At some point in the last decade, the badass prison-cell workout of a German circus performer and boxer interned in England during World War I got co-opted by soccer moms and college coeds. But more recently, some of the toughest athletes in pro sports have discovered the benefits of Pilates and added it to their training.
“It’s hard,” says Cleveland Browns defensive back Johnson Bademosi. “I’ve been training for football for 10 years, and the first time I tried Pilates, I felt like a child—I was really struggling.”
Named for its inventor Joseph Pilates, who eventually brought it to the U.S., the system involves body-weight-only exercises, typically on a piece of equipment called a reformer, which uses pulleys that let you focus on range of motion instead of resistance. That’s one reason athletes like Bademosi find it so tough—it activates lesser-used muscles and fully recruits the core.
“It’s hard to prepare for what’s needed on the field by just lifting weights,” says Bademosi. “Pilates challenges you with really unfamiliar movements.”
Says Stanford University’s Nanci Conniff, who works with pros like Bademosi, Andrew Luck, and Jeremy Lin, “With Pilates, you’re strengthening the muscles that are closer to the bone. You’re always working in extension, to lengthen instead of shorten muscles,” which can counteract the tightening and stress of sport-specific, high-impact training.
Here, some reformer moves Conniff has modified to suit any workout space and athlete.