What is Pilates? Your Go-To Guide to Pilates’ History, Benefits, and So Much More

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We’ve all heard the term before, right?

Even if you’re in no way, shape, or form involved in the fitness world, you likely have an idea (even if it’s just an inkling of an idea) of the exercise phenomenon known as Pilates.

But, how much do you actually know about it?

Even though it’s relatively easy to slip that buzzword into your everyday conversation as a personal trainer, we challenge you to sit down and truly ask yourself this question—what exactly is Pilates?

Whether you’re looking to include Pilates in your fitness repertoire as a personal trainer or you’re simply seeking out a more well-rounded education to better serve your clients, we definitely suggest you start learning.

As a personal trainer, understanding what it is, how Pilates can benefit your clients, and being able to answer basic (but important) questions about this type of exercise is crucial—not just for your reputation, but for your credibility.

As a personal trainer, your clients expect you to be knowledgeable, professional, and well-rounded. While that doesn’t mean you should know everything about every type of exercise imaginable, it does mean the responsibility to do your homework, consistently keep learning, and providing your clients with plenty of fitness options falls squarely on your shoulders.

That sounds like a lot. But hey, don’t sweat it. We’re here to help.

We’ve laid out everything you need to know about Pilates—we’ll cover what Pilates is, how it got started, and even dive into Pilates benefits that are crucial to your Pilates knowledge. In other words, you can consider this your go-to Pilates guide. (You can thank us later).

What is Pilates?: Pilates 101

Before we can dive into the particulars of Pilates, we need to answer the most important question—what the heck is Pilates, anyway?

Let’s break this down in its easiest terms, without any jargon or Pilates-specific language to give you a foundation to stand on. For the sake of simplicity, let’s go with this definition:

Pilates is a low-impact exercise designed to focus on flexibility, endurance, and muscular strength. Pilates, when done correctly, places emphasis on core strength, mind-body connection, and breathing with your movements. This exercise is based on control and precise movements, with a firm and strict belief that the core is the powerhouse of the body.

The cool thing about Pilates? It’s pretty versatile. While some people believe that Pilates can only be done with specific equipment or machines (such as Pilates apparatus like the Pilate Reformer, chairs, barrels, towers, etc.), you can actually run a Pilates class with just a mat, some bands, and maybe even some weights.

Essentially, there are two main types of Pilates classes.

  • Mat Classes: These classes are built on—you guessed it—mat work. Pilates mats are a bit thicker than a standard yoga mat and won’t use a fancy Pilates machine (known as a Reformer, we’ll get to that in a minute). In this class, you’ll focus on control, lifting against gravity, and isolating the correct muscles.
  • Reformer Classes: This type of class uses a specialized machine known as a reformer, a sliding platform that’s outfitted with a stationary foot bar, pulleys, and springs that provide targeted resistance. The concept is the same as a mat class—you’re working on precise movements, control, breathing, and core strength. But you’re working with added resistance versus solely your body weight.

Pilates is an exercise that’s truly for everyone—from the fittest of folks to beginners, from those in the prime of their youth to senior citizens. Because it’s such an easy exercise to adapt for anyone, it’s one of the most accessible workout options out there.   

Where Pilates Got Its Start

So, we have a better idea of what Pilates is, but that leads us to our next burning question—where exactly did Pilates come from? Did someone just wake up one day with the idea of Pilates and immediately set it into motion?

Not quite.

Like most great things, the idea of Pilates took some time to develop, and—again, like most good things—rose from a not-so-great situation.

Joseph Pilates (spoiler alert, he invented the exercise), a German man in the 20th century, was a person who was chronically ill throughout his entire childhood, and wasn’t satisfied with that type of existence. He was absolutely determined to do everything he could to be healthy, strong, and vital. To him, that meant dedicating himself to becoming a bodybuilder.

Joseph studied anatomy. He dabbled in every type of exercise that existed at the time. He pulled from Western methods and Eastern methods, sought out yoga and tai-chi and martial arts. For him, nothing was off-limits.

When he was living in Britain during World War I, he began working as a nurse. His employment, combined with his lifelong dedication to being healthy, led him to the creation of Pilates. He cleverly crafted springs to hospital beds to help tone and heal wounded soldiers, encouraging them to strengthen their muscles with his homemade devices. This very crude, but very effective, device is what evolved into the modern-day Pilates Reformer machine.

In 1923, Joseph ran with his idea. He opened up his first studio in New York using his reformer. Many people—dancers especially—flocked to his studio. The rest, well, it’s history. Pilates continues to be a hugely popular form of exercise for people around the globe, showcasing its effectiveness as more than just a fitness fad, but rather, a lifelong dedication and regimen.

Pilates Benefits: The Long List of Pilates Perks

The wonderful thing about Pilates is much like other well-rounded exercises—you’re not going to just accomplish a single goal. Because Pilates is so focused on helping you develop overall wellness (with your mind and your body), it’s more than likely your clients are going to reap multiple benefits by adding this to their fitness regimen.

Strengthens & Tones Your Muscles

Pilates is all about targeting the muscles you might not use on a daily basis. Sure, you’ll use large muscle groups (it is heavily based on your core), but because the movements are so specific an intentional, you’ll find muscle tone in places you never thought possible!

Flat Abs, Strong Core

Yes, Pilates is famously associated with a flat, strong stomach. And while aesthetically that’s probably great (if that’s your goal), having a strong core is super beneficial for your overall well-being, health, and strength.

Great Posture

A huge point of Pilates is to help you with your mind-body connection, and a big piece of that is maintaining great posture while you’re exercising. Pilates requires that you keep your body in alignment at all times, something that’s quite beneficial for folks suffering from lower back pain. Because you’ll put extra emphasis on your posture during your Pilates classes, you’ll learn to keep an eye out for it during your everyday life.

Reduced Risk of Osteoporosis

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Pilates is actually a great way to help improve the overall health of senior citizens because it can help reduce the risk of common aging health issues like osteoporosis. Because Pilates focuses on small, intentional, and low-impact movements, it’s an excellent way for senior citizens to strengthen their muscles, prevent their bones from becoming brittle, and remain healthy into their golden years. Pilates helps to restore flexibility in a gentle way, helping seniors to maintain their agility longer and avoid injuries like serious falls.

Overall Well-Being & Stress Busting

Pilates is all about providing you with a mind-body connection. Achieving that connection (even if it’s only for 30 minutes a day during your Pilates class) helps to promote an overall sense of well-being and works to reduce your stress.

Want to learn more about Pilates? Looking for more insight into how you can add Pilates to your fitness offerings as a personal trainer? Simply looking for a helpful, easy-to-use resource that provides you with the insight, advice, and tricks of the trade you’re looking for in the fitness world? We’ve got good news—you’ve found that here! IFG’s regularly updated blog exists to bring you all that and more. Keep up with our articles, helpful hints, tips, and tricks all dedicated to helping you flourish as a personal trainer and stay in-the-know in the fitness community.

Meet The Author:

Parker Franklin

Parker, IFG’s Brand Manager since 2022, began his wellness journey in 2020, leading to a significant personal transformation. He holds a journalism degree from Murray State University and started his career as an award-winning journalist in western Kentucky before transitioning into marketing and PR. At IFG, Parker is responsible for writing content, managing The Fit newsletter, and overseeing promotions and collaborations with affiliate fitness organizations.