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What is the Pilates Method of Exercise?

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Updated May 30, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Woman stretching backwards using pilates equipment
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Pilates is a form of exercise, developed by Joseph Pilates, which emphasizes the balanced development of the body through core strength, flexibility, and awareness in order to support efficient, graceful movement.

Pilates is one of the most popular exercise systems in the country.

It seems like everyone is either doing Pilates, or interested in starting a Pilates exercise program. Indeed, one of the best things about the Pilates method is that it works so well for a wide range of people. Athletes and dancers love it, as do seniors, women rebounding from pregnancy, and people who at various stages of physical rehabilitation.
Read: Who Does Pilates?

The top benefits doing of Pilates exercise that people report are that they become stronger, longer, leaner, and more able to do anything with grace and ease.
More: Get in Shape with Pilates
What is a Pilates Body?

Pilates is an Adaptable Method

Modification is the key to Pilates exercise success with a variety of populations. All exercises are developed with modifications that can make a workout safe and challenging for a person at any level.
Read: Pilates Modifications and Safety Precautions

Core Strength

Core strength is the foundation of Pilates exercise. The core muscles are the deep, internal muscles of the abdomen and back. When the core muscles are strong and doing their job, as they are trained to do in Pilates, they work in tandem with the more superficial muscles of the trunk to support the spine and movement.

As you develop your core strength you develop stability throughout your entire torso. This is one of the ways Pilates helps people overcome back pain. As the trunk is properly stabilized, pressure on the back is relieved and the body is able to move freely and efficiently.

The Six Pilates Principles:

Centering, Control, Flow, Breath, Precision, and Concentration:
These six Pilates principles are essential ingredients in a high quality Pilates workout. The Pilates method has always emphasized quality over quantity, and you will find that, unlike many systems of exercise, Pilates exercises do not include a lot of repetitions for each move. Instead, doing each exercise fully, with precision, yields significant results in a shorter time than one would ever imagine.
Read The Six Pilates Principles for more on these important philosophical foundations of Pilates.

Pilates is a Unique Method of Exercise.

Core strength and torso stability, along with the six Pilates principles, set the Pilates method apart from many other types of exercise. Weight lifting, for example, can put a lot of attention on arm or leg strength without attending much to the fact that those parts are connected to the rest of the body! Even running or swimming can seem like all arms and legs, with either a floppy or overly tense core. Ultimately those who really succeed at their sport learn to use their core muscles, but in Pilates this integrative approach is learned from the beginning.
Pilates and Cross Training

Mat Work and Equipment

Pilates exercises are done on either on a mat on the floor, Pilates mat work, or on exercise equipment developed by Joseph Pilates. The workout equipment that we use in Pilates generally utilizes pulleys and resistance from the participants own body weight on the machine and graduated levels of springs. The reformer is probably the best-known piece of resistance equipment that you will encounter at a Pilates studio.

Joseph Pilates

The Pilates Method of exercise was developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s. It was originally used as a rehabilitation program for prisoners of war and was later found to be of great benefit to anyone seeking a higher level of fitness. The work was kept alive over the years by a small group of Joseph Pilates devoted students until just a few years ago, when exercise science caught up to the principles that Pilates had been teaching all along, and now we enjoy the rich evolution of the Pilates work that we have today.

Get Started in Pilates

Pilates is best learned through a combination of classes and home workouts. You can get started right away:

(c) 2006, Marguerite Ogle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

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