Fitness Health & Fitness

Pilates challenge at Flex Studio, Hong Kong: See Susan Grant’s week-by-week diary

Joseph Pilates, founder and inventor of the Pilates movement, once said of his regime, “In 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 you will see the difference, in 30 you will have a whole new body.” A brave statement for a fitness regime that doesn’t usually work your cardio or often make you sweat, and that many see more as a workout for the mind than the body.

We decided to put his claim to the test with the help of Pilates virgin Susan Grant and the advice of walking, talking advert for Pilates, Heather Thomas Shalabi, founder of Flex Studio.

Susan signed up to Flex’s new 20-hour Pilates challenge, launched by Heather to attract new clients and encourage existing Flex members to try more challenging classes and to make Pilates a part of their every day routine. “Joseph Pilates called his technique an ‘internal shower’ meaning that it should be done daily,” explains Heather. “It’s like studying a language: one hour a week is enjoyable but gets you nowhere, while an intensive course gets results. The more you do Pilates, the more it embeds a neuro pattern in your muscles.”

Pilates is one form of exercise that can benefit everyone, from super-athletes to recovering couch potatoes. The range of exercises works the core muscles, building inner body strength, improving posture and spine alignment and creating greater awareness.

The 15 people who signed up to the first Flex challenge ranged from new mums wanting to get their bodies back into shape to self-confessed Pilates addicts keen to take their knowledge to the next level and complete novices like Susan.


“Slightly alarmed to find I’m the only member of my first class to be anything over a size 10. But I suppose I should see it as a positive: this Pilates thing must work! Still, I’ve never done yoga or any form of mat class, preferring to run and sweat out the stresses and strains of modern life, so I’m sceptical it’s going to make a difference to my less-than-toned body.

The hour-long class starts with mat work, stretching and breathing before we jump on the Pilates reformer, a sort of sledge on wheels with a series of weighted springs. The exercises are slow and precise; my main problem seems to be finding the correct muscles without tensing ones that should be relaxed; coordination for the body and mind!

Pilates terminology abounds: ‘neutral spine’ (letting your spine follow its natural curve), ‘imprinting’ (isolating each individual vertebra of the spine) and ‘scoop the abs’ (lifting the deepest layers of your abdominals up and in). But I seem to be getting the gist. That it is until Jan announces that we are to ‘do our hundreds’; my classmates get ready with a sense of anticipation for what I later learn is one of Joseph Pilates’ classic exercises designed to work everything: abs, legs, arms, lungs.

I’ve stuck to level one classes this week – a mix of mat classes and reformer – and despite the fact I’ve been there every day, it hasn’t been a chore. Each teacher has unique voice queues and I’m learning something new from each class.

I’m obviously isolating and using muscles that haven’t been engaged for a while. I’m not feeling stressed or tired but I’m sleeping like a baby. So far, so good.”


“Five classes in and I’m still skipping merrily to Flex each morning. Today is fat-burning Pilates, one of the many hybrid classes that Heather and her team have developed to engage the interest of the growing number of followers on the South Side. Unlike in the classes I did last week, this time the music is turned up as well as the tempo – sweat is on the agenda!

A board is added to the bottom of the reformer and the idea is to do some of the moves we learnt last week while adding a jump – brilliant fun and surprisingly tough. The only problem with the upped tempo is that I’m not able to concentrate quite so much, something that is essential for mastering breathing and isolating the correct muscles.

Saturday morning and I’m there again for a reformer class with Lindsay. Lindsay trained with Ron Fletcher which it seems is something of a rarity in the Pilates world. Her classes are quieter and her exercises more subtle, but the consequences the following day are extreme. Who said Pilates was easy?”



“I’ve now passed the half way mark, which means – according to Mr Pilates – I should be ‘feeling the difference’. I can honestly say that I do feel leaner, especially in my legs. I’m also more conscious of my posture and breathing, and I use many of the techniques I’ve learnt, even when just sitting at my desk. Sadly, the results seem less than obvious on my stomach area, which is where I hoped the core strengthening would pay dividends. When I discuss this with Heather she agrees that an intense abdominal fat-burning class would be a good addition to the Flex schedule. A chat with my fellow challengers reveals that they are getting slightly bored; I feel the same, so I decide to try out some of the other hybrid classes next week.”



“I find myself hanging upside down by a rather flimsy piece of turquoise fabric all in the name of research. This is called Flying Pilates and has been introduced to Flex by former New Yorker Kimberley. It’s got a touch of the Cirque du Soleil about it and is meant to improve flexibility and technique. It also claims to work every muscle in the body.

While my classmates are ‘inverting’ with ease, I find it difficult to battle gravity. Kimberley claims it’s my mind rather than my body that’s stopping me – it’s pretty scary stuff putting all your trust in a bit of chiffon! Twenty minutes in and I’ve almost combatted my fear of flying, though I still prefer my Pilates a little closer to terra firma.”



“After my twenty hours, I think I’ve met everyone of Flex’s team of instructors, used almost every Pilates prop and sampled almost every form of the exercise. So what about seeing a difference? Mr Pilates is right: I do! My legs are leaner and more toned, my shoulders are more defined and my glutes are tighter. My stomach, sadly, is still a work in progress.

Research has shown that Pilates only burns between 175 and 250 calories an hour – far less than a run up the Peak. But as an investment in your future health, it’s well worth adding it to your exercise regime. As Heather explains, ‘Most exercise in Hong Kong is extreme and competitive but you can spend your life succeeding at more intense forms of exercise like running or cycling but as you get older, if you haven’t mastered the intrinsics then you’ll increasingly suffer injuries. Pilates builds your core body strength and helps you correct your posture, balance and body movement, all essential for long-term health and wellbeing.’”


To take part in the Flex 20-hour challenge or to find out more about the studio’s full range of classes, visit