Everything You Want to Know About Pilates

A great workout that positively affects your whole body
woman performing pilates

If you’ve been looking for a new workout routine that can give you a good balance of flexibility, strength, muscle tone and help for a few aches and pains, there may be an answer that’s easier to get into than you think. 

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While Pilates has been around for nearly 100 years, it’s still gaining traction among new converts, picking up new devotees all the time. And there’s a good reason why it continues to be a popular mode of exercise: it works. 

According to lead yoga therapist Judi Bar, there are a number of other benefits, including increased flexibility, muscle tone and strength. We talked to Bar about these benefits and other aspects of Pilates that make it a worthwhile endeavor. 

What is Pilates?

PIlates is a form of exercise and body conditioning developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century, mostly as a method of injury recovery for dancers. Bar, who has a distinguished background as a dancer herself, points out, “As fine-tuned as dancers are, when we’re at our peak, we’re dancing at least six days a week, several hours a day. It’s grueling and there’s that repetitive motion on the same muscle groups, again and again.”

Over time, though, it became clear that the average person could benefit from this form of exercise. “As human beings, we are creatures of habit,” Bar says. “We walk a certain way, we take the steps a certain way, we stand a certain way and we sit at our desk a certain way. So our muscles get imbalanced because of overuse and what Pilates does is help to counteract that.”

Some of the principles that guide the Pilates method include concentration on each movement, use of the abdomen and low back muscles, flowing movement patterns that are precise and a steady and controlled breathing. Depending on the exercise, Pilates routines can be performed on specially-designed apparatuses, including a bed-like structure called a reformer, or on a mat or blanket.

Pilates focuses more on muscle tone than building muscles and it specifically focuses on your core. While most people might consider just your abdomen to be the core of your body, Bar points out, it extends well beyond that. 

“Everything’s attached,” she says, talking about how your body’s muscles are all connected via those core muscles. “With the core, besides the stomach area, you’re also talking about your sides, your back and your hips.” What happens in your core affects the rest of your body.”

The benefits of Pilates

“There’s a therapeutic, preventative benefit to Pilates,” Bar says, “because as it’s isolating and relaxing muscle groups, it strengthens them with control and breath.” It can also, she says, give you more resilience and helps with your alignment in a way that also improves your posture, leading you to walk straighter and sturdier. 

“Like yoga, one of the best benefits is that well-being that can come from feeling better,” she adds. “It strengthens your core and, ultimately, it can help lower back pain because, besides tight muscles, lower back pain also comes from misalignment and lack of strength.”

And something as simple as that improved posture can have big, positive consequences, she says. “Relaxing and strengthening the muscles leads to big help for your body, like making sure you’re not hunched against the back of a chair. When you’re slumped against the back of a chair, you’re shrunk down, putting pressure on your lower back, you can’t digest or breathe as well.” 

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Pilates also gives us more body awareness, Bar says. “If we’re exercising and getting the blood flowing, strengthening our muscles, we will feel a little bit better. And that may support your creaky lower back.”

But, Bar says, there are two caveats. First, it’s important to make sure you have a qualified instructor. ‘Whether it’s as an individual or in a group, it has to be at your level and you build up the difficulty slowly. You can’t just jump in and that instructor needs to recognize that.”

Second, she says it’s important to supplement your workouts with exercise besides just Pilates. “It’s not necessarily a stand-alone exercise. Because you’re working your muscle groups, you’ll get your heart rate up but it’s not as heavy a cardiovascular workout. There’s some deep stretching and some resistance but it should be part of a well-balanced exercise program.”

Mat versus reformer

There are a variety of ways to practice Pilates and you’ll often sample all of them if you take Pilates classes at a professional studio. The two most common types of Pilates are on a reformer machine — a bed-like apparatus with a moving carriage, resistance springs, a foot bar and straps that can be used for work on legs or arms — or floor-based Pilates performed on a mat. 

Each form of Pilates, according to Bar, provides certain advantages. Because of the structure of the reformer — shoulder pads, straps and the foot bar — using a reformer can help steady and align your body easier than freeform Pilates on a mat. That structure and resistance helps guide the body and many can find performing the various exercises easier on a reformer because of that.

With a mat, that alignment can be trickier and it can be a bit harder for a novice to hold positions and perform moves smoothly without the resistance and assistance the reformers straps give. 

The freeform style of Pilates performed on a mat, though, certainly has its benefits. Without the restrictions of the reformer machine, it’s easier to perform a wider variety of movements and exercises. Without the straps and weight resistance, too, you certainly get a slightly heavier workout which can help with strength and good poster. 

With many Pilates studios either being closed or remaining in limbo due to the coronavirus, and some clients not feeling safe going in, mat-based Pilates is also more accessible. Reformers are great but they’re also prohibitively expensive — upwards of $3,000 for the type you might use at a studio — while a fitness mat is far cheaper.

But Bar stresses that there’s still need for a good instructor even if you’re doing mat exercises at home via live video instruction or a pre-recorded video. And it’s important to start slow and easy and work you’re way up the difficulty levels. 

“Even if you’re doing Pilates at home, you want to be able to do the right level,” she says. “We’re working our body against gravity and freeform can actually be harder on the back.”

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Additionally, if you’re a beginner starting with mat exercises, Bar suggests including other small things to help build up a bit of core strength. “Holding in your stomach and practicing good posture can help prep you for doing some of the more difficult alignment positions on the mat,” she advises.

The differences between Pilates and yoga

To a beginner, it can be easy to initially confuse certain aspects of Pilates — like mat exercises — with yoga. Some of the aspects of Pilates — the movements, the mindfulness — may remind you of yoga but there are several core differences. 

But Bar notes the differences can be both physical and philosophical. “Although Pilates uses breath, yoga is a mind-body-spirit type thing,” she says. “The meditation helps calm you, it’s like an automatic stress relief. There’s stress relief that comes from other workouts, too, but with yoga, there’s a focus on what am I thinking, how am I feeling as I’m doing this. 

Both forms of exercise involve balancing of muscle groups and core work, but with Pilates, according to Bar, the focus is on much heavier on the exercises that get us that core work. In yoga, though, the work starts with safe alignment and safe posture. She adds that there’s more of a variety of movement in yoga, as well and there is an emphasis on core strength.

“They complement each other and there are some things that might be similar,” she adds, “but they’re not the same, especially since there’s always meditation and relaxation aspects with yoga. There are a lot of logistic differences.”

Different exercises, different equipment

The use of the reformer and other pieces of equipment is one obvious difference. From small weights to bands and blocks to the “magic circle,” a ring-shaped piece of equipment that offers a level of resistance for various exercises, there are a number of tools used for various Pilates exercises.

Conversely, there are relatively few pieces of equipment that are necessary for yoga beyond the typical mat and yoga blocks. Other pieces of equipment, like yoga straps, are also occasionally used but the total amount is far less than with Pilates. 

“A mat and blocks basically help to raise the floor closer to you to make the pose a bit more accessible,” Bar says. But if you’re doing either mat-based Pilates or yoga at home, she notes there are plenty of things around the house you can use to supplement your workouts. 

“There are plenty of things in your home you could use for props. A big thick book could substitute for a block while a belt or even a dog leash could serve as a strap. Or if you need, you can use a small pillow to sit on,” she says. 

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