Celebrities love it. Some physical therapists include it in their rehabilitation sessions. Serious athletes do it too. Pilates has become a go-to workout for those who want to move better, look and feel great.
In recent years, so many people have become fans of the exercise regimen that market research firm Allied Market Research estimates the Pilates and yoga market will grow by nearly 12 percent between 2018 and 2025.
While Pilates is often lumped together with yoga—which also brings a mental focus to a physical exercise—the practice has its own set of principles and benefits. So, what exactly is Pilates? This guide explains what you will be doing in a Pilates exercise and all the benefits you can gain from doing it regularly.
What is Pilates?
Created by Joseph Pilates, it has been around since the late 1800s. It came to the United States from Germany in the late 1920s, according to the Pilates Method Alliance.
You might associate Pilates with core work and moving at a controlled pace on a mat or a machine. But at its core, Pilates is all about moving your entire body as one, with the core at the center of every movement.
“Pilates is based on the idea that we need all the muscles of the body to work together, in a way that they need to be functionally involved for really healthy alignment and really healthy human movement,” said Erika Bloom, a certified Pilates instructor and founder. by Erika Bloom Pilates.
And it leads to some really big payoffs: “A graceful, functional body that moves well, looks the best, is the strongest, and is the least prone to injury,” she says. “And if you’re primarily working on coordination, joint function, postures and alignment, you’ll see the body’s aesthetics change accordingly.”
A Pilates exercise can work for just about anyone, from older adults seeking a daily exercise regimen to teenage dancers supplementing their cardio workouts to gain strength, says physical therapist Vanessa Muncrief, owner of VMPT, a physical therapy and Pilates studio in Austin. , Texas.
The practice is also great for rehabilitating injuries. Take, for example, an ankle sprain. If you can’t put your full weight on your bottom half, you can use the reformer — a machine with springs that reduce the impact of movement, even jumping — to take some of the pressure off.
Pilates combines strength and stability while promoting a mind-body connection. It’s a whole-body approach that’s distinct from other forms of training and offers many benefits to your physical (and mental) health. These are the ways Pilates can benefit your mind and body.
Excellent core strength
“There are many training methods that think core work is crunches,” Bloom says. ‘But that only works the muscles that pull us into flexion. We don’t want to function like that.” Instead, you want to strengthen all the muscles around the torso and improve both core contraction and extension.
Muncrief agrees, explaining that other types of training that involve doing crunches, sit-ups, and twists don’t necessarily teach you how to properly engage the deep core muscles. With Pilates you are.
One way she teaches students to engage the deep core muscles is by telling them to think about zipping up a pair of low pants. The contraction of the abs you would feel when you zip them up is the same activation you want during a Pilates routine.
This deep core activation will come into play during everyday activities like picking up a baby or picking up groceries, even with other forms of exercise like resistance exercises and kettlebell training, Muncrief says. Practicing deep core activation can help prevent injuries when doing these other types of moves. Try it out with these Pilates moves.
With its focus on the core, it’s clear that Pilates can build strength in your abdomen. But it’s not just your middle that gets strength and stability from the exercise.
So does your whole body, including your lower half. Research published in 2018 in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation shows that Pilates can improve your balance and build leg strength, especially in older adults.
Promotes mindfulness through breathing
Pilates starts with connecting with the breath, explains Bloom.
“Our diaphragm is one of the most important core supports and plays a role in posture,” she says. “So we make sure everyone is breathing properly and letting movement follow the breath, rather than moving and breathing randomly.”
This way of breathing helps you move with intention because you think about your posture and flow from exercise to exercise, Muncrief says.
Focusing on the breath brings mindfulness into your Pilates practice, allowing you to stay mentally in the present. The practice of deep breathing will follow you out of the Pilates studio and into everyday life, Bloom says. This can bring a sense of calm each day and help you be more present in each moment.
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Improves your flexibility and mobility
Maintaining full range of motion in our joints is super important for flexibility, mobility and ease of movement, especially as we age. Pilates supports that mission, Bloom says.
To maintain a full range of motion, your exercise regimen should include both flexibility and mobility training, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. What makes Pilates stand out is that you strengthen the muscles both eccentrically (lengthening) and concentrically (shortening), suggests 2015 research published in the journal Age.
“Yoga is quite static at the end of the movement,” Bloom says. That just means that you often assume elongated poses. Pilates, on the other hand, lengthens to the point of muscle engagement and then goes back to shortening. So as you reach the end range of the movement, you also learn to get in and out of it in a controlled manner.
A study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research supports the fact that Pilates improves flexibility, especially of the hamstrings. The same study found that Pilates can also improve muscle endurance, especially the abs. That means you can work longer without getting tired.
Other research, published in 2019 in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, found that Pilates helps with functional movement — you know, the kind of movement you use in your everyday life. In fact, the study found that Pilates is more beneficial than yoga in that regard.
And research published in Neurorehabilitation suggests that Pilates can help people with multiple sclerosis gain balance, muscle strength, and mobility.
Keeps you busy
With countless variations of Pilates exercises, you will rarely repeat the same moves. Pilates involves exercising on all planes of motion and in different positions and directions, Bloom says. Maybe you do extension and then rotation. Or maybe you start on your side and then move to your back.
“The Original Series of [Joseph Pilates] has hundreds of exercises, but if you make variations there are an infinite number of options, which is why it is so effective,” says Bloom. “You are constantly changing and not moving linearly.”
(Check out these 11 Pilates Equipment That Will Also Keep Your Exercise Varied.)
Helps with your posture
Do you feel the effects of sitting at a desk all day, hunched over your computer? Pilates can help with that. Many of the exercises are done on your back, which helps promote a neutral spine and pelvis, Muncrief says.
“When you lie on the reformer, you can’t sit with your shoulders forward and your head forward,” she explains. “You can’t fight gravity, so your head and shoulders have to relax.”
Bloom says your Pilates teacher should provide tips on alignment during class. That will help you learn where your body is, where it should be, and how to move to achieve ideal alignment.
Moving properly aligned in a Pilates class builds the awareness you need to maintain good posture when you sit, stand, and walk outside the studio, Muncrief says.
Bloom agrees, saying Pilates helps you get more balance in your body so you don’t have to consciously think about standing taller or pulling the shoulders back. It just happens. “We need to train those small, intrinsic muscles in the shoulders, hips, spine, and ankles and stabilize them and make them aware to balance them,” she says.
Relieves low back pain
With a stronger core often comes a reduction in low back pain, Muncrief says. Pilates tends to help with both.
While more research is needed to support the idea that Pilates reduces back pain, some studies suggest it may have a positive effect. For example, a systematic review published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that Pilates provides pain relief.
Great for cross training
Whether you’re a runner, swimmer, cyclist or CrossFit enthusiast, Pilates can complete your workout. It offers a soothing alternative to more intense workouts, strengthening you from your limbs to your core.
“I don’t think anyone should be doing just one type of exercise,” Muncrief says. “And Pilates is good cross-training for athletes or anyone who is active who wants to change their movement patterns and improve their brain and body.”
(Learn more about doing Pilates to lose weight.)
Where can you do Pilates?
Muncrief says it’s a good idea to start Pilates with a private lesson so you learn the basics, just like you would with tennis or golf. But you can also find more budget-friendly options online. Check out apps like Peloton, Alo Moves, and FitOn for Pilates workouts you can do at home.