Exercise Repetitions in the Pilates Method

Instructor helping woman on the Pilates reformer

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Many people are surprised by the small number of repetitions of each exercise called for in the Pilates method. They think that maybe it is just a beginner thing and as you progress you work up to performing more repetitions. But that is not the case, you don't ever progress to more reps. Performing fewer repetitions is actually an important part of the overall body/mind approach to exercise that the Pilates method promotes. What is the basis of this practice when other strength training exercises and flexibility exercises use more repetitions?

Repetitions of Each Exercise Is a Fundamental Feature of Pilates

It is not uncommon to see Pilates exercise instructions that call for three to six repetitions of an exercise and that's it. Why? The reason is that the Pilates method is based on the idea that you bring your entire being to each exercise and in so doing, get the maximum benefit out of every move you make. If you do an exercise with the full intention of working the Pilates principles: centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow with the movement, you will not need to do many repetitions of each exercise.

Reps for Function, Not for Overdeveloping Muscle

Pilates is about the body as a highly functional, integrated whole, not about overdeveloping any one set of muscles as one may with multiple repetitions of an exercise. Rather than doing a lot of repetitions, the Pilates method moves through many exercises in a session, taking advantage of variety to keep the body/mind engaged and to develop a symmetrical, graceful musculature.

The Pilates method is not necessarily about exercising less — we still develop strong muscles, both in the core and limbs. As anyone who has gone through the classic mat work set can tell you, this is a real exercise. But the Pilates method does buck the endless repetition trend in favor of balanced, efficient movement.

Joseph Pilates Believed in Fewer Repetitions

Joseph Pilates was adamant on the subject of not doing too many repetitions of any exercise. Consider these quotes from Joseph Pilates' book, Return to Life Through Contrology:

"...be sure to NEVER REPEAT THE SELECTED EXERCISE(S) MORE THAN THE PRESCRIBED NUMBER OF TIMES since more harm will result than good by your unwittingly or intentionally disregarding this most important advice and direction."

"Contrology [Pilates] is not a fatiguing system of dull, boring, abhorred exercises repeated daily "ad-nauseam."

With the creator himself declaring the importance of performing a limited number of repetitions, you can see that it is a fundamental feature of the Pilates method.

Getting the Most out of Each Repetition

This is a good change from what you can see as you pass by a gym. Those seeking big muscle development are grunting through sets of tough repetitions. Meanwhile, others looking to maintain function or achieve toning are using light weights and dozens of repetitions. Pilates seeks to get the most from each rep without falling into these traps.

Imagine, with each exercise you do you are fully present, you are impeccably aligned, and there is a full and open flow of breath and motion. With these elements working for you, your body and mind work together to create body wisdom and balance that surpass the limited results of mindless repetitions.

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.