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Pilates Classes for Beginners

What to Know About the Kinds of Pilates Classes and How they Work

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Updated July 23, 2012

Pilates Class with Ring

A Pilates Mat Class with Pilates Magic Circle

Getty Images

With seemingly half the celebrities in Hollywood getting their pictures taken leaving Pilates classes, and perhaps your friends and neighbors reducing aches and pains and becoming fit with Pilates, you might be wondering about Pilates lessons for yourself. Before we get into details about classes, let me assure you that Pilates is for people of all ages and levels of fitness so you are on the right track. See who does Pilates.

Hopefully, before you land in a Pilates class, there will have been an intake process where you got to share some of your interests and concerns and based on that, an appropriate class was suggested to you. Some Pilates studios require an assessment appointment as well. Don't let that intimidate you. Good Pilates instruction is individualized even in a group setting so an assessment just helps an instructor look at your posture and how you move in order to serve you better in class. For example, in most Pilates classes the group will basically be doing the same thing at the same time, but an instructor might offer modifications to different people based on what they know about their students' bodies and needs. The ability to do that well is one of the things that sets Pilates instructors apart from general fitness trainers.

Pilates classes are set up much like most other kinds of fitness classes. There is usually one instructor and a group of people, most of whom are at about the same level of familiarity and skill with Pilates. How difficult a class is should depend on who is in the class and what the needs of the members of the class are. You should feel challenged but not overwhelmed.

The sizes of Pilates classes vary a great deal but they are typically small -- 3 to 10 people -- though Pilates mat classes might run considerably larger in some gym or big studio settings. Group Pilates classes typically last an hour and cost $15 to $25 depending on things like local economics and whether or not it is an equipment class, which often costs more.

Kinds of Pilates Classes

While the fundamental intention of a Pilates class -- i.e., to develop core stability and a uniformly strong and flexible body in the service of integrating and elevating the body, mind and spirit -- does not change, there are a number of "kinds" of Pilates classes. Joseph Pilates, the founder of Pilates the system of exercise (he called it Contrology), was a prolific inventor. He was driven to find as many ways as he could to help people create strong, flexible bodies that move efficiently. He therefore created a sequence of exercises that are done on the mat, and a lot of exercises on what is called Pilates equipment, machines, or apparatus.

All Pilates classes promote the benefits of Pilates -- they just come at it slightly differently. You can start with the classes that are available and appeal to you, and add to your experience over time. Here is a list of some of the main Pilates class choices you will find:

Pilates Mat Classes

Most Pilates mat classes are based on the classical Pilates mat exercises and sequence as featured in Joseph Pilates' book, Return to Life Through Contrology. However, instructors often modify those exercises depending on the students' needs and level of ability. There are also exercises that have been passed down from Joseph Pilates and his students that are not in the book, but are commonly used and you will get used to that.

Most Pilates studios are equipped with Pilates mats such as those in image 1 above. If you are taking class at a gym, you might need to bring your own roll up mat. If you are not sure, just call and ask. Pilates mat classes may also incorporate the small Pilates equipment as well. It is not unusual to find the Pilates magic circle, exercise balls, and bands as part of a Pilates mat class. You should not have to bring these items.

Mat classes are widely available at Pilates studios and fitness facilities and they are an excellent way to start Pilates. They will give you a great foundation in Pilates movement and they are usually less expensive than equipment classes. It can also be easier to tune into your body when not distracted by machinery at first.

Pilates Equipment Classes

When you go to a Pilates studio, you might see quite a number of different types of Pilates equipment. As a beginner, the most common choices you will be offered in terms of equipment classes will be reformer, Pilates chair, and maybe pole system. These three pieces of Pilates equipment all offer spring-based resistance. Below are links to learning more about each one. If you are lucky there might be some combo classes offered as well. Again, check with the instructor to see which class will be best for you.

The Pilates Reformer
The Pilates Chair
The Pilates Pole System

Other Pilates equipment you might see in the studio include the ladder barrel and step barrel, the cadillac and the ped-a-pull as well as lots of smaller pieces such as foot correctors. These pieces are not usually introduced in beginner group classes, but they can be.

Pilates Fusion Classes

So far we have been talking about traditional Pilates classes. However, the popularity of Pilates, based on those traditional classes, has provoked a huge variety of hybrid classes such as Pilates combined with boxing, yoga, aqua fitness, booty this and that or any number of other cross training options. These classes can be fun and worthwhile. Just be aware that the further one gets from the core of Pilates, the more room there is for the method to be diluted and you may not get the full benefits that in-depth Pilates offers. Learn more in Avoiding Pilates Fusion Confusion.

Such a variety of classes and equipment options might sound complicated but it's not. Pilates instructors are notoriously directive. In fact, you will probably feel like you are being personally guided through every part of your class. Sure, there will be things to pick up on over time, and the exercises are going to turn out to provide a lifetime of challenges and discoveries, but overall, Pilates is very accessible fitness.

How to Choose a Pilates Teacher
How to Find Pilates Classes
Preparing for Your First Pilates Class - what to wear, bring
Look Inside Some Pilates Studios

Other Ways to Learn Pilates

There are other ways to learn Pilates besides Pilates classes. If a group class isn't right for you, private Pilates lessons are very popular. If you have an injury or other special concern, starting with private instruction is often the best choice. Also, while it is truly best for a beginner to take classes with a real instructor, you can supplement your training in other ways such as learning Pilates exercises online, books, DVDs, and Pilates videos.

Top Ways to Learn Pilates
Pilates Beginner Quick Start Program

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