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What is Pilates? Everything You Need to Know About Pilates

How to Get Started With Pilates

Pilates is a mind-body exercise method with a history spanning over 100 years. Initially embraced by professional dancers in the early 20th century for its ability to prevent injuries and increase flexibility, today, it’s practiced by more than 12 million people worldwide.

With high-profile devotees— from Hollywood celebrities on TikTok to elite athletes, princesses, Olympians and health care practitioners— lauding its effectiveness and transformative potential, Pilates is clearly “having a moment,” as declared by the New York Times.

But it is more than a passing fitness fad. Backed by a storied history and a growing body of research to support its many mental and physical health benefits, Pilates has been found to improve core strength and stability, flexibility, balance, posture, cognitive function and even quality of life.

Pilates Enthusiasts Practice Mat and Reformer Pilates

Over the last century, Pilates has evolved to incorporate the latest exercise science research and new developments in rehabilitation and fitness training protocols, making it even more adaptable and accessible to people of all ages, fitness levels and abilities.

Regardless of where or whom you practice with, whether you choose mat Pilates or Reformer Pilates— this is a full-body workout that anyone can do, from beginners to professional athletes.

Want to learn more about Pilates, its history, health benefits and how to get started? Discover why Pilates has become the go-to workout for so many people and explore how you can change the way you move and feel too with this mind-body practice.

Table of contents:

  1. What is Pilates?
  2. Who is Pilates for?
  3. What is the history and origin of Pilates?
  4. What are the physical and mental health benefits of Pilates?
  5. What’s the difference between traditional and contemporary Pilates?
  6. How is Pilates different from yoga?
  7. Pilates for beginners: Tips on getting started

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a full-body, low-impact workout that promotes strength, stability, flexibility, posture, balance, body control, awareness and alignment, ultimately helping you move with greater ease and fluidity in everyday life.

A Pilates Enthusiast Works Out on the Pilates Reformer at Home

Pilates exercises are often performed on a mat or on specialized equipment, such as a Pilates Reformer, Cadillac/Trapeze Table or Stability Chair, all of which use springs to create resistance through the full range of motion without stressing the joints.

“Pilates focuses on all of the muscle groups, from big to small without using heavy weights. For this reason, you can build lean muscles rather than gaining bulk,” says Merrithew® Master Instructor Trainer Laureen DuBeau.

In Pilates, there’s a strong emphasis on core stability and strength, with the muscles in the center of the body, such as the abdominal muscles, low back muscles, pelvic floor and hip muscles, driving and supporting the movements in time with the breath. While Pilates is often associated with core strength, it also targets muscles in the arms, back and legs, activating both the large muscle movers and small stabilizer muscles.

Mindful breathing plays another important role in Pilates to encourage mind-body awareness and muscular control. Breathing intentionally helps you execute the exercises more effectively. The most common Pilates breathing technique is cyclical: inhaling through the nose followed by an audible exhale through pursed lips. Bringing awareness to the breath includes understanding how the lungs and rib cage expand and contract and how that can affect the quality of movement.

“Pilates helps you develop body awareness and a greater understanding of how the body moves. It teaches you how to move better and is not just about getting fitter. Moving better, having greater functional fitness, allows you to do everyday tasks with greater ease— from reaching a glass on the top shelf to bending down to pick up your kids. In order to be healthy, a body needs to move. Finding a movement program that is enjoyable is half the battle,” says Laureen.

Who is Pilates for?

Pilates is a versatile form of fitness that can be adapted to benefit a wide range of people, from beginners to regular exercisers, elite athletes, rehab clients, children, seniors, pre- and post-natal clients, and people with disabilities.

With thousands of exercise modifications and equipment options to either increase or decrease the challenge, Pilates can be adjusted to suit each individual’s needs and abilities, delivering a safe and effective workout for everyone.

Pilates is an inclusive, adaptable and versatile fitness practice that anyone can do

“Pilates is based on biomechanics, which is the science of how and why the body moves the way it does. Biomechanics involves the principles of motion, force and momentum. Pilates applies these concepts and can be modified, progressed and regressed on its own or with equipment and props to ensure it is beneficial for anyone. Beyond just the mechanical aspect, Pilates also incorporates the idea of ‘biotensegrity’ which speaks more to how the muscular and fascial systems work together to create efficient movement,” Laureen says.

