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Everything you need  to know about Pilates

Picture Credit: “Pilates, developed by a German in Britain” by Migration UK is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0
Introduction to Pilates

Pilates is a form of exercise. It focuses on balance, posture, strength and flexibility and is suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. You don’t need to have done it previously to engage in a Pilates session which usually lasts for up to 45 minutes. An exercise mat would be useful if you have one and, ideally, you should wear comfortable, loose clothing.

Pilates is a type of mind-body exercise[1] developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates[2], after whom it was named. Pilates called his method “Contrology”.[3] It is practised worldwide, especially in Western countries such as Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. As of 2005, there were 11 million people practising the discipline regularly.[4]

The NHS website[5] boasts fitness videos that have been created by InstructorLive and range from 10 to 45 minutes. Please note that these videos are recorded sessions of previously live webcasts. If you like the class in the NHS video, you may also enjoy vinyasa flow yoga or pyjama pilates.

Joseph Hubertus Pilates
Joseph Pilates was born in 1883, in Mönchengladbach near Düsseldorf, Germany. His father was a gymnast, and his mother a naturopath. Little is known about his early life, but he appears to have been a frail child, suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. His drive and determination to overcome these ailments led him to become a competent gymnast, diver and skier. In 1912, Joseph Pilates lived in England, working as a circus performer, boxer and self-defence instructor.

During World War I, he was interned with other German nationals. During this time, he developed his technique of physical fitness further, by teaching his fellow internees. During the latter part of the War, he served as an orderly in a hospital on the Isle of Man, where he worked with patients unable to walk. He attached bed springs to the hospital beds to help support the patients’ limbs, leading to the development of his famous piece of equipment known as the ‘Cadillac’. Much of his equipment, although slightly adapted, is still in use today in many Pilates studios.

Pilates emigrated to the USA in the early 1920s with his wife Clara, and together they developed and taught the method in their ‘body-conditioning gym’ in New York in 1926.

Pilates published two books related to his training method: Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education in 1934, and Return to Life Through Contrology in 1945.

First Students
The first students of Joseph Pilates went on to teach his methods, including Romana Kryzanowska, Kathy Grant, Jay Grimes, Ron Fletcher, Mary Bowen, Carola Treir, Bob Seed, Eve Gentry, Bruce King, Lolita San Miguel, and Mary Pilates, Joseph’s niece.

Contemporary Pilates includes both the “Modern” Pilates and the “Classical/Traditional” Pilates. Modern Pilates is partly derived from the teaching of some first-generation students, while Classical Pilates aims to preserve the original work as Joseph Pilates taught it.

Reformer Pilates Photography - Feet In Straps Exercise
Reformer Pilates Photography – Feet In Straps Exercise” by runwaypilates is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Pilates: the Exercise – Effectiveness
Pilates developed in the aftermath of the late 19th century physical culture of exercising to alleviate ill-health. However, there is only limited evidence to support the use of Pilates to alleviate problems such as lower back pain[6]. Evidence from studies show that while Pilates improves balance, it has not been shown to be an effective treatment for any medical condition other than evidence that regular Pilates sessions can help muscle conditioning in healthy adults when compared to doing no exercise at all.[7] There is also no good evidence that it helps improve balance in older people[8].

A systematic review in 2012 examined the literature to determine a consensus description of Pilates. It said it could be described as “a mind-body exercise that requires core stability, strength, and flexibility, and attention to muscle control, posture, and breathing”[9].

In his book Return to Life through Contrology[10], Joseph Pilates presents his method as the art of controlled movements, which should look and feel like a workout (not a therapy) when properly manifested. If practised with consistency, Pilates improves flexibility, builds strength and develops control and endurance in the entire body[11].  It places emphasis on alignment, breathing, developing a strong core, and improving co-ordination and balance. The core, consisting of the muscles of the abdomen, low back, and hips, is often called the “powerhouse” and is thought to be the key to a person’s stability[12]. Pilates’ system allows for different exercises to be modified in range of difficulty from beginner to advanced or to any other level, and also in terms of the instructor and practitioner’s specific goals and/or limitations. Intensity can be increased over time as the body adapts itself to the exercises[13]. Several versions of Pilates are taught today, most of which are based on up to nine principles[14]:

  • Breathing
  • Concentration
  • Control
  • Centring
  • Precision 
  • Balanced Muscle Development
  • Rhythm/Flow
  • Whole Body Movement
  • Relaxation

Legal Status
In October 2000, the word “Pilates” was ruled a generic term by a US federal court, making it free for unrestricted use[15]. The word is still capitalised in writing due to its origin from the proper name of the method’s founder[16].

