What Is Pilates?

Woman stretching backwards using pilates equipment
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By definition, Pilates is a system of repetitive exercises performed on a yoga mat or other equipment to promote strength, stability, and flexibility. Pilates exercises develop the body through muscular effort that stems from the core. The technique cultivates awareness of the body to support everyday movements that are efficient and graceful. As such, Pilates has been popular among dancers but it appeals to a wider audience. The Pilates Method was developed by Joseph Pilates during the 1920s.

Pilates advocates tout the core-strengthening benefits of the method to improve posture and balance. Pilates targets the "powerhouse" muscles, which include the glutes, hips, pelvic floor, and lower back. Similar to yoga, the Pilates Method encourages deep, conscious breathing. Pilates is widely used in rehabilitation settings but is also beneficial to fitness advocates and elite athletes alike.

Learn more about the Pilates Method and its benefits to find out if it's the right style of fitness for you.

What Is Pilates?

Core strength is the foundation of how Pilates works. Strengthening the core develops stability throughout the entire torso. This is one of the ways Pilates helps many people alleviate back pain.

Trunk stability through core engagement is the most important aspect of Pilates training since it dictates how the body moves, not just in the studio or gym but in daily life. For Joseph Pilates, the goal was to create a method that would allow the body to move with grace, ease, and efficiency. Such a body has to be both strong and flexible, and it has certain qualities of movement, such as being centered and balanced; fluid yet controlled.

These qualities, or Pilates principles, are applied in every Pilates exercise. By practicing functional movement patterns, muscles are developed evenly, appearing long and lean.

Achieving strength without bulk draws many people to Pilates. According to the method, balanced muscular development is a result of training the body to move with harmony and efficiency. The Pilates Method posits that an imbalanced body can lead to muscular weaknesses, which may potentially cause compensations in the body that inhibit a joint from moving through its full range of motion.

The Pilates technique also prioritizes quality over quantity. Unlike other systems of exercise, Pilates exercises do not include a lot of repetitions for each move. The idea is that by performing each exercise with precision and focusing on the breath you can achieve significant results in a shorter amount of time.

Deep breathing is also fundamental to Pilates. This means exhaling fully with every inhale to empty the lungs of stale air and invite fresh oxygen to flow in. Improved breathing and circulation allow the body to function optimally from the inside out.

Joseph Pilates said that above all else, one should learn how to breathe properly. Full, deep breathing feeds and stimulates the circulatory system.

The 6 Pilates Principles

There are six principles of Pilates. They summarize the philosophy of the Pilates method and are essential to getting the most out of every exercise.

  • Centering: This is the practice of bringing your awareness to the center of your body—the area between the lower ribs and pubic bone. This central region of the core powers all Pilates exercises.
  • Concentration: By focusing on each exercise with your full attention, you will yield maximum results from each movement.
  • Control: Complete muscular control requires conscious, deliberate movement and is emphasized in every Pilates exercise.
  • Precision: Sustained awareness ensures that each movement is precise. This means the appropriate placement of each body part, and focusing on proper alignment and core engagement.
  • Breath: Joseph Pilates advocated for using the lungs to strongly pump the air fully in and out of the body. Most Pilates exercises coordinate with the breath since the breath is integral to the method.
  • Flow: Pilates exercises are not meant to be rigid. Fluidity, grace, and ease are applied to every movement. The idea is that the energy of an exercise performed from the central "powerhouse" connects each part of the body to move in a single fluid motion. Pilates equipment such as the reformer is a great indicator of flow since it functions best when a practitioner is performing movements with both precision and fluidity.

History of Pilates

German-born Joseph Hubertus Pilates was often sick as a young child with asthma and other physical ailments. Determined to strengthen his body as a young adult, he began studying yoga, meditation, martial arts, and various Greek and Roman exercises.

During World War I, he was serving as an orderly at a hospital on the Isle of Man and developed a rehabilitation program for non-ambulatory soldiers. In fact, he crafted the earliest iteration of the Pilates reformer by attaching springs to hospital beds. Doctors observed that the patients he was working with were recovering more rapidly.

Joseph Pilates spent the next few years developing the Pilates method and brought it to the United States in 1923. By the 1960s, the Pilates Method had become popular among dancers in New York before making its way to Hollywood in the 1970s. The original rehabilitative method was determined by advocates to be of great benefit to anyone seeking to improve their fitness.

Pilates exploded into the mainstream by the mid-2000s, and the method is now widely available at boutique studios and through countless online resources. Emerging research supports the principles that Joseph Pilates taught as both functional fitness and effective rehabilitation.

Types of Pilates

Pilates is generally separated into two categories: exercises that use a mat and exercises that use special equipment (apparatus). Pilates workout equipment is also separated by size and whether it can be used at the studio or at home.

Large equipment is usually found in a Pilates studio. Some types of apparatus utilize pulleys with added resistance from the participant's own body weight with graduated levels of springs. Small equipment is also found in the studio but can easily be purchased and practiced with at home.


