What Is Pilates? 9 Things to Know About Pilates

What Is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of exercise which focuses on core strength, posture, balance, and flexibility. It also emphasizes the connection between body and mind as advocated by its creator, Joseph Pilates.

A Quick History of Pilates

The history of Pilates goes back to the late 1800s. Joseph Pilates was born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880. He was unwell as a child and resolved to make himself fit and healthy by exercising. He took up bodybuilding and greatly improved his physical fitness and strength before immigrating to the UK in 1912.

During World War I, Joseph Pilates was interned as an enemy alien due to his German nationality. During this time, he began to develop his new system of exercise. He firmly believed in the importance of the mind-body connection, and his system was based on a combination of western bodybuilding and gymnastics along with eastern yoga, tai chi, and meditation.

While he was interned, Joseph Pilates also had the opportunity to work as a nurse and began experimenting with rehabilitation techniques for injured soldiers. His new system consisted of 500 different exercises, some being performed on a mat, and others using special apparatus such as the famous Pilates reformer.

After the war, Joseph Pilates moved to the US, and in the 1920s, he opened his first studio in New York.

He originally called his system “controlology,” and it quickly became popular with professional dancers who used his exercises to recover from injuries. From here, Pilates grew in popularity and spread across the US and the western world.

The Principles of Pilates

There are several variations of Pilates principles, ranging from those that Joseph Pilates pioneered in the early 1900s to contemporary adaptations that incorporate a modern understanding of fitness, anatomy, and biomechanics.

Some Pilates forms out five basic principles, while others stress nine fundamentals. Essentially, the Pilates principles are as follows:

  1. Concentration. When practicing Pilates, it is important to be aware of your entire body, performing each movement slowly and deliberately. Paying attention to your form in this way will help you to gain more benefit from the exercise.
  2. Control. Each movement should be slow, smooth and steady, paying attention to the position of the whole body as well as the part being exercised.
  3. Centering. In Pilates, the focus is on the core muscles, located between the ribs and the pubic bone. Being aware of this area while practicing Pilates helps all of the body’s muscles to function more efficiently.
  4. Precision. Each movement should be carried out precisely, with every body part in the right position relative to the others.
  5. Breathing. Breathing properly when working out is important, and during Pilates, you are encouraged to breathe in and out deeply and fully with each exercise. The out breath is usually performed at the point of greatest exertion. This helps to maintain focus and activate the core muscles.
  6. Flow. In Pilates, each movement should be carried out smoothly and gracefully. This helps to connect all parts of the body and work them out evenly.
  7. Alignment. Proper alignment is key to good posture. You’ll be aware of the position of your head and neck on the spine and pelvis, right down through the legs and toes.
  8. Integration. Several different muscle groups are engaged simultaneously to control and support movement. All principles come together, making for a holistic mind-body workout.

Who Can do Pilates?

Pilates is suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. Special apparatus such as the reformer can be used to provide extra support for beginners or those with mobility problems. These can also be used by more experienced practitioners to increase resistance and offer a greater challenge.

As Pilates is a gentle exercise, there is little risk of injury. However, if you are new to Pilates, you should always start slowly and gradually build up to more strenuous exercises under the supervision of a qualified instructor.

Types of Pilates Classes

Every Pilates studio, health club, spa, and fitness facility has its own program. However, the following types of classes are often available:

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  • Group mat class. This is a great, relatively economical place for beginners to start and a fun, social way to continue Pilates practice. Using standing, sitting and lying down positions, the instructor cues students through the various stretches and movements, offering visualizations and motivating pep talks to help them make that mind-body fitness connection.
  • Private Pilates lessons. Although these private sessions are rather expensive, it is worthwhile to invest in a few especially when you are just starting out – many facilities offer an introductory package of 5 personal training sessions.
  • Pilates for 2-4 students. Sometimes called duets, trios, and quads, these small group Pilates sessions are a little more economical per participant than a private Pilates lesson, but still allows for plenty of individual assessment, guidance, and monitoring.
  • Pilates with props. Pilates classes themed around specific props like the balance ball, resistance band or Pilates circle/ring are popping up on club and studio schedules worldwide. The focus of a small prop adds variety, interest, and challenge to a group mat class and expands the programming possibilities for a facility.
  • Pilates for specific conditions. Pilates is such a versatile exercise system that is beneficial for a wide variety of conditions. Some fitness facilities target a particular kind of clientele or rehabilitative issue through themed classes such as Pilates for pregnancy, Pilates for back care, Pilates for seniors, Pilates for the unfit, and Pilates for chronic conditions (like fibromyalgia).
  • Pilates and pregnancy classes. It may surprise you to know that Pilates is one of the most suitable exercises during pregnancy. Think about it: Pilates works by strengthening the core of the body where the abdominal muscles work in synergy with the back and the pelvic floor.
  • Pilates for sports. Pilates exercise can be a great primer for various sports and activities, as it develops core stability, flexibility and range of motion. This makes it appropriate for athletic-themed classes throughout the year.
  • Pilates hybrid classes. Pilates principles can be blended with other fitness disciplines or apparatus for a unique and challenging workout. For example, yoga and Pilates are a good fit together and so “Yogalates” or “Piloga” classes are becoming a popular studio offering, combining the static poses of traditional yoga with the fluid movement of Pilates for a revitalizing mind-body experience.
  • Pilates exercises for men. Pilates is a comprehensive head-to-toe workout, but it’s often misidentified as women’s exercise. In fact, it might surprise you that Pilates was originally created for men. Many famous male professional athletes, such as Tiger Woods (professional golfer), Jason Kidd (NBA basketball star), Curt Schilling (MLB pitcher) and Ruben Brown (NFL offensive lineman), have added Pilates to their training programs in order to enhance their strength, coordination and flexibility by developing these core muscle areas.

Is Pilates a Good Workout?

Pilates has many benefits including improving posture, balance, flexibility and muscle tone. Focus on the breath during exercise may also help to reduce stress and tension. Many professional athletes use Pilates to stay in shape and prevent injuries.

Will Pilates Help You Lose Weight?

Pilates helps you to build muscle mass, which in turn can increase your metabolism and help you to burn more fat. You should combine Pilates with aerobic exercise such as running, swimming or cycling and a healthy diet to maximize its weight loss effects.

What Areas of the Body does Pilates Target?

Pilates is designed to work out the whole body, but it especially targets the core muscles. These are the deep abdominal muscles which help to support your spine. These muscles are controlled by subtle movements of the trunk, pelvis, and shoulders.

Pilates also helps to strengthen and increase flexibility in the other areas of the body. It does this by stretching and elongating the muscles and reducing the risk of injury. In Pilates, all of the muscle groups are involved and should be worked out evenly.

How Often Should You Do Pilates?

Try to work out 2-4 times a week, taking a day off in between sessions to rest or enjoy some cardiovascular activity (walking on the treadmill, bicycling, swimming). This kind of regular, consistent practice will help you make the mind-body connection and integrate the various Pilates principles. You should start seeing and feeling results in about 10 to 15 sessions.

The Popularity of Pilates

In recent years, Pilates has grown in popularity, with a staggering 8.89 million people practicing in the US alone. A 2016 Pilates in America Study found that of people currently practicing Pilates, 48 percent had been doing so for six years or more. 69 percent of people took part in classes 2–4 times weekly, with the most popular classes being group reformer (47 percent) and group mat (45 percent) classes.

With the yoga and Pilates industry now worth an estimated $11 billion, it is clear that this system of exercise has truly made its mark on the health and fitness world.

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