What is Pilates

Pilates is a full-body workout meant to strengthen the whole body, small and large muscles alike, as well as improve flexibility and mobility throughout the body. Typically a low impact workout, pilates can be done using props, machines or just your own body weight.


History of Pilates:

Created by Joseph Pilates in the early-to-mid twentieth century, Pilates has become a popular form of exercise in more recent decades. What most people don’t know is just how old Pilates is. Joseph Pilates was an exercise lover and studied everything from Yoga to Boxing. When World War I broke out, he was a German caught in England and was, consequently, put into an internment camp. Joseph got his cell block doing exercises with him to pass the time. Rumor has it that, when the Spanish Flu broke out, Joseph’s cell block was the only area that didn’t get sick. Whether this is the truth, or just a fun story, something caught the attention of the British who moved Joseph in order to have him work with their injured, returning vets. Many of the returning soldiers were bed bound and Joseph had to figure out how to help them build strength using what he had: their bodies and a bed. This is where the idea of the Pilates’ cadillac came from. If you aren’t sure which piece of equipment this is, it looks much like a four poster bed and has a number of springs you can attach and move around to use for different exercises.

After the end of WWI, Joseph went back to Germany. When the brown coats (Nazis) started taking power, Joseph decided to move to America. He met is future wife, a nurse named Clara, on the boat to the USA. They set up shop in New York, in the same building as New York City Ballet off of 8th Ave. At this point, Joe called his workout “Contrology.” It was during this period that Joseph and his wife worked with many injured ballet and modern dancers, helping to rehabilitate and strengthen them. Joseph loved a challenge and was always coming up with new equipment and exercises to help people manage injuries, achieve recovery and build strength. Many of his inventions were built around a specific client or physical need. Joseph spent the remainder of his life working in New York but dreamed of bringing his vision of mind-body fitness to every aspect of life; a dream not to be realized in his lifetime. After his death, his wife, who had been a strong business partner throughout their partnership, and some of his students kept his specialized form of exercise going. It has grown in popularity since then and is now a very popular form of exercise around the world!*


Benefits of Pilates:

Pilates has MANY benefits. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Injury prevention and recovery.

  • Low-impact exercises.

  • Strong core building principles.

  • Joint mobility and strength.

  • Improves strength in small and big muscles.

  • Teaches strength and mobility.

  • Improves body awareness.
  • Creates long and lean muscles.

  • Great for all levels and most ages.

  • Provides modifications for a variety of abilities and fitness levels.
  • Teaches how to achieve better alignment.

  • Focuses on the body as a whole instead of in parts.

  • Improves daily life through better, easier and more conscious movement.


What is Pilates:

Pilates is a full-body workout. It is mainly a strength building form of exercise. However, what sets it apart from many other types of strength-building is its incorporation of stretching and joint mobility in the exercises. It is also an extremely low-impact workout and provides modifications and different exercises that make it an excellent choice for all levels of fitness.

There are many styles of Pilates. You can do equipment based pilates, which may include everything from a reformer or cadillac to a Pilates barrel (not to be confused with the average barrel at your garden center). You can also do Mat Pilates, which uses little to no equipment. If equipment is used, it is usually a small ball, mat, flat stretch band and/or a magic circle. Teachers may also use light weights or wall space in mat classes. Some teachers focus on form and corrections, while others put on the loud music and use it more like a cardio class. If you ask teachers which form of pilates is the best, chances are good it is whatever they like teaching, but the truth is, that it varies depending on the needs of the client.


Principles of Pilates:

Joseph Pilates created a number of principles he implemented into his exercise regimen:

  • Breathing – Breath and breathing patterns are used throughout Pilates exercises to help facilitate movement and improve body awareness and concentration.

  • Concentration – To get the full benefit of any exercise, you must concentrate on what you are doing.

  • Control – Being able to control your movement allows you to gain and improve body awareness, alignment and good form. Pilates exercises are designed to give you the most benefit when you can carefully control your movement.

  • Centering – Having a strong center provides more support to your extremities and helps improve your general physical health.

  • Precision – Precision comes with good control and concentration and allows you to access the smaller muscles of your body as well as the big ones. It also allows you to move in a way that protects your joints from unnecessary wear and tear.

  • Balanced Muscle Development – This is essential for helping prevent injury and recover from many aches and pains. It also allows for improved movement through every aspect of life.

  • Rhythm/Flow – Increased ease of movement can give a feeling of peace instead of stress during a workout.

