Pilates is a body conditioning routine that seeks to build flexibility, strength, endurance, and coordination without adding muscle bulk.
For decades, it’s been the exercise of choice for dancers and gymnasts (and now Hollywood actors), but it was originally used to rehabilitate bedridden or immobile patients during World War I.
What Is Pilates?
Pilates (pronounced: puh-LAH-teez) improves mental and physical well-being, increases flexibility, and strengthens muscles through controlled movements done as mat exercises or with equipment to tone and strengthen the body.
In addition, pilates increases circulation and helps to sculpt the body and strengthen the body’s “core” or “powerhouse” (torso). People who do pilates regularly feel they have better posture, are less prone to injury, and experience better overall health.
Joseph H. Pilates, the founder of the pilates exercise method, was born in Germany. As a child he was frail, living with asthma and other childhood conditions. To build his body and grow stronger, he took up several different sports, eventually becoming an accomplished athlete. As a nurse in Great Britain during World War I, he designed exercise methods and equipment for immobilized patients and soldiers.
In addition to his equipment, Pilates developed a series of mat exercises that focus on the torso. He based these on various exercise methods from around the world, among them the mind-body formats of yoga and Chinese martial arts.
Joseph Pilates believed that our physical and mental health are intertwined. He designed his exercise program around principles that support this philosophy, including concentration, precision, control, breathing, and flowing movements.
There are two ways to exercise in pilates:
- Today, most people focus on the mat exercises, which require only a floor mat and training. These exercises are designed so that your body uses its own weight as resistance.
- The other method uses a variety of machines to tone and strengthen the body, again using the principle of resistance.
The great thing about pilates is that just about everyone — from couch potatoes to fitness buffs — can do it. Because pilates has gained lots of attention recently, classes are usually readily available.
Many fitness centers and YMCAs offer pilates classes, mostly in mat work. Some pilates instructors also offer private classes that can be paid for class by class or in blocks of classes; these may combine mat work with machine work. If your health club makes pilates machines available to members, make sure there’s a qualified pilates instructor on duty to teach and supervise you during the exercises.
The fact that pilates is hot and classes are springing up everywhere does have a downside, though: inadequate instruction. As with any form of exercise, it is possible to injure yourself if you have a health condition or don’t know exactly how to do the moves. Some gyms send their personal trainers to weekend-long courses and then claim they’re qualified to teach pilates (they’re not!), and this can lead to injury.
So look for an instructor who is certified by a group that has a rigorous training program. These instructors have completed several hundred hours of training just in pilates and know the different ways to modify the exercises so new students don’t get hurt.
The pilates mat program follows a set sequence, with exercises following on from one another in a natural progression, just as Joseph Pilates designed them. Beginners start with basic exercises and build up to include additional exercises and more advanced positioning.
Keep these tips in mind so that you can get the most out of your pilates workout:
- Stay focused. Pilates is designed to combine your breathing rhythm with your body movements. Qualified instructors teach ways to keep your breathing working in conjunction with the exercises. You will also be taught to concentrate on your muscles and what you’re doing. The goal of pilates is to unite your mind and body, which relieves stress and anxiety.
- Be comfortable. Wear comfortable clothes (as you would for yoga — shorts or tights and a T-shirt or tank top are good choices), and keep in mind that pilates is usually done without shoes. If you start feeling uncomfortable, strained, or experience pain, you should stop.
- Let it flow. When you perform your exercises, avoid quick, jerky movements. Every movement should be slow, but still strong and flexible. Joseph Pilates worked with dancers and designed his movements to flow like a dance.
- Don’t leave out the heart. The nice thing about pilates is you don’t have to break a sweat if you don’t want to — but you can also work the exercises quickly (bearing in mind fluidity, of course!) to get your heart rate going. Or, because pilates is primarily about strength and flexibility, pair your pilates workout with a form of aerobic exercise like swimming or brisk walking.
Most fans of pilates say they stick with the program because it’s diverse and interesting. Joseph Pilates designed his program for variety — people do fewer repetitions of a number of exercises rather than lots of repetitions of only a few. He also intended his exercises to be something people could do on their own once they’ve had proper instruction, cutting down the need to remain dependent on a trainer.
Before you begin any type of exercise program, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor, especially if you have a health problem.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014