Pilates 101

Professional Football players practice Pilates with an instructor.
Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Health and exercise fads constantly fall in and out of favor. The latest patented fitness system is frequently left to gather dust in the corner as a new machine or routine replaces it. However, some exercise methods withstand the test of time and gain loyal adherents. Pilates, a fitness system developed in the 1920s by Joseph Pilates, has been gaining ground since the 1980s. But what is Pilates and why is it so effective?

 Pilates is a system of exercises that engage the body and mind through a series of controlled movements. These controlled movements incorporate the idea of dynamic tension, or self-resistance. Dynamic tension describes the act of exercising muscle against muscle -- a mode of exercise promoted by the fitness guru Charles Atlas, a contemporary of Joseph Pilates. Pilates employs dynamic tension and allows movements to flow together simultaneously.


Joseph Pilates wanted to increase adherent's flexibility and strength but also realized that a healthy mind and body are interrelated and dependent. Today, the physical trainer's methods have supplanted traditional weight-lifting exercise as an effective way to tone muscle and build strength. 

In this article, we'll learn about Joseph Pilates, the Pilates method and how it became a mainstream and popular exercise system.­ ­


Pilates Basics

Joseph Pilates balances on the stomach of his student -- the opera singer Roberta Peters.
Michael Rougier/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The development of the Pilates technique had much to do with the childhood of its founder, Joseph Pilates. Born in 1880 in Mönchengladbach, Germany, Joseph Pilates was the son of a competitive gymnast father and a naturopath mother who believed in natural healing. As a young child, Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. However, the young Pilates had a burgeoning interest in fitness and health and when a family physician gave him an old anatomy book, the child began memorizing and exercising each body part. By 14, Pilates had developed his body enough to model for anatomy charts.

By early adulthood, Pilates was well trained in boxing, gymnastics, skiing and diving. When World War I broke out in 1914, Pilates, who was living and working in England, was placed in an internment camp for enemy aliens. He taught fellow detainees wrestling and self-defense and began developing the exercise method he would later call Controlology. Pilates was eventually transferred to serve as a nurse for patients with wartime diseases. He began creating equipment to help rehabilitate his patients.


In 1926, Joseph Pilates moved to the United States and opened a Pilates fitness studio in New York City with his wife Clara. Their new mode of exercise became popular with injured dancers who needed rehabilitation. Because Pilates builds strength without adding bulk, it's an effective exercise for dancers who must remain lithe. Pilates is still used today for sports injury prevention and rehabilitation. Pilates can also help restore distortion in a body that has been using certain muscles to compensate for injured ones.

In the next section, we'll learn about the main components of Pilates.


Practicing Pilates

Pilates exercises are meant to build strength, increase flexibility and promote body and mind control. Dynamic tension helps strengthen muscles while elongation creates flexibility. Pilates builds true flexibility -- a freedom of movement created without distorting or manipulating the body.

Every Pilates movement is meant to be made in complete concentration. The Pilates practitioner should focus on the body's proper position at all times and pay attention to how the body feels. This concentrated mind control helps prevent injuries and increases the exercises' effectiveness, ensuring no muscle is forgotten or left out. Pilates movements are also meant to be slow enough to fully engage the muscles the movement was intended for.


Most Pilates exercises are performed on a mat. In 1954, Joseph Pilates wrote "Return to Life through Contrology," a book about the exercise method we now simply call Pilates. The book describes 34 mat exercises: the core movements of Pilates. Some, like the hundred, help warm up the body and aid breathing. Others, like the saw, work major muscle areas such as the abdominal core and help stretch others like the hamstrings. Pilates exercises often work multiple muscles during the same exercise. The push up works the shoulders, chest, arms, and upper back while stretching the hamstrings and shoulders [source: Siler].

For all its versatility and benefits, Pilates does have some limitations and drawbacks. Pilates is not a complete physical training program. It does not provide the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercises. Pilates practitioners should combine the exercises with some form of aerobic activity for cardiovascular health. Because Pilates does not help create bulky muscle mass, it's not a useful system for bodybuilders.

Doctors also caution those suffering from Osteogenesis imperfecta, Osteoporosis, Paget's Disease, Osteomalacia or other bone disorders to practice Pilates only with professional consultation. Some Pilates instructors are trained to modify exercises and work with these disorders.

And because there is no sanctioning body of Pilates to issue official teaching certificates, it's sometimes difficult to know if you're being taught classic or hybrid Pilates. However, there are agencies that certify teachers in certain types of Pilates methods.