As a result of the court ruling, the Pilates Method Alliance was formed as a professional association for the Pilates community. Its purpose was to provide an international organization to connect teachers, teacher trainers, studios, and facilities dedicated to preserving and enhancing the legacy of Joseph H. Pilates and his exercise method by establishing standards, encouraging unity, and promoting professionalism[17].

Comparison with Yoga
Pilates, like Yoga, is a mind-and-body discipline, though yoga classes are more likely to address spiritual aspects explicitly. Some poses are similar in the two disciplines. Pilates, however, emphasises core strength, whereas Yoga emphasises flexibility.[18]

Pilates ‘Apparatus’
Joseph Pilates applied his exercise method with a variety of equipment, for which he used the term “apparatus”.

Each apparatus was designed to help accelerate the process of stretchingstrengthening, body alignment and increased core strength started by the mat work. The best-known and most popular apparatus today, the Reformer, was originally called the Universal Reformer, aptly named for “universally reforming the body”. Eventually, Pilates designed other apparatus, including the Cadillac, Wunda Chair, High “Electric” Chair, Spine Corrector, Ladder Barrel and Pedi-Pole.[19]

Joseph Hubertus Pilates: Quotations[20]
“A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy callisthenics or forced contortion.”

“A man is as young as his spinal column.”

“Above all, learn how to breathe correctly.”

“Before any real benefit can be derived from physical exercises, one must first learn how to breathe properly. Our very life depends on it.”

“Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.”

“By all means, never fail to get all the sunshine and fresh air you can.”

“Change happens through movement, and movement heals.”

“Contrology (Pilates) is complete co-ordination of body, mind, and spirit. Through Contrology, you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and co-ordination associated with all your subconscious activities.”

”Change happens through movement, and movement heals.”

“Contrology is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace, and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, how you play, and how you work.”

“I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They’d be happier.”

“If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”

“Every moment of our life can be the beginning of great things.”

“Everyone is the architect of their own happiness.”

“I invented all these machines… it resists your movements in just the right way, so those inner muscles really have to work against it. That way, you can concentrate on movement. You must always do it slowly and smoothly. Then your whole body is in it.”

“It’s the mind itself which shapes the body.”

“Moreover, such a body freed from nervous tension and over-fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind that is always fully capable of successfully meeting all of the complex problems of modern living.”

“Not only is health a normal condition, but it is our duty not only to attain it but to maintain it.”

“Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”

“Patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavour.”

“Physical fitness can neither be achieved by wishful thinking nor outright purchase.”

“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.”

“Pilates is complete co-ordination of body, mind and spirit.”

“Self-confidence, poise, a consciousness of possessing the power to accomplish our desires, with a renewed lively interest in life, are the natural results of the practice of Contrology.”

“The acquirement and enjoyment of physical well-being, mental calm and spiritual peace are priceless to their possessors.”

“The mind, when housed within a healthful body, possesses a glorious sense of power.”

“The Pilates Method teaches you to be in control of your body and not at its mercy.”

 “Through the Pilates method of body conditioning, this unique trinity of a balanced body, mind, and spirit can ever be attained. Self-confidence follows.”

“To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life, we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limits of our ability.”

“Were man to devote as much time and energy to himself as he has devoted to that which man has produced, what astounding and unbelievable progress would be made – a progress eclipsing all he has so far successfully accomplished.”

“When all your muscles are properly developed, you will, as a matter of course, perform your work with minimum effort and maximum pleasure.”

