You’ve heard it a thousand times: “Pilates builds core strength.” As a veteran Pilates teacher I can corroborate that a regular Pilates practice makes for a strong midsection. But “core strength” is a buzz word that betrays a misunderstanding of what Pilates does for us. If you are just looking at making a set of muscles strong, then crunches, medicine ball tosses, and planks will do the trick, without all the focus and fuss of Pilates. So what’s the difference between “core strength” and the thing that Pilates does for us?
For the answer, look no further than the lessons offered by the “Magic Circle”. This small apparatus designed by Mr. Pilates is known by other names, such as “Fitness Ring,” but I prefer the name “Magic Circle,” which was used by Mr. Pilates’ own students. Why would a no-nonsense lover of the concrete and direct aspect of Pilates training like me prefer the name “Magic Circle” to “Fitness Ring”? As I tell my clients, “the circle is called ‘magic’ because you use it most when it is not there.”
How’s that? How could you use something that is not there? The Magic Circle is the most widely used piece of Pilates equipment besides the mat. It is light, inexpensive, it slips easily into your suitcase, and you can buy enough of them for a roomful of clients without breaking the bank, hence its popularity. But the ring must not be misunderstood merely as the provider of resistance. Correct teaching provides the magic, and the magic is the resistance with a certain spin on it. What’s the spin? The spin is the conversation you have first with your Pilates instructor, then with your own muscles that teaches them how to dissipate or distribute forces. Even the muscles you use to just sit or stand correctly have to be trained to arrange your skeleton for maximum dissipation of forces. In Pilates, we refer to this fundamental dissipation of forces as opposition. Frequently, beginners actually need more resistance to identify opposition, so we let them squeeze the ring a bit harder. The more advanced a student becomes, the less added resistance he or she should need to create opposition. So the work becomes differently difficult as the client progresses.
While there are scores of exercises you can enhance or alter using the Magic Circle, its most profound effect involves relying on it less and less to feel which muscle you use to organize your body as it interacts with gravity or other forces it must encounter or generate, wherever you may find yourself: on the football field, in the gym, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or even just sitting tall.
The Magic Circle is a teacher. Yes, it provides resistance, but as with the entire Pilates method, its great value is not exhausted in the workout, but in its incredible accessibility and transferability to all movement. Far from just developing core strength, Pilates changes the way to move through life.