Vol. 2, # 32
August 20, 2005

Q: What is "Pilates"? - Layperson

A: Pilates is a trademark used for a system of conditioning exercises often performed on specialized apparatus as determined by Joseph Hubertus Pilates, the developer. Born near Dusseldorf, Germany grew up a sickly child suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever.  At a young age he began to study anatomy and various forms of exercise to improve his health and physique.  At aged 14 he had been so successful in his endeavors that he was asked to model for anatomy charts.

An accomplished pugilist, gymnast, skier and diver he traveled to the UK and during World War II, was a medic, interned in a camp for captured German forces interned in Britain. During his internment time he used his knowledge to help rehabilitate bedridden patients, using bedsprings as equipment. He was investigating ways that soldiers could rehabilitate themselves while bed-ridden. Thus the creation of a series of movements that could be done in this position was created. The Pilates Reformer is based off an old hospital bed.Rumor has it that his efforts were so successful that when the 1918 flu epidemic swept the world,  not one of his followers died, even  though thousands of others in the UK succumbed!

He returned to Germany after the war but in 1925 he was invited to train the New German Army but decided to head for the US instead.  It was on this journey that he met his future wife, Clara.

Upon their arrival in New York City they opened a gym close to a number of Ballet and Dance Schools and in doing so found a captive audience.

Joseph Pilates was a determined man and a health fanatic, he was also a little eccentric (who else would you describe someone who runs down the street in a bikini - and in the winter!)  He was also renowned for his liking of cigars, whiskey, and women - something of a 'hands on' kind of teacher!

He died in 1967, at aged 87. His wife Clara, continued to teach and run the studio until her death 10 years later.

Pilates is an exercise program that focuses on the core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and are essential to providing support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of neutral alignment of the spine and strengthening the deep postural muscles that support this alignment, which are important to help alleviate and prevent back pain.

The Pilates exercise program
Pilates is an exercise system named after its originator, Joseph Pilates. Mr. Pilates developed this system in the early 1900’s to improve his health and to support the health of fellow World War I internees. Later, he incorporated the resistance of springs into rehabilitation programs for hospitalized patients, and then translated the use of springs into machines and created the unique equipment now used in the exercise system.

Important principles of the Pilates exercise program include:

  • Use of mental focus to improve movement efficiency and muscle control

  • Awareness of neutral spine alignment, or proper posture, throughout the exercises

  • Development of the deep muscles of the back and abdomen to support this posture

  • Use of breath to promote mental focusing and centering

  • Creating length, strength, and flexibility in muscles

Initially the Pilates exercise program was primarily used by professional dancers, who appreciated improved strength, balance and flexibility. In the 1980’s Pilates was re-discovered and has now become a popular form of exercise for anyone interested in its health benefits.

The exercise system is usually taught in one of two formats:

  • Using the unique Pilates equipment in private, or semi-private, sessions

  • Group mat classes not using equipment

Pilates equipment
The Pilates equipment uses the resistance of springs to create effort. The principle piece of equipment is called the Reformer and consists of a sliding platform anchored at one end of its frame with springs. The platform can be moved by either pulling on ropes or pushing off from a stationary bar. Thus, exercises include the challenge of moving the platform and maintaining balance on a moving surface (if sitting or standing). See Figure 1a and 1b to view examples of some exercises done on the Reformer.

Another Pilates machine is called the Cadillac and consists of a padded platform with a cage-like frame above it. From this frame various bars or straps are attached by springs. A third piece of equipment, the Wunda Chair consists of a small bench-like platform with a bar attached with springs. Exercises are done by pushing on the bar while either sitting or standing on the bench, or standing or lying on the floor.

Mat exercises
Usually taught as part of a group class, mat exercises primarily focus on strengthening the muscles of the trunk and hip and increasing the flexibility of both the spine and hips. While the scope of the mat program is limited compared to the machines, there are many mat exercises that illustrate the Pilates principles. Lately, Pilates has merged with other movement techniques, such as yoga, or use of an exercise ball. This promotes creative integration of the Pilates principles into a greater range of exercises in the mat class setting.

The Pilates Method is a physical fitness system which was developed in the early 20th century by German-American Joseph Pilates. Joseph Pilates called the method The Art of Contrology, which refers to the way the method encourages the use of the mind to control the muscles.

Instead of performing many repetitions of each exercise, Joseph H. Pilates preferred fewer, more precise movements, requiring proper control and form. He designed more than 500 specific exercises. The most frequent form, called "matwork", involves a series of calisthenic motions performed without weight or apparatus on a padded mat. Joseph Pilates also designed five major pieces of unique exercise equipment that should optimally be used for best results. Despite being taught separately now, Pilates Technique was always meant to combine Mat and Equipment exercises. In all forms, the "powerhouse" (abdomen, lower back, and buttocks) is supported and strengthened, enabling the rest of the body to move freely.