“With body, mind, and spirit functioning perfectly as a co-ordinated whole, what else could reasonably be expected other than an active, alert, disciplined person?”

“You will feel better in ten sessions, look better in twenty sessions, and have a completely new body in thirty sessions.”

“You’re only as old as your spine.”

Reformer Pilates Photography - Couple Arm Exercise
Picture Credit: “Reformer Pilates Photography – Couple Arm Exercise” by runwaypilates is marked with CC BY 2.0

Sources and Further Reading

Reformer Pilates Photography - Couple Plank Exercise
Picture Credit: “Reformer Pilates Photography – Couple Plank Exercise” by runwaypilates is marked with CC BY 2.0.

CAUTION: No advice is implied or given in articles published by us. This guide is for general interest and information only. Always consult with your doctor before embarking on any new fitness program, especially if you are over 40 years of age, have a pre-existing medical condition, or haven’t exercised in a long time. The facts are believed to be correct as at the date of publication, but there may be certain errors and omissions for which we cannot be responsible. The hyperlinks were current at the date this guide was published.

  1. Source and explanation:

  2. See:

  3. See: Pilates, Joseph (1998) [1945]. Pilates’ Return to Life through Contrology. Incline Village: Presentation Dynamics. pp. 12–14. ISBN 978-0-9614937-9-0.

  4. See:

  5. At:

  6. Source: Yamato TP, Maher CG, Saragiotto BT, Hancock MJ, Ostelo RW, Cabral CM, Menezes Costa LC, Costa LO (2015). “Pilates for low back pain”. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 7 (7): CD010265. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010265.pub2. PMC 8078578. PMID 26133923.

  7. Source:  8078578. PMID 26133923. Baggoley C (2015). “Review of the Australian Government Rebate on Natural Therapies for Private Health Insurance” (PDF). Australian Government – Department of Health. pp. 110–118. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 June 2016.

  8. Source: Barker AL, Bird ML, Talevski J (2015). “Effect of pilates exercise for improving balance in older adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis”. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 96 (4): 715–23. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2014.11.021. PMID 25511371.

  9. Source: Wells C, Kolt GS, Bialocerkowski A (August 2012). “Defining Pilates exercise: a systematic review”. Complement Ther Med. 20 (4): 253–62. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2012.02.005. PMID 22579438.

  10. Source: Pilates, Joseph (1998) [1945]. Pilates’ Return to Life through Contrology. Incline Village: Presentation Dynamics. pp. 12–14. ISBN 978-0-9614937-9-0.

  11. Source: Mayo Clinic Staff (2012). “Pilates for Beginners: Explore the Core of Pilates”. Mayo Clinic

  12. Source: Houglum, Peggy (2016). Therapeutic Exercise for Musculoskeletal Injuries (4th ed.). Human Kinetics. pp. 297–299. ISBN 9781450468831.

  13. Source: Mayo Clinic Staff (2012). “Pilates for Beginners: Explore the Core of Pilates”. Mayo Clinic.

  14. Source: Houglum, Peggy (2016). Therapeutic Exercise for Musculoskeletal Injuries (4th ed.). Human Kinetics. pp. 297–299. ISBN 9781450468831.

  15. Source: U.S. District Court – Southern District of NY, Opinion 96 civ. 43 (MGC) October 2000,

  16. Source: Favilla, Emmy (2017). A World Without Whom: The Essential Guide to Language in the Buzzfeed Age. New York: Bloomsbury USA. p. 118. ISBN 978-1-63286-757-5.

  17. Source: “About the PMA”. Pilates Method Alliance. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08.

  18. Source: Ogle, Marguerite (14 January 2019). “Differences and Similarities in Pilates and Yoga Poses”. VeryWell Fit.

  19. Source: Lange, Claudia; Unittham, Viswanath; Larkham, Elizabeth; Latta, Paula (April 2000). “Maximizing the benefits of Pilates-inspired exercise for learning functional motor skills”. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 4 (2): 99–108. doi:10.1054/jbmt.1999.0161. S2CID 16289816

  20. Sources: Various, including,,, and

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