Applying an integrated, full-body approach to improving strength, flexibility, endurance and body conditioning, Pilates is the perfect complement to cardiovascular activity, strength training, rehabilitation or restorative exercise. For athletes, including dancers, golfers, runners, cyclists, football and hockey players, it’s often incorporated into their training to enhance mobility, agility, and overall performance.

With its focus on mindful breathing, body awareness and mind-body connection, Pilates also offers stress-relief benefits and is often sought-after by people recovering from injuries, dealing with chronic pain or looking to prevent injuries.

“A Pilates workout doesn’t focus so much on sets and reps. It’s about achieving functional movement – movements that help us in our daily activities – and using the body efficiently. In most cases, it is not only about what we are doing, but why we are doing it. Intention is such a big part of achieving our goals,” Laureen says.

What is the history and origin of Pilates?

Joseph Pilates, the inventor of the Pilates method, was born in Germany in 1883 to a gymnast father and naturopath mother. He was a sickly child who took to physical exercise to improve his health. He studied various forms of physical fitness, including gymnastics, yoga, boxing and martial arts.

In 1914, when WWI broke out, Pilates was in England working as a circus performer. He was taken into custody and interned in a British prisoner of war camp for four years.

While there, he began developing the foundation of his exercise method, leading inmates through their daily fitness routine and helping injured soldiers improve their strength and mobility through his corrective exercises. It is said that he attached springs to his patients’ hospital beds to help them condition their bodies while bedridden, an innovation that would later inform the design of the Pilates Reformer.

A woman performs an advanced move on the Pilates Reformer

Pilates immigrated to the U.S. in 1926. He and his wife Clara opened their Manhattan gym three years later, teaching the mat and equipment-based system of exercise he’d developed called Contrology. The studio became popular among dancers and performers in New York, including Martha Graham and George Balanchine, who sought out the exercise method to help them rehabilitate and prevent injuries. Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 83.

Today, Pilates is a well-known and widely practiced fitness method offered at boutique studios, franchise fitness clubs, community centers, wellness retreats and physical therapy clinics around the world.

What are the physical and mental health benefits of Pilates?

There is a growing body of scientific research to support the physical and mental health benefits of Pilates.

Here are a few:

  • Improved core strength: Pilates exercises target the abdominal, lower back, pelvic floor, and hip muscles, which can lead to improved physical strength and stability, and may reduce the risk of back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction. Deep stabilizers include the smallest muscles that provide support to balance the larger movers.
  • Improved posture and flexibility: Pilates exercises focus on strengthening the trunk extensor muscles supporting the optimal alignment of the vertebral column, promoting better posture. It’s also been found to improve flexibility, mobility, balance and increase joint range of motion.
  • Rehabilitation and injury prevention: Pilates is becoming a more commonly used and widely respected tool for physical therapy, injury prevention and rehabilitation. Studies have found that it can be effective as part of the treatment for scoliosis and back pain, as well as for preventing injuries among adults, seniors and athletes.
  • Improved balance, coordination and quality of life: Pilates has been found to improve balance and gait performance in the elderly thanks to its effects on trunk stabilization, core activation, and static and dynamic balance, brightening people’s moods and improving their quality of life. It is often used as a tool for fall prevention training to enhance balance ability.
  • Reduced stress and anxiety: With its focus on intentional breathing, body awareness and mindfulness, Pilates has been found to be effective for managing stress and anxiety by reducing cortisol levels.
  • Enhanced sports performance: With its emphasis on balance, agility, flexibility, mobility, and strengthening the deep stabilizing muscles around the joints and torso, Pilates is often recommended as cross-training for athletes in a range of sports because of its proven impacts on performance and injury prevention benefits.

What’s the difference between traditional and contemporary Pilates?

Traditional or Classical Pilates refers to the original method of Pilates pioneered by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century. Traditional Pilates focuses on a set of exercises and techniques performed in a specific sequence, while contemporary Pilates provides more flexibility, with modifications and variations of the exercises designed to accommodate individual needs and address specific goals.