Authentic Pilates : The Pilates Guild ™ is dedicated to the preservation of Pilates in it's 'purest form' (the way it was taught by Joseph himself)

Contemporary Pilates: "While Pilates was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time, the science of exercise has evolved throughout subsequent decades. Contemporary adaptations of Pilates’ principles have emerged, leveraging advances in physical therapy, spinal research, biomechanical principles and anatomical understanding to ensure each exercise is performed with optimal safety and results in mind" - quote from Prime Time for Pilates by Moira Stott-Merrithew with Catherine Komlodi and Alison Hope.

Modern Pilates: (book) "Unlike the traditional method, which focuses on constantly holding in the lower abdomen and on extremely effortful movements, modern Pilates is firmly based on the functional movement possibilities of the body. The exercises in this book are influenced by developments in therapeutic massage, osteopathy, and the Feldenkrais method, Butoh (a Japanese performance art developed in the 1950s), and ante- and postnatal work. With easy-to-understand diagrams, drawings, and photos, it provides exercises for maintaining good posture, fitness, strength, grace, flexibility, and freedom from injury" - quote  from the Publishers of Modern Pilates by Penelope Latey.

The differences:

In the book Return to Life through Contrology,  (edited, reformatted and reprinted by Presentation Dynamics Inc): Joseph wrote the following; and in italics modern or contemporary Pilates suggests:

Open Leg Rocker: "Roll" over backward trying to touch mat or floor with toes -roll over only onto the top of the shoulders your head should  never touch the mat
Many exercises suggest that knees should be 'locked' - not locked
Double Kick: Thrust chest out with head thrown back as far as possible... - a long neck, centered  and held steady
About the spine: "be sure wherever indicated, to keep your back full length always pressed firmly against the mat or floor" - respect the natural curves of your spine
The Seal: "press soles and heels firmly close together pointed inward" - heels together, attracting ankles together.

Maybe these examples don't sound so different, not different enough to matter anyway.  But there are differences and that's something to remember - you decide which you prefer.

Yogalates : A fusion of the ancient discipline of yoga with the modern Pilates techniques, the exercises mix both disciplines to develop core strength, help tone muscles, increase flexibility and reduce stress. Yogalates is trademarked by Louise Solomon

"Expand your Self, move gently and celebrate the many possibilities which the union of Yoga and Pilates will reveal.  Through the comparison of breath, core strength and inner spirit, discover new sensations through familiar movement.  Awaken your self, enliven your lines and  brighten your Yoga/Pilates experience. - the pilatescenter.com

Yogilates: (book) Integrating Yoga and Pilates for Complete Fitness, Strength and Flexibility by Jonathan Urla

The Pilates Method /  The Method: a name coined first by The Physical Mind Institute in Santa Fe (they have subsequently moved to New York) to represent the traditional Pilates exercises when the law suit was ongoing and the "P" word couldn't be used.

Pilates with Chi: (book) combining Pilates with the eastern influences of Chi

PowerHouse Pilates ™: provides a fitness approach to Pilates education, founded by Marci Clark and Christine Romani-Ruby in an effort to make Pilates education easily available for fitness professionals

Also a book by Lynne Robinson "Body Control 5 - Powerhouse Pilates with Lynne Robinson"

and Mari Winsor "The Pilates Powerhouse"

As with yoga, the human body itself is used as "weights" in training, to build strength, and flexibility is targeted, without a focus on high-powered cardiovascular exercise. It was originally used to bring injured dancers back to full fitness, the idea being more to build bodily co-ordination and flexibility than stamina or muscle strength.

In recent years, many Pilates students have see important parallels with the Alexander Technique, and the discoveries of F. Matthias Alexander. It has been used to train dancers in flexibility and physical strength. The first official Pilates Studio(http://www.pilates-studio.com/) was opened in New York in 1926. In recent years it has become a popular fitness modality with many stars attributing their successful weight loss and increased muscle tone to Pilates.

As the technique became more and more popular throughout the 1990's there was a tremendous growth in people teaching Pilates without proper education or certification. This, in turn, has led to dilution of the technique, poor results and to people being injured with this technique.

Select either an Instructorwho is certified in the Pilates method or an healthcare professional knowlegeable in its use. 

Newsletter Index Page

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this column, is NOT intended to diagnose and/or treat any health related issues and is provided solely for informational purposes only. Consult the appropriate healthcare professional before making any changes to your healthcare regime. Even what may seem like simple changes in the diet for example, can interact with, and alter, the efficiency of medications and/or the body's response to the medications. Many herbs and supplements exert powerful medicinal effects. Neither the author, nor the website designers, assume any responsibility for the reader's use or misuse of this information.

© 2002 Nature's Corner