The question: Some people tell me pilates is good for my posture, but others have told me all the crunches in pilates are actually bad for my posture and lower back. Which is correct?
The answer: At the risk of sounding like the stereotype of a politician (something my friends tease me about), both comments are correct. Pilates can strengthen the core and improve posture, but its effectiveness depends on the school of pilates the instructor follows, and the instructor's ability to design and communicate a balanced and appropriate workout.
To get the benefits of pilates, without the possible pitfalls, find a class that promotes "mind/body awareness." Don't assume all classes prioritize this. Many teachers speed through the exercises, and the mind/body component is often lost. Knowing where your body is in space is a crucial first step to improving posture. So many of us have less than ideal posture simply because we are not aware of our body positioning.
Also, make sure the instructor doesn't prioritize exercises, like the hundreds and the roll-up, that require forward flexion, or crunching forward. Performing exercises where you crunch forward, without equal to or greater amounts of exercises that promote spinal extension, like "swimming," can contribute to a rounded forward posture.
Finally, make sure the instructor doesn't teach all exercises in "imprint," which is also known as a posterior tilt, tucking the pelvis or pushing the lower back into the floor. Yes, imprinting has its place, but tucking the lower spine can reinforce a flat lower back and exacerbate or contribute to injuries such as disc bulges.
The main takeaway: Make sure your instructor understands how to build a balanced class. It should prioritize exercises that strengthen all the small stabilizer muscles of the foot, knee, core, upper back and neck; include exercises done with a neutral spine; and limit forward flexion exercises.
Trainer's tip: If possible, find a class with an appropriate teacher-to-student ratio so that the teacher can watch your form. Pilates movements, when done correctly, are subtle. If you think you are doing something wrong, ask. There is no point reinforcing bad form.
Kathleen Trotter has been a personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for 10 years. Her website is www.kathleentrotter.com.