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What Is Pilates, and Should You Try It?

People perform reformer pilates in a studio.

Pilates has become all the rage in the fitness and wellness world, especially over the last couple of years. Cities are humming with new Pilates studios popping up, and Pilates reels and TikToks are going viral.

But what exactly is Pilates, and how do you know if it’s right for you?

What Is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of low-impact exercise that utilizes bodyweight and breathing techniques to stabilize, lengthen and strengthen every muscle, ligament, and joint in your body when executed with breath and precision. Oftentimes, it is enhanced by using various props and equipment.

The workout is different from others because when executed properly, it aims to provide stability and mobility to improve your body’s range of movement in any given state, whether that be to recover from an injury, to prevent one, or to improve your quality of everyday life as an office worker.

Originally, Pilates was developed in the 1920’s by Joseph Pilates, a German soldier who invented a unique way of rehabilitating his injured colleagues in the hospital as a result of battle. Joseph Pilates brought this practice back to New York City soon after, where he helped condition and rehabilitate ballerinas and dancers.

Gaiam Yoga Barre Socks

Many pilates studios require students to don sticky socks for stability.

In modern society, Pilates can be used as a form of rehabilitation and injury prevention in concert with the recommendations given by a physical therapist. It can also be a very challenging form of exercise to complement other forms of fitness such as running, dancing, biking, lifting weights, and more.

Mat and reformer Pilates are the most popular formats of a Pilates class. While mat Pilates conditions the body using no props or small props, reformer Pilates takes place on a large piece of equipment with straps, springs, and a sliding carriage to target and tone specific muscle groups.

Etronik Gym Bag for Women

From shoes to water bottles to toiletries, take everything you need to your pilates class.

What Are the Benefits of Pilates?

A group of women perform mat pilates.

Anyone practicing Pilates on a regular basis can expect to gain muscle tone and strength to promote overall body performance and injury prevention, improved posture, increased proprioception (or awareness of his/her body in space), and an overall increase in body confidence.

Polestar Pilates‘s founder, Dr. Brent Anderson, PT, PhD, OCS, NCPT, spoke with LifeSavvy and described Pilates as a whole-body movement system that allows for the appropriate amount of load and resistance to enhance human performance.

Load refers to stresses acting on the body like force, motion, and pressure. Pilates strengthens muscles and ligaments in the body by utilizing bodyweight load and the load of springs, weights, and other uniquely designed pieces of equipment.

Over time, by loading all aspects of the body through functional movements presented in a Pilates setting, effective tone and strength is distributed to the supporting muscles and ligaments of that exercise to help increase muscle tone and strength as well as prevent injury.

Amazon Basics Extra Thick Exercise Floor Mat with Carrying Strap

A mat is essential to Pilates performed on the floor.

Precision in executing Pilates sequences with specific breath work naturally emphasizes the deep core work involved in a Pilates practice. Natural breathing turns on a complex structure of muscles called your inner unit (your multifidi, transversus abdominis, and your pelvic floor). Cueing specific breath work during specific movements in a Pilates session strengthens the inner unit, therefore strengthening your deep core in a variety of movement patterns.

Pilates helps improve posture by increasing the mobility and strength of all parts of your body. As shared by Anderson, when you have increased mobility of the spine, hips, and ankles, it is much easier to stand up straight!

Additionally, Pilates is widely known for helping practitioners achieve balance, length, and proprioception from head to toe. Oftentimes, practitioners note feeling lighter and longer as a result of regular Pilates practice.

CFX Resistance Bands Set

Bands are common in some pilates classes.

Anderson described that this feeling is associated with the correct alignment of your ribs and diaphragm resting on top of your femur bone:

When we can think of the disc between each vertebra as an innertube or balloon, you can imagine filling them up with air until the spine is axially elongated. That axially elongated spine provides the greatest degrees of freedom to move in all directions with the least amount of work. The ribs and diaphragm are integral parts of moving the upper spine, especially with the help of breath. Now place that beautiful mobile spine and rib cage on top of a pelvis that is balanced on the femur heads and continue down the kinetic chain to the feet, so that 60% of your weight is on the forefoot and 40% is on the heel. Voila’! We start to realize how connected the body really is.

How Is Pilates Different From Yoga?

The differences between yoga and Pilates are some of the most commonly asked questions people have about Pilates. While Pilates and yoga share goals of increasing the mobility and stability of practitioners, yoga fixates more on the dynamic mobility of the body. Pilates prioritizes the stability of supporting muscles and ligaments around the pelvis, shoulder girdle, and deep core before working into a larger range of mobility.

Most traditional forms of yoga are also typically focused on spinal extension (heart openers), and spinal flexion (forward folds). Pilates operates in a different direction by focusing the control of your deep core and posterior chain (ie: hamstrings, glutes, and the back sides of shoulders) prior to exploring any kind of extreme flexibility.

Can You Do Pilates at Home?

A woman does a Pilates exercise at home.

While there are a variety of studio Pilates classes, you can absolutely do Pilates at home, and in fact, it’s easy. Pilates is best executed in an open space (like a living room or office space) with a steady mat and a few small props, like the small Pilates ball, a theraband, and a Pilates ring, otherwise known as a magic circle.

Many Pilates exercises that are taught on the larger pieces of equipment in studios can be transferred to the mat with the appropriate small props use. We recommend starting your Pilates practice on the mat to familiarize yourself with the foundations of breath, and pelvic core control first.

Gaiam Pilates Ring 15 Fitness Circle

Snag this Pilates ring to start your at-home practice!

How to Start Doing Pilates at Home

The foundations of Pilates address breath, core control, spinal-core stability, and finding overall balance within each person’s body. Since every individual is different, we do recommend starting your Pilates practice by scheduling a private session with a knowledgeable instructor in your area.

Doing so will provide you with the tools you need to form an effective at-home practice to help you meet your goals for your body. Taking a private session in a studio will also help you to familiarize yourself with the larger pieces of equipment, like the reformer, so that you can step into a group class feeling confident with how things work.

If you’re on a budget, though, and still want to give Pilates a go, we highly recommend following a few different YouTube channels at home on your mat. Move with Nicole and Jessica Valant Pilates both teach to the basics of mat Pilates, providing the perfect low-pressure opportunity for beginners to get started.

Ultimately, Pilates is an accessible and highly beneficial form of low-impact exercise for all body types. Whether you are needing to start as a form of rehabilitation or to complement your existing fitness routine, it is a fantastic investment and is seen as a form of activity that you can maintain for the rest of your life.

Jenn Vigh Jenn Vigh
Jenn is a pilates and yoga instructor, an aerialist, and a travel blogger with 5 years of experience in nonprofit communications, and over 10 years of experience writing, teaching, training, performing and collaborating with creatives across the globe. For the last 6 years, her American home-base has been Austin, TX, where she’s worked with the aerial dance company, Blue Lapis Light, and enjoyed the sunshine with her world-traveling yorkipoo, Sheila. Read Full Bio »
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