  • Whole Body Movement – Our bodies are too integrated to compartmentalize and not concentrate on the whole. Something wrong with one part of your body can negatively affect other parts of your body. Similarly, something right with one part of your body has a positive effect on other parts. For these reasons Pilates focuses on the whole body, including the breath and the mind.

  • Relaxation – Stress wreaks all sorts of havoc on the body and mind. Pilates focuses on releasing unnecessary tension from the body (tension you might not even know you have) and encourages using only the minimum necessary force to do a movement, much like working smart instead of hard, which encourages strong but not overworked muscles.


Pilates Movement Principles:

Along with his philosophy principles, Joseph created a number of movement principles. Regardless of the type of Pilates you take, all Pilates methods should incorporate some basic movement principles that resemble these.

  • Breathing – As previously noted, breathing is important for everything from life to movement, and Pilates exercises provide better understanding to students about how they use and control their breathing.

  • Core activation – The use of the core, defined by Joseph Pilates as the diaphragm, multifidi, transverse abdominals, and pelvic floor, is one of the key principles of Pilates. Most Pilates classes include a great deal of core work and can involve additional muscles of the torso such as the obliques and rectus abdominus.

  • Neutral SpineThis is related to finding optimal low back and pelvic alignment for each individual.  Finding the right starting position for each exercise provides for more comfortable and efficient movement patterns. Overall, this alignment helps prevent low back pain and injury.

  • Abdominal Strengthening – Considered by many to be part of core activation, ab strength is important for injury prevention, mobility, and general health and strength.

  • Lumbopelvic Stability – Related to core and abdominal strength, lumbopelvic stability includes all the muscles that attach to the pelvis and to the spine. These are especially important for protecting the low back from injury as well as creating greater ease of movement.

  • Spinal Mobility and Strength – This includes not only strengthening the spine but improving the mobility of the spine in all directions. We need spinal mobility for almost everything we do; any kind of bending and twisting and even reaching requires spinal mobility. A lack of spinal mobility in any direction can cause pain and discomfort, and even injury can result. Along with mobility, spinal strength is important for protecting against back pain and injury.

  • Scapular Stability and Mobility – One of the most anatomically complex and mobile areas of the body, the shoulder is prone to injury and dysfunction. Creating equal mobility and strength in this area is important for shoulder health and is a key principal in Pilates.

  • Correcting Alignment – Correct alignment can make all the difference in life. Correct bone alignment allows muscles to work easily and equally and helps prevent wear and tear on the joints. It can help prevent pain and injury, help improve strength and balance and make movement easier and safer. [Learn More About Alignment in our Alignment Blog]

  • Release Work – Different from stretching, release work is meant to help release tension and tightness in generally tight portions of the body through movement.These areas include but are not limited to the joints, hips, low back, shoulders and neck.

  • Stretching – Essential to balancing out any strength program is stretching. Many Pilates exercises incorporate stretching into the exercises. There are some Pilates stretches meant to help improve flexibility as well.


What we teach at Urban Fitness:

Our teachers were certified through Stott Pilates and Balanced Body methods, two internationally respected training programs. Currently, we offer Mat Pilates with the use of light equipment where needed to help aid exercises. We still love and respect equipment Pilates but Mat Pilates works best for our current clients. For us, the advantage of Mat Pilates is that our clients can easily do these exercises at home as needed or desired. The minimal need of space and equipment means we can teach our clients anywhere and they can travel and still do their exercise. After all, treadmills may be common at the hotel gym, but reformers and not.

We also favor the form and correction-based classes instead of the cardio version of Pilates. We think that, in order to get the most of Pilates exercises and to really engage those small muscles, slow and precise movements are better than fast and flashy. Joseph Pilates is quoted as saying “It is better to do five repetitions perfectly than twenty without paying attention.”1 We agree with this statement and focus on using Pilates principles to help our clients get the most out of their Pilates exercises. Our personalized approach to Pilates helps our clients recover from injury, prevent further injury, and help them move more easily throughout their daily lives.

*This is history is based on the History of Pilates written for Balanced Body University Mat Manuel, 2009-2010.

1 Quote from Balanced Body University Mat Manuel, 2009-2010.

This blog was contributed by our Pilates guru, Kaethe Birkner. Kaethe is a certified pilates instructor through Balanced Body and dances ballet professionally at Continental Ballet Company. She has been teaching Pilates since 2012 and has been taking Pilates since 2004.