What Is Pilates? Key Benefits and How to Get Started

Christie Wang

If you’re looking for a full-body workout that combines strength, stretching, and a mind-body connection, Pilates may be the workout for you! Whether you’re looking to start a new workout routine from the ground up or add a new type of exercise into your regimen, Pilates can be a great option for improving your core strength, flexibility, posture, balance, and mind-body connection.  

In this blog, we’ll dive into what Pilates is all about, where it came from, and the benefits of Pilates, along with what you can expect from a Pilates class. 

Let’s get started! 

Pilates definition and overview

When asked to describe Pilates, Romana Kryzanowska, one of the pioneers of this workout type, described it as “Stretch with Strength and Control. And the control part is the most important, because that makes you use your mind.”

At its core, Pilates is a form of exercise that focuses on strength training, flexibility, and overall body awareness. Exercises typically involve controlled movements that target specific muscle groups—especially with a focus on core muscles—while emphasizing proper alignment, breathing, and concentration. 

Pilates can be practiced on mats or by using special equipment like reformers, chairs, and barrels. 

Long practiced by dancers, athletes, models, and celebrities, Pilates is well known as a versatile workout method that builds a long, lean body. Professional athletes and dancers use this workout type to cross-train and prevent or rehab from injuries related to their sport. 

The history of Pilates

This transformative exercise method was first developed by Joseph Pilates. Born in Germany in 1883, Joseph faced health struggles as a child, which ultimately fueled his passion for exploring the connection between physical and mental well-being. 

Through his personal journey of healing, he developed the Pilates method, initially termed “Contrology.” He opened his first gym in New York City with his wife, Clara, where he began to teach his method. 

Joseph developed much of his method when he was working with injured soldiers in World War I and injured dancers in New York City with George Balanchine and Martha Graham. He also invented the mat Pilates method, as well as a series of apparatus including the Reformer, Cadillac, Chairs, and Barrels.

Since then, the method of Contrology/Pilates has been passed on to teachers around the world. The principles that guide this method include concentration, control, centering, precision, breath, and flow. 

The benefits of Pilates

So, what are the health benefits of Pilates? Pilates enhances abdominal muscle strength, improves flexibility, and creates better posture and balance. It’s known for strengthening the “powerhouse,” which includes everything from your upper back and ribcage to your inner thighs and glutes. 

Pilates is also a low-impact workout, making it suitable for individuals of all fitness levels, including those recovering from injuries. If you are struggling with an injury, health condition, or physical limitation, Pilates moves can be easily modified to be a safe workout for you. Pilates is a great modality to help you recover from back, hip, knee, shoulder, and other types of injuries. 

Additionally, it will help you move better through everyday life or in your sport. You will leave every class feeling taller, stronger, and longer. 

The different types of Pilates classes

When looking for group Pilates classes, you will most likely encounter two types of Pilates classes: Mat Pilates and Reformer Pilates. Both modalities provide a challenging workout for your entire body!

What is Mat Pilates?

Mat Pilates involves practicing exercises on the floor on a yoga mat, using your body weight as your primary form of resistance. It’s a convenient and portable option that can be practiced anywhere. 

Mat exercises are considered the toughest form of Pilates, so if you struggle with injuries or limited mobility, you likely want to start practicing Pilates on an apparatus instead. 

What is Reformer Pilates?

Reformer Pilates utilizes a bed-like spring-loaded piece of equipment called the Reformer to provide additional resistance and support. The Reformer helps you support your body, create stability, and understand your alignment.

Group Reformer classes typically have between four and 15 pieces of Pilates equipment, depending on the studio you visit. 

Also, note that private Pilates classes are a great option for 1:1 attention and utilize the entire studio—including the apparatus beyond just the Reformer and mat. If you have an injury or special circumstance, we recommend taking a few private Pilates lessons first. 

What to expect from a Pilates class

Now let’s dive into what you can expect from a typical Pilates class. Whether you opt for a group class, private class with a physical trainer, or an at-home Pilates workout, you can anticipate a series of exercises that target various muscle groups, with a strong emphasis on controlled movements and proper breathing.

Classical Pilates instructors will follow the order that Joseph Pilates taught to his students in his original studio, while contemporary Pilates instructors may focus more on breath and creative class programming. 

Your instructor will focus on form and giving you the tools you need to move through the exercises correctly. Expect many personal verbal cues and hands-on cues to keep you doing your best. Be prepared for a challenging yet invigorating session that will leave you feeling both energized and centered. 

Most Pilates classes are 45 minutes to one hour of focused exercise.

How to find a Pilates class

Are you looking for a Pilates class? Here’s our recommendation for how to find a Pilates class in your area. 

First, research and find a reputable Pilates studio or certified instructor who is comprehensively certified from a 600-hour (or longer) Pilates program. A comprehensively certified Pilates instructor can teach across all the apparatus and has completed modules in prenatal/postnatal, working with injuries, and working with beginners. Make sure to inquire about their qualifications, specialties, and experience to ensure it is a good fit for your personal needs. 

Pilates studios are becoming increasingly popular and can be found in many cities and towns. Try doing a quick Google search for “Pilates Studios in my area,” “Reformer Pilates in my area,” or “Private Pilates in my area” to find a studio near you. 

If there aren’t any studios near you, you can explore online platforms like Hydrow, which  offers online video Pilates classes, providing you with the convenience of practicing mat Pilates from the comfort of your own home. 

Next, consider starting with a beginner's class or a private lesson to familiarize yourself with the basic exercises and principles of Pilates. We recommend starting with a few private lessons so you can understand your body's limitations and what you can work on during a group class. 

Remember, like anything in life, patience is key, so don't get discouraged if you don't master the exercises right away. Pilates is both a workout for the body and mind, and it takes repetition to see progress when you try something new. 

What to wear to a Pilates class

When it comes to what to wear to a Pilates class, comfort and flexibility are key. Opt for form-fitting yet breathable workout attire that allows for a full range of movement. Wearing form-fitting clothes will help your instructor see your form as you move through your workout. 

Most classes at a studio are done barefoot or in Pilates grip socks. Some Pilates studios actually require you to wear grip socks, so check the studio's policies before visiting for the first time. 

We also suggest bringing a water bottle and towel for during or after class.

Get started with Pilates with Hydrow

To wrap it all up, Pilates is an awesome workout choice that offers myriad physical and mental benefits. From improving your strength and flexibility to enhancing your overall well-being, Pilates has the power to transform not just your body, but your entire approach to fitness and life. 

Take the plunge, find a Pilates class near you, or start taking online Pilates classes with Hydrow and get ready to embark on a Pilates journey that will leave you feeling stronger, more centered, and invigorated. 

Christie Wang

A nationally certified Pilates instructor, Christie leads many of our On the Mat workouts. Her experience working with pro athletes combined with her relatable and practical approach to exercise provides fitness benefits for all levels. Her infectious love for a balanced, healthy lifestyle will have you striving for the same.