Joseph Pilates created the methodology and practice of Pilates in the early 20th century, primarily as a tool for athlete rehabilitation. Its main goals are to strengthen the core, elongate the spine, align the body, develop strength and build stability. There is also any element of unifying mind, body and spirit.
Here’s what you should know before you dive in.
A little overview
Pilates is a fitness technique that trains and tones the entire muscular-skeletal system, systematically and precisely.
It is performed on a mat on a flat surface, or on a machine operated by your strength interacting with springs and pulleys, generally in a seated or supine position. Pilates exercises rely on control, fluidity, strength, balance and breath to execute sequences of movements, each of which targets a specific muscle group and works it a prescribed number of times to fatigue and strengthen.
Each movement relies on the mobility accessed in the previous moves and the series builds as you move through it.
Types of Pilates classes
Within the Pilates universe of workouts, there are a plethora of options designed to benefit the body in different ways and provide variety. They’re all meant to work the core and promote good alignment: they just use different tools and formats to accomplish this. A well-rounded Pilates practice incorporates some or all of these methods.
Performed on the floor, Mat Pilates was the original technique Joseph Pilates employed in his practice. There is a sequence of movements to follow, although this can vary a little from instructor to instructor. It involves little to no equipment, although different set-ups and instructors can incorporate props like bands, balls, blocks and straps to align the body and provide an extra challenge. Mat Pilates is primarily focused on building all-around core strength but provides many other benefits.
The Pilates Reformer is a remarkably effective way to make big changes in the body. This style of Pilates is taught using the Reformer machine, a wide rolling contraption with pulleys, ropes, handles and sliding carriages that require the user to perform slow, controlled movements to move the carriage. Springs are added or removed to change the level of resistance under the machine. Additional props like balls can be added for an extra stability challenge and to promote optimal alignment. Reformer is taught in an individual or group setting.
A classical Pilates class will make use of the full range of Pilates equipment and cycle through the movements set out in Joseph Pilates’ original sequencing. Expect to use a reformer, the Wunda Chair, barrels and trapeze all in one session.
Contemporary Studio Pilates
Contemporary Studio Pilates offers a reimagining of Pilates’ original sequencing, drawing on the foundational techniques while incorporating new approaches to biomechanic wellness and elements of physiotherapy. This style of class is also taught using a fully-equipped studio (reformer, barrels, the Wunda chair, etc.) and is usually taught to small groups. It provides a comprehensive workout that addresses a variety of functional and strengthening movements in one session.
What you can expect it to do for your body
There are six key principles of Pilates: concentration, control, centering, breathing, flow and precision, all of which are developed as skills with regular practice. It was designed as a resistance exercise to promote strength without bulking up.
Pilates focuses on strength, toning, flexibility and great posture with an emphasis on core strength. It works your most powerful, deepest muscle groups: your core, spine, hips and lats, all of which support a strong, elongated body and long, lean, stable musculature.
In short, it’s great for building muscular endurance, core strength and flexibility.
The big picture: core strength
Pilates often requires you to move one body part while keeping others still. Since movement is generated and stabilized by the core, the muscles of your abdomen, back, hips and pelvis gain strength with repeated practice.
Pilates strengthens supporting muscles to keep you upright. The idea is to develop muscles evenly and symmetrically so one group doesn’t take over for others, causing imbalance. Spine health is key to aging well, so no matter your age and fitness today, it’s key to look after your backbone.
Pilates also improves overall flexibility, which Joseph Pilates liked to say was the result of evenly developing every muscle in the body. Practicing Pilates teaches the body to be strong at extension, meaning your safe range of motion will increase. The more flexibility you have, the more easily blood can flow through your system: improved circulation contributes to cellular health and organ function.
By keeping muscles under constant tension and working against resistance, Pilates also increases the body’s lean mass, building muscle without bulk, which can help increase metabolism and burn fat more effectively. Muscles learn to work harder, and for longer durations without tiring as quickly.
Listen up (and breathe consciously)
It’s important to pay special attention to the breath cues provided by your instructor: it may seem counterintuitive to move on an inhalation (especially if you’re used to yoga where movement happens on the breath out – and in case you didn’t know, yoga and Pilates are quite different). The amount of space and power generated with breath is integral to the Pilates practice.