Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated 26th September 2022 | Next update due 25th September 2025

Pilates is a holistic exercise system of controlled movements designed to coordinate the mind, body and spirit.

On this page, we will explore the history of Pilates, what to expect in a Pilates class and the difference between Pilates and yoga. We will also look at the benefits of Pilates and the qualifications needed to become a Pilates instructor.

What is Pilates? 

Pilates is a mind-body holistic exercise system of controlled movements designed to improve flexibility, strength, posture and mobility, and encourages you to become more body-aware. 

The discipline is supervised by a qualified instructor and generally involves a set of resistance exercises. These exercises are performed on a mat, while reformer Pilates uses specific equipment. Both types focus on the lengthening and stretching of muscles rather than aerobic activity.

The Pilates workout can have a positive impact on physical well-being. It provides a much lower chance of injury and builds strength from the inside out. Attending regular classes is thought to provide a heightened sense of awareness. People tend to feel less pain and increased mobility. This in turn helps to restore vitality, invigorate the mind and increase satisfaction with life.

There are different variations of Pilates, all focusing on building core strength. It is these key elements that separate the Pilates workout from many other types of exercise. It happens to be one of the most rewarding and challenging forms of exercise today.

Pilates instructors

History of Pilates

German-born immigrant, Joseph Pilates, developed the workout in the 1920s. As a child with a number of health problems, he craved a healthier and stronger existence.

Pilates took inspiration from yoga and the movements of animals to devise his new programme. He called it ‘Contrology’. This required intense concentration and a great focus on strengthening the core. To do this, he used deep stretching and controlled breathing.

After finding the method a success, Pilates used his exercises in rehabilitation programmes for prisoners of war. Dancers who had suffered injuries also found benefits. They used the workout to recover their strength and improve their technique. Soon, the benefits of Pilates spread worldwide to anyone seeking to increase their core fitness.

Throughout his life, Pilates continued to evolve his techniques and develop new exercises. He also invented various pieces of equipment to strengthen the body’s ‘powerhouse’. The use of this equipment has been dubbed ‘reformer Pilates’. It contains a series of pulleys and strings to add resistance and assist some of the tougher exercises. Today, long after his death, Pilates’ original philosophy, patterns and movements continue to be directly reflected in several forms of the Pilates workout that now exist.

What to expect in Pilates classes

Although the discipline is practiced in many different ways, the same six core principles guide every session. These principles are: centering, control, flow, breath, precision, and concentration. They are regularly modified - this is what makes Pilates classes constantly challenging.

In Pilates classes, you will experience your body and movement in a completely new way. This is because you will be concentrating deeply on your core. You will also be focusing on your breathing, the contraction of your muscles and the quality of your movements.

Pilates exercises can be practiced using specific equipment (referred to as reformer Pilates) or mat work. Both of these facilitate the same profound changes in the body attained by focusing on your core.

Reformer Pilates

The equipment used in reformer Pilates is designed to meet Joseph Pilates’ founding principles. It generally requires pulleys and resistance from the participant's own body weight on the machine and a graduated level of springs. The reformer is probably the most commonly used piece of equipment. This takes the form of a single bed frame with a sliding carriage and adjustable springs to regulate tension and resistance. Although it can be daunting at first sight, it is effective and versatile.

The addition of cables, straps, bars and pulleys allows participants to perform the Pilates workout in a variety of positions. This can keep it interesting and a constant challenge. It also makes the reformer a handy tool for those with physical limitations who want to build their strength with extra support.

Newcomers may start with a few private sessions before moving on to group classes. This is sometimes a requirement in many Pilates studios.

Pilates mat exercises

Mat exercises are ideal for beginners who want to learn how to control their muscles during sessions. Despite reservations, the mat exercises can have the same effects as the reformer.

These exercises will often take place in live Pilates classes. Exercise routines will consist of a rotation of movements and exercises that encourage mobility, strengthening and flexibility. Usually, during the class, your instructor will walk around checking everyone’s technique. They may help to re-adjust your body positions gently in order to stimulate the correct muscles. Each class typically ends with stretching.

Mat classes may be easier to locate than reformer sessions. These will vary from beginner sessions to advanced classes. They even cover rehabilitation and back care classes. Newcomers should consider looking for smaller classes to receive more personalised instruction. 

What is the difference between Pilates and yoga?

There are many similarities between yoga and Pilates. They are both available as mat classes and both focus on developing strength, flexibility, balance, good posture and a better breathing technique. Ultimately, however, yoga is a far more spiritual form of exercise. It concentrates on the unity between mind and body with the help of meditative environments and a series of relaxation-inducing postures.

