and gvrotonics (not necessarily with machines) Use sweeping full-body motions designed to develop flexibility in the torso and spine. Both techniques use circular movements from gymnastics, ballet and yoga. BalleCore also uses ballet and yoga.
The best core-training programs, such as Pilates, “preach tall spine,” says strength -and-conditioning specialist Gray Cook, a physical therapist in Danville, Va. “If you want a tube of toothpaste to stand up taller, you squeeze it in the middle.” So pull your navel into your spine. Boxers, martial artists and dancers often say their strength comes from their belly. Core-training advocates say that perspective is much needed in an era when weight training has enabled people to develop unbelievable muscles in their arms and legs while often neglecting their torsos. Muscle-bound NFL and NHL stars rip their own abdominal muscles because they’ve trained their thighs in isolation, says Cook. He recommends that people think of core training as “functional” training that will help them keep their torso erect so they’ll be better at sports and everyday activities.
Just because it’s low Impact doesn’t mean that core training is easy. “My clients leave here in a sweat bath,” says Suer. And it shouldn’t be the only component of a fitness regimen, experts say. Focusing exclusively on the abdomen, or any other body part, can lead to “under-development,” says William Kraemcr, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Connecticut. “ft’s one component of a total conditioning program, which consists of cardiovascular, nutrition, flexibility and resistance exercises. You should look at it as a piece of the total conditioning puzzle.” He compares doing core training while excluding everything else in a well-rounded program to eating nothing but cherry pie—or even cherries. “Eating that alone might not be the correct dietary program,” he says. “My concern is that people look at core as one tool in the tool box.”
BEFORE INVESTING IN BOOKS OR EXPENSIVE CLASSES, look at Web sites like themethodpilates.com Try holding a push-up position on your forearms for 15 seconds, recommends Dr. Angela Smith, immediate last president of the American College of Sports Medicine. Another low-tech core-strengthening exercise: sit on an exercise ball and keep it from falling over. Smith says the core training is essentially what she learned as a 7-year-old dancer when she was told to find her center. “We were really being taught what I now realize were Pilates exercises, she says. “If you don’t have power in your spine and your trunk, you can’t throw hard, you can’t run fast.” Two months ago one of her patients, Marjorie Mayer, 49, started Pilates-based core training because bursitis and osteoarthritis in one hip were so had that she had trouble sitting long enough to drive. “It’s helping me to move better overall,” says Mayer. She is proof that with a little torso work, the human body (like an apple) can be healthy not rotten at the core.
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