A guide to pilates

All you need to know about getting started in pilates, including free pilates video workouts, finding a class, and the health benefits of pilates.

What is pilates?

Pilates aims to strengthen the body in an even way, with particular emphasis on core strength to improve general fitness and wellbeing. Pilates exercises are done on a mat or using special equipment, such as the Reformer, the Cadillac and Wunda Chair. With its system of pulleys and springs, handles and straps, the apparatus can provide either resistance or support, depending on your needs.

Pilates was developed by German-born Joseph Pilates, who believed mental and physical health were closely connected. His method was influenced by western forms of exercise, including gymnastics, boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling. Pilates immigrated to the US in the 1920s and opened a studio in New York, where he taught his method – which he called contrology – for several decades.

Who is pilates for?

Pilates has something to offer people of all ages and levels of ability and fitness, from beginners to elite athletes. The apparatus can be used to provide support for beginners and people with certain medical conditions, as well as resistance for people looking to challenge their body. Before starting any exercise programme, it's advisable to seek advice from your GP or a health professional if you have any health concerns, such as a health condition or an injury.

What are the health benefits of pilates?

There are many reports on the health benefits of pilates. However, few of these have been subjected to rigorous scientific examination and there's a need for more research in this area. Practitioners say regular pilates practise can help improve posture, muscle tone, balance and joint mobility, as well as relieve stress and tension. For elite athletes, including dancers, pilates can complement their training by developing whole body strength and flexibility, and help reduce the risk of injury. 

Can pilates help reduce back pain?

There's some evidence that pilates can provide pain relief to people with non-specific lower back pain. The use of apparatus enables someone with back pain to perform exercises with support. For the exercises to be effective, they need to be tailored to the individual and vetted by an appropriately qualified health professional. Pilates teachers are not medically qualified and cannot prescribe, treat or offer therapy.

Can pilates help me lose weight?

Pilates is classed as a muscle-strengthening activity, which can help you maintain a healthy weight. Classes can vary in intensity: they can be gentle, or dynamic and offer a solid workout. If you want to lose weight, you're advised to combine pilates with a healthy diet and some aerobic activities, such as swimming, walking and cycling.

Try our pilates video workouts:

Can I injure myself doing pilates?

Pilates is a low-impact form of exercise, so injuries are uncommon. However, it's important that you find a qualified teacher and a class suited to your level of fitness and ability. Pilates teachers aren't medically qualified, so if you're recovering from injury, you are advised to check with your GP or relevant health professional on the suitability of certain exercises or movements before starting a class.

What's the difference between pilates and yoga?

While the methods are different, pilates and yoga both develop strength, balance, flexibility, posture and good breathing technique. Both systems emphasise the connection between physical and mental health, although yoga places more emphasis on relaxation and uses meditation. Pilates is performed both on apparatus and mats, whereas classic yoga doesn't require any equipment. Pilates exercises are performed in a flow of movement without the static poses associated with yoga.

What's the difference between apparatus and mat work?

Joseph Pilates originally devised more than 500 exercises for his system, of which 34 were mat exercises. Mat work may involve traditional pilates equipment such as magic circles or hand weights, as well as non-pilates gear such as stretch bands, gym balls and foam rollers. Pilates with apparatus uses equipment designed by Joseph Pilates, such as the Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Spine Corrector and Ladder Barrel.

Mat and apparatus pilates can be adapted to suit different levels of fitness and ability. However, if you cannot lie down on a mat for whatever reason, the apparatus can provide alternative ways to exercise.

Pilates can be taught on a one-to-one or group basis. If you have a health condition that may require close attention, check with the pilates teacher that their class is suitable. Classes using apparatus offer a higher level of individual attention, but they're usually more expensive.

Choosing a pilates class 

Pilates can be taught in a dedicated pilates studio with apparatus, or in an open area with mats and small equipment. Both mat and apparatus pilates can be taught privately or in small groups, with most classes lasting 60 minutes.

Ideally, apparatus classes should be taught on a one-to-one basis, and around a maximum of 12 for mat work, to ensure personal attention can be provided. Group apparatus classes are popular, but a degree of experience in using the apparatus is advisable before joining a group class.

Anyone can call themselves a pilates teacher as there is currently no legal requirement to be registered or have a pilates qualification. There is a nationally recognised level 3 qualification for mat-based pilates teaching, but no qualification for teaching pilates using apparatus.

When choosing a pilates teacher, you should consider their experience and the quality of their training, as well as their personality and rapport. Experienced teachers will normally have undergone a minimum of 450 teacher training hours over a period of several months or years.

 

Page last reviewed: 18/05/2015

Next review due: 18/05/2017

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The 7 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

User988404 said on 22 July 2015

In order to reap the most benefits that pilates can offer, you should research that the instructor is classically trained and certified. I'm not sure what the women in the videos are doing, but it is not classical mat pilates by any means.

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Shukor said on 13 July 2015

Hi

Following several complaints, we have edited this page to ensure the information is as useful as possible to the public and shows no bias towards any single pilates organisation.

Thank you,

Steven, Live Well editor

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User977542 said on 18 June 2015

Following consultation with NHS choices since March 2015 Pilates Teacher Association are pleased that this page now more accurately reflects the Pilates method. We are disappointed however that the videos which link to the information page have not yet been changed. The videos are not Pilates in any shape or form. We do not recommend that anyone follows this Video as an example of a Pilates class and to follow the link to Pilates Teacher Association where we can guide you towards a Teacher near you or more appropriate online content. www.pilatesteacherassociation.org

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User977542 said on 18 June 2015

Following consultation with NHS choices since March 2015 Pilates Teacher Association are pleased that this page now more accurately reflects the Pilates method. We are disappointed however that the videos which link to the information page have not yet been changed. The videos are not Pilates in any shape or form. We do not recommend that anyone follows this Video as an example of a Pilates class and to follow the link to Pilates Teacher Association where we can guide you towards a Teacher near you or more appropriate online content. www.pilatesteacherassociation.org

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pilates4everybody said on 27 April 2015

I need to disagree with Anne-Marie on the weight issue. At the Intermediate level and above Classical Pilates is a huge calorie burner and can significantly help with weight loss.
Regarding Mat work, stretch bands and gym balls were never in Joseph Pilates' original repertoire but were added by others modifying exercises.
I also don't believe that the NHS should be recommending specific teacher training bodies such as Pilates Foundation or Body Control without representing all of them. It should either be a general comment or give all the training bodies equal coverage. This makes it look like the NHS only recommends the training bodies mentioned.
Styles of Pilates vary widely and it would have been helpful to let people know more about the differences.

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User791582 said on 29 July 2013

Very helpful article sharing all the key things to look for in a class and teacher. Most important point that Pilates is suitable for all levels of fitness.

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PilatesClare said on 04 April 2013

A great article, thank you. Pilates really is an excellent form of exercise for many people as it is so adaptable for individual needs.

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