When the actress Maria Bello prepares for a role, she draws on her extensive acting training to transform herself into each rich and nuanced character. But to express the physical embodiment of each person she portrays, she turns to Pilates.
It all started two years ago, when Bello’s best pal. actress Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix, Memento), urged her to give Pilates a try to prepare for her role as a police psychologist in Assault on Precinct 13. “I had to lose at least 10 pounds to wear this tiny little dress and look lean,” says the head-turning, tanned blond who looks a decade younger than her 40 years. And I wanted to do it in an efficient and healthy way.” She happened upon Pilates instructor Jennifer Gianni’s studio near her home in Venice, CA, and decided to give her a try.
Gianni, who received her own training nearby at Long Beach Dance Conditioning, immediately sensed tightness in Maria’s body and proceeded with moves to open and release the tension. Focusing on her chest, sacrum and pelvis helped bring the woman, famous for her role as a tough, sexy bar owner in Coyote Ugly, to a place where she could focus on her physical goals. “We had an immediate connection,” says Bello. “Jen’s nature is gentle and nurturing. I can’t be screamed at or be strong-armed.”
Gianni helped her new client to relax during that first session by having her use yoga’s ailayi (“ocean” or “victorious”) breath (see “Breathe the Ujjayi Way,” page 52) rather than classical Pilates breathing, believing it releases more endorphins in the body. Bello almost instantly started to feel her tension lessen as she proceeded through the strengthening sequences. “After the workout I felt much more centered, and my core was tighter,” she says. “I was walking straighter and was more balanced for the rest of the afternoon.”
That first session led to a partnership that continues to this day at thrice-weekly sessions at Angel City Body Kinetics in Marina del Rey, CA.”Whether I need to reshape my body for a role or just stay strong and focused while moving, Pilates helps me attain a balanced life,” says Bello.
Toned and shapely, feminine and strongrather than scary-skinny as celebrities tend to be these days Bello maintains a healthy image that mirrors her philosophy. “I trust Jen to create specific workouts to help use achieve the look that I need on the set or off,- she says. “I don’t believe in putting perfect bodies on-screen,” she continues. “In The Cooler I gained 10 pounds, and in World Trade Center I gained 15 pounds to look like a suburban mom. For both roles, Pilates helped rise to get my body physically strong and shapely so I didn’t look flabby But I did get to eat a lot of pasta and fries!”
Conversely, for her latest role as a self-mutilator in Downloading Nancy, Bello is struggling to lose 15 pounds. “While researching the role, I found that many self. mutilators are anorexic, so I wanted to lean out,” she says. “As I get older, though, it’s getting harder and harder to lose weight. I’ve already lost five pounds by eliminating most carbs –no sugar or flour I’m also seeing an acupuncturist who also treats me with herbs. But I’m concentrating on Pilates now, because once I start on this project I’ll be working 15 to 16 hours a day and won’t have time to practice.”
Even on the road, Bello relies on Pilates to decompress. “I pack Therabands so I can do my strengthening exercises every night. To get my energy and circulation going in the morning, I do handstands against the wall.” In between roles, Bello uses Pilates to regain her focus, strength and peace of mind to meet her off-camera responsibilities, specifically spending time with her five-year-old son, Jackson Blue. “Starting my day with Pilates helps me feel more centered. I like to work out between 9 and noon, when I have the most energy. My favorite move is the Short Spine to open my back,” she says. “It helps me to feel more focused for the day that lies ahead.”
You don’t have to be a Hollywood mom to benefit from a good de-stressing Pilates workout. In fact, we asked Jennifer Gianni to re-create one of Bello’s workout pro-grams just for you. The sequence, which is designed to work from the ground up. has a twofold purpose: to provide relief front simple physical stresses (such as running around in high heels) and to improve your connection to the earth. By alit:ming the feet to release tension first, the rest of your body will follow as the exercises progress upward. As tension is released, the mind and body can more easily focus on balance and strength. And what better role can exercise play than that?
For this series, ujjayi breath (pronounced you-JIE-a) is employed to fully release tension and enhance focus. To perform the ujjayi breath, keep your lips closed and inhale fully through your nose. Hold for a moment at the top of the breath, then exhale fully as you feel the breath glide along the top of the throat. (It should sound like Darth Vader.) Try to slow your breathing to an easy, steady pace.
By surrendering into the ball and using it like a rolling pin, you release the pressure points in your feet, relieving stress throughout your entire body.
1. Stand with feet hip-width apart and step your right foot about 12 inches forward. Place the ball of the foot on the Sticky Ball with your toes curled over, putting pressure on the ball.
2. Roll the ball to the inside arch of your foot from the big toe to the heel and back again to the arch. Put pressure into the ball.
3. Roll the ball on the center of the foot from the toes to the heel, 3 to 4 times.
4. Roll the ball on the outside arch of the foot, 3 to 4 times. Switch feet and repeat sequence.
MODIFICATION: For balance, hold onto a wall or chair. You can also use a tennis ball.
light, 2 medium springs This simple sequence connects you to your core by opening your feet, energizing your lower body and strength-ening and shaping your legs.
1. Lie on your back and place the cups of your heels hip-width apart on the footbar, with the toes relaxed and arms at your sides, palms down. Keep your shoulders relaxed against the shoulder pads.
2. Inhale and slowly press the carriage out, keeping the spine aligned.
3. Exhale and slowly release the carriage. Repeat 8 times.
light, 2 medium springs
Turning out the feet works the inner.thighs and creates a spiraling action in the hips, knees and ankles while helping to set your Sacrum in place.
