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by Laurie Wertich updated 8 /2020

Pilates is more than a popular fitness trend with a hard-to-pronounce name (puh-LAH-tees). It will strengthen your core, but it will do more than that—it will leave you feeling centered from the inside out.

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a unique system of exercises designed to strengthen and lengthen the muscles. The series consists of floor exercises (matwork) and exercises on specialized Pilates equipment. The rhythmic movements of the Pilates method promote elongated and toned muscles of the core or “powerhouse”, which include the deep abdominals and low back muscles, as well as muscles of the shoulder and pelvic girdles.

Pilates requires students to work “from the inside out”, using the deep muscles of the body’s core to initiate movement and stabilize the body.

A Little History

The Pilates method evolved after Joseph Pilates, a nurse in World War I, developed a conditioning program he called “contrology.” The method consisted of 34 movements performed on the floor and designed to strengthen the body’s core. (These movements are now referred to as the Pilates matwork.) Later, he supplemented this work by rigging up the springs on hospital beds and assisting patients with rehabilitation. These spring-based exercises led to the development of his specialized Pilates equipment, which would supplement his original matwork.

Joseph Pilates regarded his method as a way of life and a path to total health rather than merely a series of exercises. He believed that the whole body must be exercised to achieve good health.

More than Exercise

Pilates is based on six principles: breath, concentration, control, centering, precision, and flow. While students learn to move from the body’s core, they also learn to quiet the mind and tune in to the specific needs of the body.

Pilates conditions the body as a whole, training several muscles at once so that no muscle group is over or under-trained. In Pilates, the emphasis is on proper breathing, correct body alignment, and purposeful movement patterns; the result is an increased awareness of how your body moves and feels in space.

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Many students of Pilates report that they feel calmer and stand taller as a result of the practice.

Getting Started

Pilates is a fairly gentle, low-impact form of exercise that can be practiced on the floor or on the specialized equipment. The best way to get started is to find a local class or professional who provides private lessons on the equipment.

Once you learn the matwork, Pilates is a fun, simple way to practice core strengthening at home. Your core muscles will thank you and so will your centered spirit.

Some Myths About Pilates

Pilates purists maintain that only the original exercises developed by Joseph Pilates, performed in a specific order and with equipment made to Pilates’ original specifications, are real Pilates. This approach is often referred to as Classical Pilates. Contemporary Pilates has added new equipment and variations of exercises. If Pilates students cannot complete a particular exercise, it makes sense to incorporate modifications based on current knowledge and available equipment to help them improve their skills. It may not be exactly as Joseph Pilates invented, but it has helped achieve his vision of reaching many different types of people. As with any discipline, the key to deriving maximum benefit from Pilates is training with a qualified instructor.

Myth - Pilates is only for very fit people. While it’s true that the first groups to adopt Pilates were athletes and dancers, it isn’t true that high levels of fitness and flexibility are prerequisites. Pilates works well for beginners who want to build strength in their core muscles for improved posture, balance and flexibility. It can be adapted to address specific conditions, to train for specific sports and to suit each individual’s level of fitness. The advanced repertoire of exercises is appropriate for the very fit.

Myth - Pilates alone will help you lose weight. Pilates delivers key benefits but it does not burn calories like running or swimming or cycling and cannot be counted on for significant weight loss. Studies have shown that Pilates improves flexibility, strength, and range of motion and can be effectively incorporated into a weight loss program including nutrition and cardiovascular activity.

Myth - Pilates is just like yoga. Pilates and yoga share the goals of uniting the body and mind and of improving strength and flexibility but they have different approaches to breathing and movement and they use different exercises. Yoga originated as a spiritual practice, designed to move energy through the body and leave the student calm. Physically, yoga focuses on the spine and limbs while Pilates works the whole body but focuses on developing abdominal strength first. Yoga concentrates on staying connected to the breath while Pilates coordinates movement with the breath in order to build strength and flexibility throughout the body.

Myth - You need special equipment for Pilates. The equipment developed by Joseph Pilates is used in some Pilates programs but all the basic movement principles of Pilates can be incorporated into a mat workout. Joseph Pilates’ goal was for people to learn the exercises and practice several times a week in their homes to achieve the full benefits.