Pilates is an inclusive form of fitness that anyone can do

Joseph Pilates’s theories were founded on six fundamental principles:

  • Breathing: Pumping the air in and out of the body with a forced breath using full inhales and exhales.
  • Centering: Maintaining mental and physical focus during each exercise. Pilates referred to the area between the ribs and hips as the ‘powerhouse’.
  • Concentration: Valuing the quality and form of each movement over the number of reps. Pilates believed that it was necessary to maintain inner focus, paying close attention to the specifics and details of every exercise.
  • Control: Emphasizing control of the entire body at all times with an awareness of how the parts move together.
  • Flow: Emphasizing continuous movement, flowing from one exercise to the next, while maintaining an aesthetic quality.
  • Precision: Performing each exercise with precision, step-by-step as given, paying close attention to placement, alignment and trajectory for each moving part of the body.

Contemporary Pilates, such as STOTT PILATES®, is based on modern principles of exercise science and rehabilitation. It can be adapted to suit the needs of a wide range of people, including those looking for rehabilitation, injury prevention or to maintain their fitness.

STOTT PILATES builds on Pilates’s original repertoire and foundational principles. The STOTT PILATES Principles, which form the foundation of this contemporary method, have evolved over the last three decades and continue to be reviewed and updated to ensure they integrate the latest research and fitness best practices. The principles provide instructors with a framework to ensure that exercises are taught safely and effectively and can be used by practitioners to ensure they are performing the exercises well.

“Pilates is constantly evolving, which is what makes it an exercise method that people are still doing 100 years later. At Merrithew, we regularly update our education curriculum and equipment to reflect the latest health and fitness research and innovations to ensure it remains safe, relevant and effective for fitness professionals and clients,” says Lead Instructor Trainer Rie Sakamoto.

A group of Pilates enthusiasts practice Reformer Pilates at a studio

The STOTT PILATES Principles include:

  • Breathing: Breathing effectively ensures that enough oxygen is flowing to the working muscles, and helps prevent unnecessary tension. A relaxed and full breath pattern encourages focus and concentration and facilitates optimal muscle activation.
  • Pelvic placement: STOTT PILATES emphasizes the right amount of activation of the stabilizing muscles of the torso to control the pelvis and lumbar spine (lower back) in either a neutral or an imprinted position, depending on the requirements of the exercise or exerciser.
  • Rib cage placement: The position of the rib cage affects the alignment of the thoracic (upper) spine and relates to the stability of the whole body, especially during arm movements. Adequate resiliency of the rib cage is also a main factor in optimal breath function.
  • Scapular movement and stabilization: Understanding how the movement of the shoulder blades relates to movement of the arms and upper torso will help fine-tune the performance of the exercises. Appropriate mobility and control will help avoid strain through the neck and upper shoulders.
  • Head and cervical placement: To create effective and efficient movements, the position of the head and cervical spine (neck) should be closely monitored to avoid tension and unwanted muscular activity. In general, the cervical spine should follow the line made by the thoracic or upper spine during any movement.
  • Lower body mobility and stability: The last principle focuses on integration of the lower chain (hip, knee, ankle and foot) with the rest of the body. Dynamic control, flexibility and the ability to transfer loads is necessary to be functional in day to day activities.

How is Pilates different from yoga?

Yoga and Pilates are both forms of mindful movement that are low-impact and accessible to a wide range of people. Both practices emphasize intentional breathing and mind-body awareness. While they offer similar mental and physical health benefits, there are also some key differences between these two practices.

  • Pilates focuses on precise, controlled movements that prioritize alignment, stability, strength and deep core activation and engagement. Yoga focuses on movements that increase flexibility, balance and strength with an emphasis on breathing, relaxation and meditation.
  • Pilates may involve specialized equipment, such as the Pilates Reformer or Cadillac; yoga is a bodyweight-only practice.
  • Pilates is a 100-year-old exercise modality based on a set of principles; yoga is an ancient practice rooted in Indian philosophy and spirituality.
  • Pilates emphasizes three-dimensional breathing with the rib cage expanding vertically (up and down), laterally (side to side) and forward and back to create a more efficient gas exchange. The pranayama breathing technique in yoga is intended to promote purification, mental focus, rejuvenation and healing.