1. Lie on your back and place the balls of the feet (with the heels lifted) on each end of the foot bar. Turn out your feet, keeping your knees in line with the second toes.
2. With spine and pelvis in neutral, inhale and fully extend your legs out.
3. Exhale and bend the knees, slowly returning the carriage. Repeat 8 times.
2 mediums, 1 heavy These work the larger Muscles in the legs, energizing them and preparing them for strengthening. The downward glide strength-ens the hamstrings; the upward glide lengthens the hamstrings.
1. Put your feet in the straps, toes relaxed. Lie down on your back. Keep legs straight, with feet to the ceiling and pelvis in neutral.
2. Keep your feet hip width apart. Inhale as you slowly lower your legs, hamstrings pressing toward the floor.
3. Exhale as you raise your legs, bringing them as high as possible without lifting your tailbone. Pause when your feet are over hips. Repeat 8 times.
2 mediums, 1 heavy
Because the legs stay at a 45-degree angle. much more strength in the core muscles is required to keep the spine and pelvis neutral. This exercise en-courages inner length and gives fast results for toning rear, thighs and legs.
1 . Lie down on your back and place the cups of your heels into the straps. Straighten your legs and lower them to a 45-degree angle.
2. Inhale and open your legs wider than the Reformer frame, heels in line with each other. Slowly bend the left leg as you pull the right leg away. The left ankle should stay in line with the left knee. Keep tension on both straps.
3- Exhale and bring your legs together. Repeat 8 times.
MODIFICATION: If your ribs are popping out, don’t lower your legs as far.
1 light, 1 medium By opening the chest and shoulders, this exercise reverses slouched plane posture after hours of traveling.
1. With the headrest down, lie on your back and place the cups of your heels on the car-riage, keeping the feet hip-width apart.
2. Inhale and, starting with your tailbone, roll your spine up one vertebra at a time, keeping the carriage in. Weight should be between the shoulder blades and on the feetnot on the neck. Ribs are in line with the pelvis. Hold at the top and keep the hips level, then exhale.
3. Inhale and push the carriage into exten-sion while keeping hips up. Exhale and slowly bring the carriage back in. Repeat 3 times and perform 3 sets, resting between each set.
MODIFICATION: If this move is difficult, just roll into a bridge without pushing the carriage.
1 light, 1 medium Along with opening the shoulders, this challenging extension adds a strength element, multitasking as a great tush lifter and back-of-leg toner.
1. Follow instructions 1 and 2 in the previous exercise.
2. Extend your left leg, knees in line with each other, with your right foot on the foot bar to steady you.
3. Inhale, pushing the carriage halfway out with your right foot. Keep the hips level.
4. Exhale and return the carriage. Repeat the extension 3 times, then release your left foot to the footbar and rest. Change legs and repeat 3 times.
Opens the heart and stretches chest and shoul-ders to relieve tension; also tones the arms. It’s great for those who spend hours hunched over a computer or driving.
1. Lie on your belly with your chest over the front edge of the box. Press your pelvis into the box and keep your feet hip-width apart. Hold the straps high up, with wrists in line with your fore-arms. Arms should be long and straight.
2. Inhale to prepare. Exhale as hands glide along the outside of the Reformer to the hips. Keep the neck long.
3. Inhale and hold. Using the mid-back, draw shoulders down to open the chest, lifting the heart forward. Exhale and glide hands back to start position. Repeat 6 times.
MODIFICATION: Don’t aim for height; strive for length.
By holding the upper-back extnsion throughout the arm movement, the back extensors come into play while working the triceps and back.
1. Lie on your belly with your chest over the front eclge of the box. Press your pelvis into the box ancl keep your feet hip-width apart. Hold high up on the straps, keeping your elbows bent, wrists in line witb your elbows.
2. Inhale and extend the arms beck, bringing the wrists to the hips. Deng let the elbows flare. Hold .r 5 seconds.
3. Exhale and bring ale arms back start position. Repeat 6 times.
MODIFICATION Perform fewer reps and emphasize the nudity of the movement.
1 light, I medium An overall lengthening exercise tor the entire body: neck, shoulders, side waist, abdominal., hamstrings and calves.
1. Place your hands on the carriage, a bit wider than. shoulder-width apart. feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, heels snug against the pads.
2. Hike your hips up and back, Idling the sitr hones toward the ceiling, keeping the head and neck In line with the spine.
3. Inhale and push the carriage out hinging your legs at the hip joints.
4. Exhale and bring the carriage back in. Reheat 8 times.
MODIFICATION: If your hamstrings are challenged, walk your feet up, away horn the shoulder bloc, If you are losing your form during the push-out, iust perfect the beginning position.
1 light Stretches the sides of the body and adds a detoxification element that massages the internal organs, aiding digestion.
1. Sit in a Z formation, left shin against the shoulder blocks, right shin facing front in line with your shoulders. Put your right hand on the footbar.
2. Inhale and push the carriage away with the right hand and place left arm over your head. Hold and exhale.
3. Inhale and bring the carriage in. Grip the silver pole with the left hand and place the right arm over your head. Exhale and hold.
4. Inhale and wrap your right arm around your head. Rotate your right elbow down toward the carriage. Hold and exhale.
5. Inhale and bring your right elbow to the ceiling and then extend your arm. Exhale and bring your right hand back to the toolbar. Repeat 3 times and change sides.