In our health-conscious world, a lot of exercise fads come and go. One that continues to grow in popularity, however, is Pilates. You may know someone who does Pilates, but if you’ve never done it yourself, it probably seems a bit mysterious. Let’s take a minute to get to know it a little better.

What is Pilates?

Pilates is an exercise system that was created by (and eventually named for) Joseph Pilates, who was born in Germany in 1880. Joseph was sickly as a child and so developed a lifelong fascination with the ancient Greek ideal of the perfect body.

As a young adult, Joseph moved to England, and it was there during World War I that he began to develop the exercise regimen for which he would later become famous.

At the time, Joseph was working in a hospital with wounded soldiers who had limited mobility. As a way to help them exercise without getting up, he attached springs to the hospital beds, allowing the patients to do a form of resistance training that proved very helpful to their recovery.

From that humble beginning, Joseph spent the next quarter century developing an exercise system he called “Contrology,” which we now know as Pilates.


How does it work?

Simply put, Contrology was a more sophisticated form of the hospital beds Joseph began with. He developed other machines to exercise the abdominal, leg, arm, hip and back muscles. If you’ve ever seen a Pilates studio, you might recognize the Cadillac, which traces its origins back to those original beds that Joseph began with.

Some of the other machines he used include:

  • Reformer
  • Wunda Chair
  • Ladder Barrel
  • Spine Corrector
  • The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle in Action

The Magic Circle
Credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo

What are the benefits?

Pilates is very popular among dancers and gymnasts, who say they experience numerous physical benefits, including:

  • Improved muscle tone and strength
  • Increased flexibility
  • Greater endurance
  • A more balanced musculature
  • Better posture
  • Improved balance
  • Less lower back pain.

Exercising on those machines does all that?

On the surface, Pilates may look like a simple system of exercises, but in reality it goes much deeper. In their 1980 book “The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning,” Philip Friedman and Gail Eiser list six principles that infused Joseph’s system:

  1. Concentration—a focus throughout the training on the entire body.
  2. Control—mastering every movement of the body throughout the exercises.
  3. Centering—Joseph took the Eastern concept of centering oneself and connected it to the physical core of the body, which he called the Powerhouse. He believed that all of our power came from this center, our core.
  4. Flow, or Efficiency of Movement—An emphasis on the elegant movement of energy from the core outward to the extremities.
  5. Precision—Correct form in every movement.
  6. Breathing—Joseph believed that proper breathing stimulated the circulatory system through an increased intake of oxygen. He described the process as “bodily house-cleaning with blood circulation.”

Unseen Benefits

By diligently practicing these six principles, students gain a greater awareness of their bodies. That doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a huge difference over time.

When the average person is unthinkingly hunched over the sink brushing his or her teeth, the student of Pilates is aware of extending the neck and keeping the shoulders down. This extends the benefits of practice well beyond class time.

And the benefits of strengthening your body’s core cannot be understated. We think of our core as the abs and maybe the lower back muscles, and technically that’s what they are. But they are also the connection between the lower and upper body. When that connection is strong and can contribute power, the extremities become much stronger on the whole, and your body becomes much more balanced in every way.

But isn't Pilates just a form of yoga on machines?

It’s true that these two forms of exercise share many traits in common. They both focus on the breath and both have an exercise component as well as a more “internal” component.

Both also use mat exercises, with postures that often look very similar. However, Pilates is not the same as yoga, and has its own subtle atmosphere.

Is Pilates for you?

Over the years, and especially since Joseph’s death in 1967, Pilates has been affected by a number of influences. In fact, anyone can use the term “Pilates” to describe their studio or class, regardless of what they know about Joseph and his creation. So if you’re thinking of giving it a try, make sure to do your research about any given teacher or studio before you go. Check out their credentials and find out exactly what kind of training the teachers have had.

If you’re not sure Pilates is for you, give it a try. There are classes for all levels, and you won’t really know if you’ll like it until you give it a shot. What's holding you back?