Pilates for beginners. Tips on getting started

Pilates is an effective form of fitness for anyone looking to start moving, build strength and stability, improve flexibility and balance, reduce stress and more. Pilates mainly involves resistance and bodyweight training, so it is an excellent complement to cardiovascular training, such as running, swimming, cycling and golf, and other fitness modalities, such as spinning, strength training, HIIT, Zumba, barre, etc.

Pilates Instructor Practices Mat Pilates

When deciding to start a Pilates workout routine, think about your overall fitness goals and preferences, physical needs and the availability of qualified Pilates instructors and studios in your area. Consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program if necessary.

Once you’ve decided to give Pilates a try, here’s what you should do next:

1. Find a qualified instructor: To get the most out of your Pilates workout, find a qualified and experienced Pilates instructor who’s been certified through a reputable organization. At your first session, your instructor will guide you through the exercises using the proper form, alignment and technique. Look for someone who offers modifications for your specific body type, postural concerns or other conditions; communicates and cues exercises and corrections effectively; layers and progresses the session appropriately; and pursues ongoing education and training.

Looking for a qualified instructor in your area? Browse Merrithew’s Pilates Instructor Finder List >

2. Online or in-person: Online Pilates workouts are a great way to discover if this form of exercise is for you before investing in in-person training. But once you’ve made that decision, we recommend taking a few sessions in person with a qualified Pilates instructor to set you up for success. This hands-on training is the best way to learn the foundations of the exercise method, including the principles, movement technique and to try out the equipment. Then, if online training is all that’s available to you because of your budget, location or schedule, you can continue to practice Pilates at home knowing that you are performing the exercises safely and effectively.

Take a look at Merrithew Connect, our digital streaming platform featuring 200+ workout videos from our team of experts >

3. Private, group class or specialized program: Many Pilates studios offer introductory packages starting with private one-on-one sessions. This gives you a chance to meet the instructors, get acquainted with the studio and equipment, and learn some of the exercises before joining a group class. Alternatively, many studios also offer specialized programs for various populations, including pregnant people, active agers, sport-specific, etc. Depending on your needs, abilities and goals, you may choose to seek out a specialized program first.

4. Mat or Reformer Pilates: Mat Pilates uses bodyweight and gravity to challenge and engage the neuro-myofascial system, building endurance, strength and dynamic alignment. A big benefit of mat Pilates is that it’s generally more accessible and affordable. You can do it at home with a yoga mat and a few small props. It’s also the building block and foundation to a lot of the equipment repertoire.

Reformer Pilates offers an opportunity to expand on the benefits of mat Pilates by incorporating external load and spring resistance. It’s a great way to explore the concept of feedback and support, providing external cues to help you achieve the correct engagement patterns. The most effective Pilates workout combines elements of both mat and Reformer Pilates exercises.

5. Workout frequency: The best exercise is the exercise you do. Adding Pilates to your workout routine will benefit you in everyday life— whether you’re doing it once a week or five times a week. Do what is practical, convenient and sustainable for you.

There is evidence to suggest that two 60-minute Pilates workouts per week will have notable benefits. For example, this study found that two 60-minute equipment-based Pilates workouts per week for eight consecutive weeks improved functional capacity and quality of life in healthy adult women. This study found that two 60-minute mat Pilates sessions per week for 12 weeks stimulated increases in abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility and upper-body muscular endurance.

6. Practice, be patient, keep trying: Pilates is an excellent full-body workout that anyone can do. And it’s fun! Be kind and patient with yourself – with time, practice and a great instructor or studio behind you, you will get the hang of it. Once you do, there are countless ways to progress and advance the exercises to keep pushing your practice. Plus, there are some real benefits to practicing Pilates. One study found that doing Pilates for eight weeks made people happier.

Discover the joy of Pilates

“When you first try Pilates, you may be surprised to discover that the smallest movements are often the hardest to perform, especially when they are done correctly. After your workout, you will be rewarded with a general feeling of wellbeing. Many clients talk about not being motivated at the beginning of the class because it’s always hard to start exercising— but then they say they feel so much better afterwards and are so grateful they did their Pilates workout,” Laureen says.

Two People Practice Pilates At Home

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