In the next section, we'll learn about Pilates equipment.


Pilates Equipment

A woman in Beijing tries to figure out a Pilates exercise machine at a fitness expo.
Frederick J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Not all Pilates exercises are done on the mat. During World War I, Joseph Pilates found that he often had to hold patients or use his body to help them perform exercises. He began to experiment with machines that could essentially replace his body. His first machines were made out of the only materials he had on hand: bedsprings and bed frames.

Joseph Pilates eventually gave his inventions names like the Universal Reformer, the Wunda Chair, the Cadillac, the Ladder Barrel, and the Spine Corrector. Most Pilates work can be performed on the mat and with the Universal Reformer, now simply called the Reformer. Other machines can be incorporated into the mix for a more balanced workout. Most Pilates equipment is based on Joseph Pilates' original designs although there are some new machines.


Each Pilates apparatus is multifunctional. The Reformer alone allows for more than 100 different movements. The Cadillac has wooden bars and hanging trapezes to work the arms, legs and trunk against different spring tensions. The Wunda Chair was designed to help develop balance and strength.

Pilates kits are also a popular and less expensive way to enhance a basic Pilates workout. The kits include sets of springs and bungee bands used for resistance training. They also can help keep the body properly aligned during exercise.

To learn more about Pilates and other forms of exercise, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "About Pilates." Balanced Body. http://www.pilates.com/BBAPP/V/about/pilates-benefits.html
  • Betz, Sherri. "Modifying Pilates for Clients With Osteoporosis." Inner IDEA.
  • http://www.inneridea.com/library/pilates-osteoporosis-pilates-exercises-osteoporosis-exercises
  • Body Control Pilates. http://www.bodycontrol.co.uk/lynne.html
  • "Charles Atlas." Encyclopaedia of World Biography. http://www.bookrags.com/biography/charles-atlas/
  • Cruickshank, Anne. Myofascial Release Clinic UK. http://www.myofascialreleaseclinic.com/pilates.htm
  • "Dancers." Pilates Central. http://www.pilatescentral.co.uk/pilates-for-dancers.asp
  • "An Exercise in Balance: The Pilates Phenomenon." Pilates Method Alliance. http://www.pilatesmethodalliance.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=1
  • Harris, Deborah. "Yoga vs. Pilates: Which is better?" http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Harris10.html
  • "John Harvey Kellogg." The Natural Health Perspective. http://naturalhealthperspective.com/tutorials/john-kellogg.html
  • "Joseph Pilates Biography." Easy Vigor. http://www.easyvigour.net.nz/pilates/h_biography.htm
  • Kellogg Company. http://www.kelloggcompany.com
  • Kellogg, John Harvey. "The Simple Life in a Nutshell." http://lifestylelaboratory.com/articles/simple-life-nutshell.html
  • "Osteogenesis Imperfecta." http://www.oif.org/site/PageServer
  • "Osteoporosis." American College of Rheumatology. http://www.rheumatology.org/public/factsheets/osteopor_new.asp#1
  • "Paget's Disease." The Arthritis Society. http://www.arthritis.ca/types%20of%20arthritis/pagets/default.asp?s=1
  • Pendleton Pilates. http://www.pendletonpilates.com/training.aspx
  • "Pilates Equipment Glossery." Peak Pilates. http://www.peakpilates.com/resources/glossary.aspx
  • Pilates Midwest Studio. http://www.pilatesmichigan.com/studio.html
  • "Pilates Pictured in Poses: the 34 Classic Free Matwork Exercises." Easy Vigor.
  • http://www.easyvigour.net.nz/pilates/h_pilates_classic.htm#34
  • "Pilates has Some Drawbacks." Stay Fit.http://stay-fit.extrahealthy.info/2007/01/30/pilates-has-some-drawbacks%E2%80%94take-a-look/
  • "Pilates vs. Yoga." Pilates Insight. http://www.pilatesinsight.com/pilates/pilates-vs-yoga.aspx
  • "Qigong in psychotherapy." http://www.breathingqigong.com/
  • Siler, Brooke. "The Pilates Body." Broadway Books: New York. 2000.
  • "What is the Method?" United States Pilates Association.
  • http://www.unitedstatespilatesassociation.com/method.asp
  • "What is Qigong?" Qienergy. http://www.qi-energy.com/whatisqigong.htm
  • Wilson, Lee. "The Trademark Guide: A friendly handbook to protecting and profiting from trademarks." Allworth Press: New York. 1998.