We normally associate Pilates with women. Actually, it was originally created by a man named Joseph Pilates in the 1920’s. Pilates was formerly called Contrology (“the mind controlling your body to create movement”) and was initially designed for military men as a fitness discipline before it became a favorite of dancers. We men are tight in general. We tend to prefer lifting weights which shortens and tightens our muscles. Pilates is a great neutralizer because it both strengthens and lengthens the muscles. Here we see a man over 70 years of age doing Pilates.
Former Mr. China Philippines Hopes to Bring Pilates into the Athletic Arena
By: Alex Martin
Sommet Fitness, a Pilates studio located in east Scottsdale, is not the type of fitness center where one would expect a former bodybuilder to set up shop and provide training to athletes. Yet Steve Vicera, a former “Mr. China” who is also the owner and founder of Sommet Fitness (pronounced som-a), has done just that. In the gym of a former bodybuilder one might expect to see squat racks and sundry dumbbells of ever increasing weight–the ubiquitous forms of exercise adopted by most. However, in Sommet Fitness those images are replaced by machines like the Reformer and the Cadillac–machines that look more like medieval torture devices than exercise equipment. These machines are typically alien to most athletes and gym-rats but Steve Vicera would like to change that and make Pilates an integral part of every athlete’s regimen.
Steve Vicera is not a Pilates trainer by nature and by looking at him one would never guess that he has dedicated his life to teaching the Pilates “Method.” Vicera began his long and successful career in the fitness industry as a bodybuilder in his native Philippines, and while he is not as hulking as he once was, he still retains the muscle mass and figure of someone who aspired to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Like most people Vicera began weight training with free weights to build muscle mass and strength–aspirations that he now says were misguided. His intense training paid dividends and he eventually won the title of “Mr. China” in 1989. Vicera continued to train in Asia and won titles in the “Super Body Fitness” and “Mr. Philippines” competitions. His dreams of bodybuilding superstardom were becoming a reality as he continued to ascend the echelons of bodybuilding.
Externally he was reaping the fruits of an intense bodybuilding and power lifting regimen but internally his body was straining to keep up with him, “From lifting so much for years, one of my vertebras started shifting.” It was this injury that made Vicera realize he was going down the wrong path; this was his moment of clarity. He began to search for a method of exercise that would be low-impact and not so detrimental to his health; eventually he stumbled upon Pilates and began doing it as rehab for his back, “It was the perfect choice for me.”
Vicera quickly realized that Pilates was filling in the gaps that his years of strength training and bodybuilding had left–the main gap being his core strength and stabilization, a common shortfall of many strength training routines. In essence he began focusing on training on a functional level, quite the opposite of his bodybuilding goals. “I really had to make a paradigm shift because they are two totally different principles. From focusing more on the outward muscles (we call them mirror muscles), to thinking more about core and function.” Vicera says that while machines and weight training are great at isolating individual muscles, they do not integrate the muscles, which is something that humans, as mobile creatures, need. In addition, strength training isolates major muscles groups and tends to ignore the tinier yet equally important stabilizer muscles. “Bodybuilding is about excess muscle that you don’t need, sometimes it even hampers your mobility because of too much muscle mass, but Pilates is excellent because it balances out your whole muscular system.”
Because of the way Pilates integrates one’s entire body and forces muscles to work together, Vicera believes that the next step in Pilates training is working it into athletes’ daily workout routines, “I think athletes would be surprised how much it would challenge them.” He says that even though you are only fighting gravity and your own body weight a Pilates workout can be more effective than hours in the gym, “Its all about stabilization, which is something we tend to neglect because in traditional exercise we tend to rely on the machine, the bench press; its all about how much you can lift, without the stability.”
While some might balk at replacing their daily workout routine of pumping iron with the languid motions of Pilates training, Vicera insists that Pilates has its place in athletes’ routines, “Pilates integrated into their sport-specific routine would be the best thing to do.” Pilates, according to Vicera, would provide a good base for an athletes’ training and would help them avoid injury. While traditional strength training focuses only on muscle contractions, which make tendons weaker, Pilates focuses on both lengthening muscles and contracting them, making tendons stronger. In the end this translates into a healthier athlete who is less apt to have a sports related injury.
You might call Steve Vicera a visionary, a man with aspirations to bring athletics into a whole new arena. At the very least his plan to bring Pilates to the sports-minded athlete is ambitious. However, Vicera is insistent that once athletes try Pilates they will realize its not a walk in the park and that it teaches the body to move in new and challenging ways that make the body work as one cohesive unit. And if anyone has doubts about the efficacy of Pilates in the athletic arena just ask the former Mr. China about his first experience with Pilates, “I started doing it and found out that I couldn’t do the movement! Even just doing leg circles my legs were cramping all over.”
85% of Americans have back-related problems. My initial experience with back problems was when I was demonstrating to my students a rowing technique. I tried to impress them by making the weights heavier than I should have. It was the same weight as my body weight, pulling it in a bent over position. I started feeling nauseous, and the room starting turning black.
My next experience was doing squats that were twice my body weight. Many years down the road I found out that my disc in my back slipped, causing pain while I was in certain positions. I was diagnosed to have Spondylolisthesis. I found Pilates as my exercise of choice for my back care. I’ve been a personal trainer for 22 yrs. Pilates is a whole new paradigm shift for me. I have now been practicing Pilates for 3 years and am a certified Stott Pilates Instructor. I want to share the benefits of Pilates, especially to men who would benefit the most from this type of training.
I remember growing up being told by my grandmother to sit up straight while sitting at the dining table. I didn’t understand why until now the importance of keeping your spine in a neutral position. Structures like buildings and bridges are carefully engineered to prevent collapse and support structural integrity. In the same way, our muscles in our bodies are complex pulleys that push and pull on our bones. Gravity’s constantly putting pressure on our bodies. The key is finding out the ideal balance that will have the most economical effort on our body and avoid strain. I find that Pilates is the best way to balance the body’s muscles. The exercises both lengthen and strengthen the muscles.