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Pilates Takes the Field

NFL player Martellus Bennett keeps himself game-ready with Pilates.

November/December 2013 – Unlike most of his teammates, Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, 26, isn’t carbo loading, lifting weights or going for a jog before home games. As often as he can, he’s doing Pilates with Luann Brusa at TruCore Pilates in suburban Chicago.

At 6’7” and 265 pounds, Bennett isn’t what immediately comes to mind when you think “Pilates student.” And he admits, “flexibility isn’t naturally easy for me.” Though football traditionally places more emphasis on strength than “stretch,” Bennett also knows this is a liability, because a collision sport like football takes a toll on the body even when you’reas big as he is. “I’m a tight end, which is a position on the offensive line that requires both blocking and running. I’m always getting hit, or hitting someone, in every single play,” he explains.

The usual football training regimen running, weights and more weights isn’t always enough to prepare you for 300 plus pounds of linebacker coming at you full speed. “So between getting slammed on the field by huge players and the type of training we do, our joints really get struck down,” Bennett says. “There is also a lot of stress on the lower back. The truth is, anyone who is playing in the NFL is never playing at 100 percent once the season starts, because some part of your body is always hurting.”

Bennett, a Texas native who played for the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants before joining the Bears this season, had been looking for a way to compensate for the brutal pounding his body took every week, both on the field and in the training room. “About five years ago, when I was playing for the Cowboys, I really wanted to find a new way to better my body, and to become more flexible.

“First I tried yoga, but I have ADD, so holding positions for a long time and all that chanting just wasn’t for me,” he recalls. “One day, I noticed a Pilates studio Cindy’s Pilates next door to a boxing gym in Irving, TX, where I worked out with some other teammates.”

One day after a workout, his curiosity got the best of him and he decided to check out the studio, which is owned by Cindy Gegax, a STOTT PILATES® trained teacher. “From watching some of the students do their routines, I knew right then that it was something that could help me,” he says. “I signed up for a lesson that day!”

From the start, he could tell that Pilates was exactly what his body needed. “From the first time that I did it, it just made sense to me,” he says. He also liked that the routines varied every session, depending on what he 

needed to work on at that moment and what hurt. “At the time, my knee was bothering me, so Cindy gave me routines that catered to that. My hamstring also had a ‘glitch,’ so she helped me work that out. I really liked having a new routine each time that could be adjusted to my body’s needs, and Pilates became a regular part of my workout.”

When Bennett was signed by the Bears earlier this year, he found another Pilates teacher, Luann Brusa, owner of two TruCore Pilates locations, one in Killdeer and the other in Barrington, IL.

He finds his three to five Pilates sessions a week are the perfect complement to his football training. “To counteract the joint compression caused by weight lifting, I go straight from weights to Pilates as often as possible,” Bennett says. “Luann helps me work on rebalancing and activating my muscles balance is so important for athletes.”

He’s also convinced Pilates has kept him surgery free. “I really want to keep myself as elongated as possible, because an elongated muscle is a strong muscle. When you fall, or someone falls on you, that’s when you end up breaking things. So by gaining flexibility through Pilates, I’m able to ‘go with it’ much more when I’m hit, and it helps minimize any injuries. I’m also able to strengthen the muscles around the joints, which in turn, gives the joints more support and stability.

During a session, he uses various equipment, including the Cadillac, Reformer and Chair, as well as props like balls and the Magic Circle. “Luann is good at mixing it up for me, so that every session is fresh,” he says. “Partly it depends on what part of my body needs to be worked on during a session, plus we always make sure my hamstrings are good. We also do a lot of deep stretching and work on my spine. Of course, everything on the Box is great for my spine and posture. I’ll admit that with my height it can be challenging...but I’m always up for a challenge!”

Pilates can also be humbling for a professional athlete. “Pilates has a way of finding your weakness and showing you what you need to be working on,” he points out. “I feel that a standard football workout uses the major, dynamic muscles, but not the smaller, supporting muscles that hold up the bigger ones. That’s where Pilates comes in for me.”

His favorite move? Leg Circles. “They work the muscles that aren’t being worked by the other training I was doing. They have really helped me improve my flexibility in my hips, which in turn, has helped me to be able to switch directions more quickly on the field. I’ve been working on that a lot this season, and you know what’s amazing? Thanks to Pilates, I’m better at that now than I’ve ever been.”

Bennett recently drafted a new “player” to Pilates his wife Siggi. “I was going to the studio with some other players who are into Pilates and I asked my wife if she wanted to join us. Even on the first try, it was really impressive how easily it came to her probably because she grew up doing a lot of dance and ballet. The guys with me started joking that she couldn’t come again, because she made them look bad!”

And therein lies the irony of Pilates. “I know players who lift hundreds of pounds, run fast and slam into other guys but when they try Pilates the first time, they can’t believe how hard it is. That’s what is so interesting about it. You watch someone do it and it doesn’t necessarily seem like they’re doing as much work as they are.”

Now that he’s got his wife on board, he’s working to recruit other players. “I’ve got to get more football guys doing Pilates! With all the hits to the body the players receive, Pilates could really help them.” So far, the most common response has been, “Isn’t Pilates just for girls?” he says. “But I tell them ‘you’re wrong, but if you think that, then why don’t you at least try it?’”

“The bottom line is that football is my job, and I want to do my job really well. Anything that can give me a competitive advantage on the field and help reduce injuries is a huge plus for me. It’s weird—I can lift 500 pounds, but in a Pilates session, there’s always some different type of motion that’s hard for me to do. That’s what is so great about it!”

And it’s paid off: In his first game for his new team, Bennett caught a touchdown pass against the Cincinnati Bengals so amazing, it was accorded the ultimate honor: It became an Internet GIF.