“I tried an online pilates challenge for a month – this is how it changed my mindset”
They say it takes eight weeks to feel different – so can a month-long pilates subscription make much of a difference? Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi puts one to the test.
I write endlessly about the benefits of pilates and the importance of nailing bodyweight exercise but, like most runners, I ignore my own advice. I go through phases of having a regular yoga routine, and very occasionally I’ll go to a pilates or mobility class if I’m injured, but nine times out of 10, I’ll always choose a HIIT, running or strength session over something slow and painful.
Nevertheless, pilates boasts so many science-backed positives that it’s getting harder to ignore the practice. It can improve balance, stability, core strength and encourage a better mind-body connection. And then there’s the benefit of learning a new skill and fostering new neuron pathways in the brain. So, when I came across A Body Forever (ABF), an online pilates platform designed to help people turn pilates into a habit, I knew I had to give it a go.
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Founded by PT and pilates instructor Amy Brogan, ABF is all about learning the fundamentals of classical pilates, using bands, bodyweight and a pilates ring. It also encourages strength training and cardio as complementary skills, and it also stresses the importance of rest days.
The challenge started with a consultation to find out more about my goals (get more into pilates to help with running), my lifestyle (hectic) and my skill level (intermediate at best). And then, the month began.
The importance of monotony for habit building
The premise of ABF is simple: log onto the platform every day to either complete a workout or tick off a run or rest day. Now, that might sound tedious, but the monotony of logging on every day is a core part of the plan.
Learning something new and creating a habit is about consistency. You’ve got to turn up every day to achieve something, whether that’s listening to and speaking a new language every day, making sure you balance on one leg every time you brush your teeth for better balance or, in this case, getting into a pattern of doing pilates or pilates-adjacent activities every day. The platform no longer requires that you log rest days but it does ask you to tick off when you’ve done a gym session or a run off-app.
A typical week on ABF included:
- Monday: classical pilates (55 minutes)
- Tuesday: pilates ring class (35 minutes)
- Wednesday: rest
- Thursday: rotation/anti-rotation-focused strength session (55 minutes)
- Friday: run
- Saturday: run
- Sunday: stretch (30 minutes)
Finding humility in being crap
Having done a bit of pilates (mostly reformer) before, I assumed that the classical pilates session would be reasonably manageable, but within 10 minutes of starting the first session, I was a trembling mess. Hundreds (the exercise loads of us hate) was one of the easier exercises on offer, with teasers (arms and legs extended with only your bum on the ground) proving to be the final straw for my core strength and balance.
Like a lot of fitness types, I hate being rubbish at stuff. You’ll never see me trying to play tennis or going for a casual kickabout because I’m crap at ball sports. Realising just how poor my pilates skills are was a truly humbling experience, and knowing that I had to keep coming back to the mat every Monday to give it another go provided an opportunity to actively work on improving.
Working on building 360° core strength
The rotation strength session also came as something of a shock. I like to think that I’m pretty strong, but again, this workout was all about the core. The squats ended in a side reach, the finisher included a woodchop, and there were plenty of side bends. Pilates is about muscular endurance and the strength work focused on using modest weights for umpteen reps – looking at smaller, more nuanced movements rather than big lifts.
The day after my first session, my body ached as though I’d been in a boxing match. But again, the more I kept coming back to that same session, the better I got at twisting and fighting against rotation.
Over the four weeks, I got used to my regime – and I especially looked forward to the Tuesday pilates ring class (something I definitely want to keep as part of my weekly workout schedule) and the deep 30-minute stretch on a Sunday, which felt amazing after a Saturday long run.
The benefits of doing the same activity every week
Perhaps the most challenging part of the month was the fact that the classes remained the same. Lots of gyms do this: if you go to the same strength session every week, you’ll do the same moves for a block so that you can progress in that particular lift before moving on to something new. I never stick with the same session long enough to make that progress, so this system really challenged my need for constant change.
But perhaps the most important thing the month taught me, aside from the critical need to work more on my core strength and rotational mobility, was discipline.
We want to get better at something, but life often gets in the way. This challenge is all about drumming home this idea that we all have the time to do something – turning up, logging on and doing what you can. Although I move regularly, I’ve definitely been struggling recently to maintain a proper schedule in recent months (probably because I’ve had nothing to train for), and ABF has helped me to build one.
I might not necessarily be doing classical pilates every Monday evening anymore, but Mondays are now my difficult workout day, while Tuesday lunchtimes offer the perfect opportunity to do yoga or use the ring. Wednesdays and Thursdays are my strength days, and I rest on a Friday or do some stretching. I fit my runs in where I can.
It’s also been refreshing to take part in a challenge that’s had real-world benefits (tweaking my weekly schedule, boosting skills, building strength) without focusing on aesthetics or having someone suggest a weigh-in. ABF is proof that there’s so much more to get out of fitness plans than a smaller dress size.
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