What Is Pilates?

Monday, 18 November 2019

What is Pilates?

For those that may have only come across it in passing, Pilates is an incredibly popular form of exercise that's used by millions to improve flexibility, balance and core strength and function. Typically, you would perform Pilates exercises on a mat using your own bodyweight. Portable equipment such as stability balls, resistance bands, and Pilates circles can also be used to adapt exercises and make them easier or more challenging as required.

Reformer Pilates is a more dynamic variation compared to its mat counterpart. It requires the use of a 'reformer', a piece of apparatus that closely resembles an old-fashioned bed - although there's little risk of you dozing off in a reformer class!



 Origins and developments

 What we know as Pilates originally started as 'Contrology' and it was developed in the 20th century by Joseph Pilates. Born in Germany in 1883, Joseph Hubertus Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever as a child. At the time, doctors understandably thought the outlook was bleak but this didn't deter Joseph. He would go on to dedicate his life to overcoming his fragile state and nursing himself back to full health using the restorative powers of exercise.

  In the early 1910s, Joseph moved to England, but as the First World War broke out, he was interned on the Isle of Man with his fellow European nationals. It was here that he began to work with patients who were unable to walk. This is where the precursor to the reformer, the 'Cadillac' was born. Joseph attached springs to hospital beds which would support patients' limbs, this allowed them to perform exercises that they normally wouldn't have been able to do.


From England, after the war, Joseph made his way to America and with his wife Clara, opened a gym in New York. Using the methods he'd been honing for years and assisted by a range of Pilates equipment known as 'apparatus', Joseph was able to attract high profile clients from the world of performing arts. His exercises focused on alignment, strengthening, and recovery, and this proved vital for the dancers and other performers who would come through his door.

Joseph would eventually collect his methods and publish them as books. First, there was 'Your Health; A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionises the Entire Field of Physical Education', and then the seminal 'Return to Life Through Contrology', a body of work that many Pilates instructors still refer to.His methods were known as Contrology until his death and 1967 and then it eventually began Pilates.

Pilates principles

Today, there are many schools and interpretations of Pilates. Some were created by the Pilates 'elders', those who learned their techniques directly from Joseph himself. Others blend Pilates exercises with other popular forms of exercises, for example, Les Mills' Bodybalance.

Regards of the type of Pilates programme you do, what has stood the test of time are the base principles that Joseph devised and they are:

  • Breathing - according to the man himself, taking a breath is the first and last thing we do in life

  • Concentration - the mind and body connection is pivotal to getting the most out of Pilates

  • Centering - mat-based Pilates exercises begin with concentrating movement on the core

  • Control - at the heart of all Pilates exercises is the need for mastering control

  • Precision - Joseph believed that performing exercises with the correct form was critical to achieving results

  • Flow - Pilates exercises should flow outwardly from the core and be performed smoothly

About Josh

Josh Douglas-Walton is a health and fitness writer for HFE, the UK's leading provider of personal trainer courses and fitness qualifications. In his spare time, he's a keen marathon runner and frequently uses yoga and Pilates to supplement his training.