What is Pilates exercise and why should you give it a try? What’s the scoop on Pilates vs. yoga? What is Pilates good for?
If you’re curious about Pilates, you’re not alone. According to the Pilates Foundation, more than 12 million people worldwide currently practice Pilates. They are obviously onto something!
Like any new exercise, you’re probably wondering how and why to get started, and perhaps feeling intimidated to book your first Pilates workout. If you’ve ever peeked inside a Pilates studio, you may worry that you need strange-looking contraptions and certainly an instructor to even give it a try.
The fact is, although many Pilates workouts are performed on specific equipment, there are also a great deal of Pilates exercises that can be done anywhere, anytime. You’re probably already familiar with some of the basic movements. Like any form of fitness, the essential requirements are to start slowly and stay hydrated. So grab your water bottle, get comfortable, and read on to learn the basics of Pilates for beginners.
What is Pilates
Pilates is a form of physical training named for its founder, Joseph Pilates, who created the Pilates method (originally known as “Contrology”) in the early 1920s. The exercises were initially developed as a way to rehabilitate injured WWI soldiers. Later, Joseph and his wife Clara refined their teachings in a New York City studio frequented by legendary dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine.
A Pilates workout focuses on the body’s core, with the aim to improve strength, flexibility, mobility, alignment, and posture. This core focus extends beyond just the abdominal muscles to include the back, hips, and thighs (think of your core as your entire trunk). Additionally, many Pilates instructors now add leg, arm, and shoulder exercises to create a full-body workout.
Pilates exercise is low impact and involves slow, specific movements and breath control. It’s not about lifting huge weights and logging lots of reps, but rather it involves a steady flow of movement, concentration, and breath work. Pilates uses functional movements that help build muscle tone and improve the body’s overall alignment and balance. It’s no wonder, then, that dancers are drawn to Pilates, and that it is often used in injury treatment and prevention.
There are two key types of Pilates: Mat and Reformer. Mat Pilates is performed on the floor, while Reformer Pilates utilizes various apparatus. We’ll discuss both of these later—just keep in mind that if you can’t get to a Pilates studio, and even if you don’t have a Pilates mat, you can
still practice many of the exercises. All you really need is comfortable workout clothing and a water bottle to keep you well hydrated.
Pilates vs. Yoga
We know what you’re thinking. This sounds a lot like yoga, right? The answer is yes and no. While there is common ground between the two, there are also significant differences when considering Pilates vs. yoga. It helps to remember how each discipline began.
Yoga is a centuries-old holistic practice, whereas Pilates was created in the early 20th century as a form of physical training and injury rehabilitation. Yoga, in its purest form, is a spiritual practice. It incorporates the body, mind, and spirit in a system of movement, breath work, and meditation.
Pilates, on the other hand, is primarily focused on the physical realm—the slow, controlled exercises that help achieve one’s goals of improved strength, flexibility, alignment, and function. While breath work is a significant part of Pilates, meditation does not play a role in a Pilates workout.
Another difference in Pilates vs. yoga is the equipment used in each practice. Although either can be done with nothing more than comfortable clothing, a water bottle, and (ideally) a mat, more advanced forms of each exercise program can include a variety of equipment. In yoga, this equipment is basic: perhaps a foam block, a cushioned bolster, and a towel or strap. Pilates equipment can be more complex, ranging from bands and blocks to larger apparatus with curious names such as “Wunda,” “Cadillac,” “Reformer,” and “Magic Circle.”
What Is Pilates Good For?
There are plenty of benefits that can come from regular Pilates exercise. Some of the most common include:
· Enhanced flexibility
· Improved body alignment
· Correction of muscle imbalances
· Increased muscle tone
· Increased strength
· Decreased joint and muscle pain
· Injury rehabilitation
· Injury prevention
· Improved functional movement
· A stronger, more stable core
· Improved posture
· Increased mobility
· Decreased low back pain
· Reduction in anxiety
· Reduction in depression
· Increased energy
· Improved mind-body connection
In addition, a Pilates workout can provide excellent training for pre- and postnatal women, since the exercises focus on the muscles and joints used most during pregnancy. And, as mentioned previously, Pilates exercise is very versatile and can be performed practically anywhere, anytime.
Pilates for Beginners—Getting Started
What Pilates Equipment Do I Need?
You really can do many Pilates exercises with little to no equipment at all. We do recommend a water bottle (not only for Pilates, but for any type of workout), because staying hydrated is one of the best ways to ensure you feel good before, during, and after any sort of exercise. An insulated Avana® water bottle—like the 24-oz. Ashbury—is a great choice to keep your water refreshingly cold.