Large equipment (apparatus): The reformer is probably the best-known piece of resistance equipment that you will encounter at a Pilates studio. Other types of equipment developed by Joseph Pilates include the tower, which is attached to the reformer at a studio. Other variations of the tower are designed to attach to a door at home. The Cadillac, also known as trap (trapeze) table, is typically used in private sessions at Pilates studios since it requires a lot of instruction. Other large in-studio equipment includes the Pilates chair and ladder barrel.

Small equipment: Smaller pieces of Pilates equipment are often used during mat work to add resistance or develop balance. This includes dumbbells, resistance bands, and different sizes of exercise balls, or a foam roller, tennis ball, therapy ball, and the Pilates ring or "magic circle," another creation developed by Joseph Pilates.

Pilates equipment is more commonly referred to as an apparatus rather than a machine.

Mat Work

You can take Pilates mat classes at a studio or online at home. While you could technically use a yoga mat to perform the exercises, a Pilates mat is not the same as a yoga mat. Pilates mats are larger, thicker, and denser, and tend to have a slicker surface, whereas yoga mats are thinner and stickier. Most Pilates studios will provide Pilates mats, or you could invest in your own to practice at home. Some Pilates exercises are done either on a mat or directly on the floor.

There are also hybrid Pilates classes that combine classic Pilates moves with other exercises on a mat. For example, many studios offer hybrid yoga and Pilates classes. While there is some overlap, yoga is not the same as Pilates despite that both methods emphasize the breath and physical well-being. Yoga, by its original definition, is a spiritual practice; Pilates is rooted in physicality.

Pilates vs. Yoga

Yoga is traditionally an ancient spiritual practice of connecting the mind and body through the breath, whereas Pilates is a system of exercises that emphasizes core engagement to promote functional movement of the body.

Benefits of Pilates

Pilates creates long, strong muscles by taking advantage of a type of muscle contraction called an eccentric contraction. Pilates promotes flat abdominal muscles, a natural result of a system of exercises that emphasizes core strength, flexibility, and skeletal alignment. The core muscles are the deep, internal muscles of the abdomen and back.

Core strength and torso stability combined with the six principles are what sets the Pilates method apart from other types of exercise. Weightlifting, for example, might focus solely on developing arm or leg strength without attending to other parts of the body. Running or swimming emphasizes powering the legs and pumping the arms, but the core may not be engaged at all.

With practice, it's possible to learn how to use the core muscles in any sport, but in Pilates, this integrative, full-body approach is taught from the beginning. By developing core strength, the other physical benefits of Pilates include:

  • Flexibility: Through core-powered muscular engagement, Pilates workouts develop strength and improve flexibility, which also increases the range of motion.
  • Functionality: When the core muscles are strong and stable, they work in tandem with the superficial muscles of the trunk to support the spine through a wide range of functional, graceful movement. This can relieve pressure on the spine to allow the body to move freely and efficiently.
  • Stability: When the spine is supported by the core, the bones can shift into ideal alignment to promote stability in the body. Pilates exercises develop the muscles surrounding the joints to improve balance and posture.

In addition to getting stronger and developing better posture, Pilates also increases energy and promotes weight loss. Pilates exercises can also be modified to suit an individual's needs. From athletes to dancers and even ​seniors to women rebounding from pregnancy and those in physical rehabilitation, the Pilates technique can be made accessible to almost anyone. Whether you're a beginner or advanced, you will benefit from moving your body with form, function, and grace.

Benefits of Pilates

  • Improved strength
  • Better posture
  • Efficient movement through activities of daily living
  • Accessibility

Is Pilates Right for You?

When Joseph Pilates developed this work, he did not talk about long, lean muscles, or flat abs as we see in Pilates body advertising today. He was interested in the body as a total package of health and vitality, from which flat abs, better posture, balanced muscularity is simply a natural result.

There are countless ways to modify and adapt Pilates exercises, depending on your age, weight, physical ability, and level of fitness. The exercises are designed with modifications so that people of all levels and abilities can stay safe while being physically challenged.

If you're wondering whether Pilates is right for you, it's important to consider what it is you're aiming to achieve. Strengthening your core can help alleviate pain and discomfort in the lower back while developing whole-body strength could improve your performance in another sport or physical activity. If you're looking for a low-impact exercise that can promote overall health, weight loss, and weight management, Pilates may serve your needs. You're bound to get stronger, improve your balance, and increase your awareness of your body and how it moves as a result.

How to Get Started

It's best to learn Pilates with a certified instructor, ideally one-on-one and in-person, especially if you’re interested in working on a Pilates apparatus like the reformer and Cadillac. However, you can also learn through a combination of classes and home workouts. You might want to watch a few online workouts first to get a sense of what you might expect from a class.

Once you’re ready to give Pilates a try, start with Pilates videos for beginners and be sure that the instructors are properly trained and certified. Rather than trying out a bunch of different videos with different instructors, stick with a couple of go-to's that highlight the basics. Practice the fundamentals and work on your form before trying other workouts.

You don’t need a lot of room to do Pilates workouts at home—just enough space to roll out your Pilates mat or yoga mat on an even surface. Once you learn the basics and take a few classes, you can invest in some small equipment like a resistance band and exercise ball to enhance your workout routines.

Try this 30-Day Guide to a Beginner Pilates Exercise Program or browse these Pilates Routines and Workouts to get started.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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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.