“How a 2-week pilates challenge got me back in my workout groove”

After an 18-month break from exercising, one Stylist writer found a renewed love of fitness thanks to the core-strengthening power of pilates. 

I’ve never been the world’s most sporty person, but I’ve always tried to exercise a couple of times a week – for my mental as well as physical health.

Even when I was pregnant in 2020, I was doing kickboxing and yoga (albeit over Zoom) every week alongside my daily lockdown walks.

But after giving birth to my daughter, keeping fit fell by the wayside. I kept putting off returning to exercise – blaming it on tiredness, the difficulty of carving out time for myself and assuming that hoicking a heavy baby around all day was enough to keep me fit. 

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Pilates core exercises to build stronger abdominals, glutes and back muscles

However, after going for a back massage, the therapist told me pretty sternly that I needed to start getting serious about stretching. I’d been mulling over giving pilates a go for a while, so when I heard my colleagues extolling its virtues – how it can improve your flexibility and strengthen your core like nothing else – I decided it was time to bite the bullet.

After researching local studios and failing to find any classes that fit my busy schedule, I signed up for on-demand video classes at Pilates PT.

Pilates PT founder Hollie Grant recommended doing two to three classes of the Pilates PT method (a mix of HIIT rounds and pilates toning) and two to three of the Dynamic Mat Pilates classes (a more traditional pilates class) a week, with two rest days to ensure my endurance didn’t drop. Here’s how I got on.

Week one: pilates is painful, but that’s the point

Some people might think that pilates is easy (after all, half the time you’re lying on a mat) but I knew it was going to be tough. I didn’t realise how hard it’d be though. Aiming to do five classes a week, as Grant suggested, I just about managed to complete four thanks to full-body DOMS. It was physically exhausting.

The week began with a classic mat pilates class, which uses slow and controlled movements to strengthen your core. The aim of the game is to work on correcting the position of your spine, engaging your pelvic floor and core muscles. 

To an onlooker, it might appear as if you’re not doing very much, but after one round of crunches, I could feel my abdominal muscles shaking. Usually, crunches put a lot of pressure on my neck, but Grant advised using my arms to support the weight of my head so my neck could relax and my abs could fully engage. 

The next day, I feel it in my back and the sides of my body, but I am also much more aware of my posture, correcting my spine to a neutral position when sitting at my desk or kneeling on the floor to play with my daughter. I’m standing taller and paying more attention to how I move.

The HIIT classes were a whole different ball game and, on reflection, maybe I shouldn’t have attempted them during a heatwave. Alternating high-energy aerobic bursts with core-strengthening pilates exercises, it’s the most effective full-body workout I’ve done in a long time. I took the next day off as the ache was so intense – enjoying the unexpected lie-in that came from full-body fatigue and my daughter sleeping in until 7.30am. 

By the end of the first week, my stamina is improving but I am grateful for a rest. Grant has helped me rethink my every movement, but I’m also second-guessing myself: is my pelvic floor engaged? Is my spine really neutral? What exactly are my hip flexors? There is a lot to think about, but ultimately it means at least I can’t think about anything else while I’m working out – so it’s good for a mental reset, too.

From the outside, pilates might look easy – but the shake and burn are real.

Week two: feeling noticeably stronger

As I enter week two, my abs are noticeably stronger and I can feel muscles I never knew existed in the side of my body. The push-ups are getting easier as my arm and shoulder strength improves and I’m getting better at focusing on feeling every muscle engage. It’s eye-opening how the most minute movement can cause so much burn.

Grant really helps you tune into what your individual body is doing and I seem to be tight in my glutes and hip flexors. I am also shocked at how inflexible my lower back is – trying to get it to curve backwards even the slightest couple of centimetres during a C-curve feels impossible.

The HIIT classes are still a bit of a struggle after a full day of work and toddler-wrangling, and I find that if I do a class late in the evening, the adrenaline keeps me awake well past 11pm.

And I’ve learned I love a roll-down. Letting the whole weight of my body hang is the most glorious feeling and the best way of releasing any tightness at the end of a busy day. 

By the end of the second week, I was noticeably stronger and better able to hold poses.

The verdict: you’ll struggle to find a better full-body workout

I can’t quite believe how much stronger and more flexible I feel after just two weeks. I am more aware of my posture than ever before and am constantly correcting the positioning of my spine and pelvis during the day to take the pressure off my back.

Realistically, I won’t be able to keep up with five classes a week but I reckon two classes is achievable and will give me a good mix of aerobic exercise and pilates strengthening.

Don’t be fooled: pilates is much harder than it looks and it will hurt. But as comprehensive and effective full-body workouts go, I’ve yet to find anything better.

Images: author’s own

Pilates PT live and on-demand classes cost £10 for a drop-in session or £35 per month for unlimited classes.

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