ASK RAEL Q & A : 2nd Issue

by Rael Isacowitz
  1. How long does it take for a total newbie to learn Pilates?

Rael: The learning process never ends… period. I have been enjoying the benefits and rewards of Pilates for over 30 years and I still regard myself as a novice in the process of mastering the method. And that is what I love about it. It keeps me interested and coming back each day for my workout. If it was a matter of learning something and then knowing it, boredom would undoubtedly set in. The fact that it is an ongoing process is what ensures years of stimulation and exploration.

That being said, I estimate it takes 10 to 20 sessions to start feeling comfortable and to be able to evaluate whether Pilates is for you. I often say that, Pilates is for anyone but not for everyone. Give it a couple of months of regular practice, which should be enough time to be bitten by the bug.

But do not expect to know Pilates in that amount of time… it will take years. I also caution you to not be misguided by the many claims that you will experience a total transformation in your body within a short time. Pilates is not magic. It is a wonderful system, which, with regular and committed hard work, will bring profound rewards. But it will not happen overnight, and it will not happen without dedication. Now it is time for your next session. Enjoy!

  1. What’s the best way to strengthen wobbly ankles?

Rael: What you refer to as wobbly ankles probably does not emanate from the ankle joint but rather the subtalar joint, which sits just below the ankle joint. This joint is between the talus and calcaneus and allows eversion and inversion of the foot. The ankle joint itself is a hinge joint, which allows plantar and dorsi flexion, controlled primarily by the calf muscles in the back of the lower leg and the tibiais anterior in the front. Certainly, these muscles should also be well conditioned.

The muscles that primarily control the movement of the subtalar joint are the peroneals and the tibiais posterior, which sit on the outside (lateral) and inside (medial) aspects of the lower leg respectively and together create a supportive saddle for the foot. Strengthening and stretching these muscles and bringing a balance to them relative to each other will help enormously in stabilizing this area. The foot is the foundation of our structure and must therefore be stable and adaptable…but not wobbly. It is good you are addressing this issue.

  1. Are there any exercises that will help relieve upper-back and neck tension?

Rael: First, you are absolutely correct that these two regions are intricately connected. However, it is too simplistic to look at doing a few exercises as the solution to relieving tension in the upper-back and neck. The source of the tension needs to be identified and then addressed. Certainly, it may relate partially or even fully to muscle weakness, in which case certain exercises may well help. Usually, however, it will take a multiple-faceted approach: addressing lifestyle, muscle balance, posture, movement habits and patterns, and possibly past injuries.

Examples of exercises that target these regions are those for the back extensors and scapula adductors, such as Pulling Straps and Breaststroke on the Reformer, Double Leg Kick and Swimming on the Mat, Swan on the Wunda Chair and Hanging Back on the Cadillac. The chances are that stretching the muscles of the chest would also be of great value. There are many effective stretches for this region that can be performed in a Pilates session. Relieving tension in this area is one of the great benefits of mind-body systems, and certainly Pilates fits well into this genre.

Personally, I would recommend starting by observing and correcting posture and alignment. A small correction can bring with it huge rewards.

  1. I am working toward doing an Upward Facing Plank, but I don’t have the arm strength yet to do it. What are some exercises that will help me achieve this goal?

Rael: First let me applaud you for choosing to include and master this exercise… it is such a valuable and wonderful exercise and its benefits are far-reaching, well beyond arm strength alone. In the BASI system, we refer to this exercise as Back Support followed by Leg Pull Back, in which one leg is lifted and lowered several times before switching to the other leg, while maintaining the Back Support position.

Thinking of arm strength alone is not enough. Often it is not strength that is lacking, but rather it is tightness that is limiting the execution of the exercise. If you are tight in the pectorals for example, this will be a very tough exercise to perform. This is the reason many men have a difficult time with it.

In terms of the muscles of the arms and shoulders, the ones that need to be addressed and worked are the elbow extensors (Push Up) and shoulder extensors (Chest Expansion). However, it is important to also focus on the hip extensors and back extensors and, as mentioned above, stretching the muscles that may be restricting the movement.



This article first appeared in the July/ 2011 issue of Pilates Style. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at

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