Kristin McGee is a certified personal trainer and currently teaches yoga and meditation for Peloton. She is also certified in Pilates and by the National Association of Sports Medicine.
Nick Blackmer is a librarian, fact checker, and researcher with more than 20 years’ experience in consumer-oriented health and wellness content.
Pilates is a form of low-impact exercise similar to yoga. It involves performing exercises on a mat or on a machine (known as a reformer) to improve strength, posture, and flexibility. The repetitive moves in Pilates use resistance or bodyweight and focus on core engagement with the goal of helping the body to move with greater efficiency.
Pilates classes are a fun way to mix up your exercise routine. Many people use Pilates as a rehabilitation tool to relieve hip and back pain. Here’s what to expect as you delve into the world of Pilates.
Yoga and Pilates are often confused, but they are different forms of exercise. Both are low-impact and involve some stretching, and both seek to improve flexibility and strength. Pilates classes tend to use more equipment than yoga classes, and yoga involves holding poses or positions for longer.
Pilates has many benefits. Many Pilates classes help to strengthen the core, which can improve posture and alleviate lower back pain. It can also help improve muscle strength and flexibility.
What to wear to a Pilates class depends on the type of Pilates. Floor or mat Pilates classes require similar clothing to yoga classes. It’s recommended to wear form-fitting clothing that doesn’t get in the way of any movements. Reformer or megaformer Pilates classes also require form-fitting clothing that won’t get caught in the machine, but you may also need to wear grip socks. These are usually required to prevent you from slipping when using the machine. Grip gloves are usually optional.
The Pilates reformer is the main machine used in Pilates classes (some classes use the megaformer). The machine uses springs to add resistance to exercises. Most exercises are performed while lying down on the machine. The machine has straps for the hands and feet. When you pull on the straps, the main part of the machine—called the carriage—moves away from the starting position to stretch out the muscles.
Not all Pilates classes or workouts require equipment or machines. Some portion or all of a Pilates class may be done on the floor on a yoga mat. This is called mat Pilates. It uses bodyweight instead of resistance from the machine. Mat Pilates can also include smaller pieces of equipment, such as a Pilates ring, springboard, or sitting box.
Many exercises in Pilates aim to increase core strength or the muscular strength of the torso. In Pilates, the core is sometimes called the deep core or powerhouse. Your Pilates instructor may remind you to engage your core throughout the class.
Extension and flexion are opposites, but they’re terms you may need to learn to get the most out of a Pilates workout. When you flex, you bring your arm or leg towards yourself. This decreases the angle between two bones. Think of flexing your arm or foot. When you extend, you open up a joint. Think of extending your arms towards the sky.
In a Pilates class, you may hear the instruction to “tuck” which simply means to tuck your pelvis. Learning how to position your pelvis is a key part of any Pilates class. When you tuck your pelvis, you protect your lower back by engaging your deep core muscles.
Grip socks are usually required for most Pilates reformer or megaformer classes. They aren’t needed for mat Pilates classes. These socks are used for safety reasons and prevent you from slipping while using the Pilates machine.
Postural alignment helps encourage proper posture when standing or sitting. During a Pilates class, you may work on your posture by ensuring your spine, head, and limbs are properly aligned.
Byrnes K, Wu PJ, Whillier S. Is Pilates an effective rehabilitation tool? A systematic review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2018;22(1):192-202. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.04.008
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