As far as apparel goes, choose workout clothes in technical fabrics that allow your body to breathe. Steer clear from baggy items, as you (and your instructor, if you have one) will want to be able to see whether or not your body is in the correct position during different Pilates exercises. Like yoga, Pilates is best practiced either barefoot or with rubber-soled socks (to prevent slipping).
If you want to try Mat Pilates, any yoga mat will do—or you can look for a Pilates mat, which is typically a little thicker. If you’re interested in Reformer Pilates, look for a Pilates studio near you. There you’ll see all sorts of equipment that is uniquely designed for the discipline, including:
· The Reformer—a bed-like frame with a sliding platform, as well as springs and pulleys to provide resistance
· The Cadillac—a stationary, four-poster bed-like platform with various bars, eyelets, and springs
· The Tower—a scaled-down version of the Cadillac, incorporating the vertical supports
· The Wunda Chair—a box-like, unsupported seat with a spring-loaded pedal
· The High Chair—a taller version of the Wunda, including a high back and handles that provide support
· The Barrels—three different barrel-shaped apparatus that help support the spine against gravity
· The Guillotine—a tower-like frame used to improve stability and flexibility
· The Magic Circle—a flexible ring used for resistance in toning and strengthening your legs
If all these apparatus and props sound intimidating, don’t worry. Remember that you can get started with Pilates with just a water bottle, workout clothes, and a mat!
What is a Pilates Workout Like?
Like most exercise classes, a Pilates workout is typically 45-60 minutes. It’s challenging, but not in the same way as a high-heart-rate cardio session. So for most people, Pilates exercise is one component of their overall fitness program.
During your Pilates workout, you’ll want to keep your focus on the key Principles of Pilates:
The exercises are designed to strengthen, elongate, and sculpt your muscles, with a main focus on the body’s stability center: the core and trunk. You may already be familiar with many Mat Pilates exercises; however, performing them in the slow and focused context of a Pilates workout will be a new experience.
And don’t think that Mat Pilates is necessarily easier than Reformer Pilates. The apparatus, along with various straps, pads, and bars, can help steady and align your body. Complex moves can be much more difficult on a mat, since you don’t have the structure and resistance provided by equipment.
Whichever type of Pilates appeals to you, working with an instructor is a great way to start. We particularly recommend this if you want to try any of the apparatus, as you’ll need to learn how they work and the movements associated with each one. With Mat Pilates, an instructor can help make sure you’re moving your body in the correct ways and getting the most from your workout.
That said, if you’re eager to get started, there are some basic Pilates exercises that you will probably feel comfortable trying on your own.
What Are a Few Pilates Exercises I Can Try?
Here are five basic Mat Pilates exercises to get you started. Once again, some of these may be familiar. Try them now with a Pilates emphasis—focusing on breath, concentration, centering, precision, and flow.
Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, knees bent to 90 degrees, feet on the floor, and legs hip-width apart. Make sure your pelvis is in “neutral” (your pelvis should be level to the ground). Inhale, and then as you exhale, press your feet into the ground and lift your spine to create a bridge. Your body will form a triangular shape with the floor (one side is the floor, one side is your lower legs, and the third side is your upper legs and torso in a straight line). Continue bridging upward until your shoulder blades are pulled back and pressed into the mat. Hold for a few seconds and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat five times.
Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, palms facing down. Bend one knee and place your foot flat on the floor. Extend your other leg straight out at a 90-degree angle. Keeping your lower back in neutral and without moving your hips, slowly circle your leg five times in one direction, then five times in the other direction. Switch legs and repeat on the opposite side.
Rolling Like a Ball
Sit on the mat with your legs stretched out in front of you. Bring your knees to your chest and grab your shins so that your body is curled into a ball shape. Breathe in as you roll back to your mid back; then exhale as you roll back up. Repeat five times, focusing on a smooth, controlled roll.
The Roll Up
Lie on the mat with your arms by your sides and your legs straight. Reach your arms overhead, keeping your palms facing upward. Begin rolling up by bringing your arms up to 90 degrees. Lift your head, flex your feet, and continue rolling your body up until your palms touch the mat on either side of your feet. Roll slowly back to the start and repeat five times.
The Hundred (Beginner Version)
Lie on your back with your arms at your side, palms down, and bring your bent knees upward so that your shins are parallel to the floor. Curl your head, neck, and shoulders up so that they are off the floor. Raise your arms about 12 inches off the ground. Begin a series of pumping your arms up and down. Pump five times with each inhale and five times with each exhale. Repeat this for 10 cycles, until you have pumped your arms 100 times. For a more advanced version of The Hundred, keep your legs straight and raised off the floor.
You can find many more Pilates for beginners exercises online. Or head to your local Pilates studio and sign up for your first class—especially if you want to try some of the larger Pilates apparatus. Either way, be sure to keep a water bottle by your side and take small sips all throughout your workout. Staying hydrated will help you feel better as you begin to explore everything Pilates!