Pilates is primarily focused on working the body from the core outwards. It aims to help the individual develop physical strength and re-discover body awareness to help improve their quality of life. In addition, Pilates exercises can be tailored to suit individual needs and physical ailments.

As Pialtes and yoga can be very similar, your individaul needs will determine which form of excersice is best for you. It is thought that Pilates is better if you're looking to aid recovery after an injury, strengthen your core or improve your posture. Meanwhile, yoga may be better suited to someone looking to practice meditation and improve their balance.

‘Yogalates’ classes are becoming increasingly popular among those who seek a combination of the two disciplines.

Who can do pilates?

One of the benefits of Pilates is that anyone can do it. Clients can vary in weight, age and physical ability, and still achieve the same strengthening, posture building and coordination effects. Pilates workouts can be tailored to meet individual needs and they are very unlikely to cause injury.

Furthermore, the discipline can be adapted to raise the fitness levels of those who are inactive. Exercises can also challenge those who are already quite fit. Pilates exercises are particularly handy for those suffering from chronic pain. If more rigorous forms of exercise are explored in this situation, the pain can be intensified or lead to injury. Please be sure to contact your GP before starting a new exercise programme if you have any health concerns.

Whilst we recommend that you're supervised by an instructor, Pilates is a very versatile form of exercise, meaning you can also practice it from the comfort of your own home.

Benefits of Pilates

As well as helping to build posture, strength, physical and mental well-being, the benefits of Pilates can extend to more specific improvements in the human body.

Pilates can:

  • improve quality of life
  • increase stability for the shoulders and pelvis
  • promote healthy joints
  • give a heightened sense of well-being
  • alleviate aches and pains
  • relieve tension and stress
  • improve posture
  • improve flexibility and mobility of the spine
  • increase muscle tone, strength, and endurance
  • heighten body awareness
  • promote a more supportive and efficient core
  • facilitate physical rehabilitation and injury prevention
  • improve co-ordination and balance
  • increase circulation and build stamina
  • encourage efficient and deep breathing
  • help to improve bone density through weight baring exercises

Pilates for back pain

One of the benefits of Pilates is that the key principles promote back health. A number of studies have shown that it is beneficial for those with non-specific lower back pain. This is credited to the alignment of the spine and the strengthening of deep postural muscles, which occurs if the discipline is practiced regularly. The stabilisation of your body’s trunk will limit the pressure on discs and joints in your back. This will help decrease any pain stemming from them as a result of excessive movement and degeneration. The stimulation of fluid joint movement in the hips and shoulders can help ease the discomfort of the spine.

Body awareness

Pilates classes focus greatly on educating clients about their bodies. They emphasise how to change the body’s shape by taking better care of posture. Pilates also trains the mind to build symmetry and coordination. This extends to everyday life. Increased awareness will lead to better decisions around posture to prevent discomfort.

Work, lifestyle, and not exercising the right way can all have an impact on our bodies. These can lead to injuries or weakness of the postural muscles. The principle of working the core is essential for strengthening all limbs. Pilates exercises can improve your trunk to support the body and its functions.

Physically leaner and stronger

Pilates exercises predominantly focus on building a strong core. This can impact the look and feel of your abdominal muscles. More conventional and aerobic-based workouts have the potential to build short, bulky muscles. The Pilates workout however improves muscle tone and elasticity by elongating and strengthening. Ultimately, Pilates exercises work to shift your body shape rather than redefine it. You shouldn’t expect a sudden body overhaul.

Pilates for weight loss

There are no studies to prove the effectiveness of Pilates for weight loss. But as a form of exercise, it will help you to burn calories and aid weight loss goals. Weight loss comes down to consuming fewer calories than you burn, so attending regular classes can help with this.

What qualifications should a Pilates instructor have?

In 2005, the first national standard for Pilates was introduced in the UK. This set the minimum requirements in terms of skills and knowledge that an instructor should have to teach mat exercises.

The current standard sits at Level 3 in the National Qualifications Framework. This is ratified by the Qualifications Curriculum Authority (QCA) and overseen by SkillsActive (the Sector Skills Council for Active Leisure and Learning) and the Register of Exercise Professionals.

There is, however, no qualification required for teaching Pilates classes that involve equipment. Not all teachers have a nationally recognised qualification.

We recommend you take the time to contact Pilates instructors to find out what they offer and see their qualifications before committing to attending classes. 

Finding a Pilates instructor 

If you're considering attending Pilates classes, whether that's to reduce pain, improve your posture, stregthen your core or simply to try an alternative form of exercise, you can use our advanced search tool to find a pilates instructor near you. 

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