What Is Pilates?

Learn what Pilates is, how to start doing Pilates, and whether Pilates will increase fitness.

Ben Greenfield
4-minute read
Episode #37

I remember when Pilates first arrived on the fitness scene. Some of us personal trainers were a bit embarrassed about how to even pronounce the name of the new exercise style. Was it pronounced “pilots” like an airplane driver, or “pee-lattes”, like some fancy French drink? Regardless, from private personal training studios, to strange looking devices called reformers, Pilates (pronounced puh-lah-teez) has emerged as a very popular form of exercise utilized by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Madonna to seven-foot-tall professional basketball players! So in this article, you’ll learn what Pilates is, how to start Pilates, who can use Pilates, and if Pilates will actually increase your fitness.

What Is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of exercise developed by its namesake, Joseph Pilates, in the 1920s. Originally, it was used as a rehabilitation program for prisoners of war who needed a safe and effective way to regain the fitness lost during their sedentary captivity. Though most of the exercises in the original Pilates program were performed on a mat on the floor, Joseph developed special pieces of Pilates equipment, such as the reformer, to guide a person through the proper range of motion for Pilates exercises, until their body was strong enough to do the Pilates floor exercises.

Today, in many exercise environments, you’ll see modern variations of the Pilates reformer, which is basically a  sliding platform with springs at one end that is moved by pulling on ropes or pushing off from a stationary foot bar. Though it can be used for more advanced fitness routines, it’s still a very good tool for helping people who may need alternatives to regular exercise, such as individuals with heart conditions, pregnant women, or people with back, hip or knee problems.

Pilates Floor/Mat Workouts

Reformers are rarer than the Pilates floor workouts, which is the type of Pilates you’ll find taught in most gyms. These workouts incorporate exercises that focus on your hip, pelvic, low back and abdominal muscles. In most of these exercises, you hold your torso in one position while moving your limbs in different directions. For a very basic idea of what this feels like, try sitting on the floor, balancing on your butt, then lifting your arms and legs off the ground. Or try the 6 Inch Crunch, which I demonstrate in the video “How To Look Good In Your Underwear”.

Each exercise is based on the 6 core principles of Pilates: centering, concentration, control, precision, breath and flow. In a typical Pilates class, you’ll learn how to bring your focus to the center of your body, concentrate on the movement, control your muscles, put your muscles through the proper range of motion, breath deeply with your lungs, and move with fluidity. Because many of these principles are similar to Yoga, people often confuse Pilates with Yoga, but Pilates is much more focused on strengthening the abdominal, low back, pelvic and hip muscles, while Yoga is more focused on flexibility, balance, and relaxation.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.