Get a Pilates Body

Stretch and strengthen your muscles with Pilates

If you’re looking for a low-impact way to condition your body, the Pilates method may be a good choice. Pronounced “pah-LAH-tees,” this movement-based exercise technique incorporates aspects of martial arts, yoga, dance, and gymnastics. It was originally developed for dancers after World War I by Joseph Pilates, a German boxer and gymnast, but just about anyone can benefit from it.

pilates students

Pilates consists of more than 500 precise, controlled movements, which strengthen the “core” muscles of the body–the abdomen, back, and buttocks–without stressing joints and ligaments. The concept is that if the center is strong, the whole body will move efficiently. The result is more strength and stability, a greater range of motion, flexibility, and muscle balance.

The exercises are done on mats or specially designed devices, which, despite their names–such as the Universal Reformer, Spine Corrector, and Electric Chair–allow for a gentle workout using your own weight as resistance. They are performed while sitting, lying down, or kneeling on all fours, and are repeated 5 to 10 times each, as you focus on breathing. Weight bars, exercise balls, and flexible workout rings may also be used. Sessions can be tailored to meet your fitness level and accommodate medical conditions.

How it may or may not help you

There is little published research looking at the health benefits of Pilates except for injury rehabilitation in dancers. But it’s a good exercise for healthy people and is often recommended for back and neck pain, arthritis, scoliosis, disc herniation, shoulder problems, and knee and other joint injuries. It may also help prevent further injury. In a small study presented at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, people with low back pain who did Pilates-based mat exercises had more significant relief than those with pain who just carried out their normal daily activities. Pilates works the deep abdominal muscles (as well as or better than basic sit-ups or crunches), which may help correct the underlying weakness that contributes to some back problems. 

Can Pilates make you taller, as is often claimed?

It certainly can improve your posture, which makes you look and feel taller, but you won’t grow taller. Pilates won’t make your muscles longer or leaner either, as some people believe. It may increase your muscle mass, but muscles don’t get narrower, thinner, or leaner (they are already “lean tissue”).
While Pilates can be part of an overall fitness program, it does not replace regular aerobic exercise (walking, running, swimming, or cycling, for example). How many calories you burn depends on the level of the workouts. Basic Pilates mat workouts burn about 120 to 140 calories in 30 minutes, the equivalent of active stretching. Advanced workouts can burn twice as many calories.

Where to go

Some physical therapists are trained in Pilates and offer it in their private practices or at rehab centers. There are also specialized studios devoted to Pilates, and you can find classes at many health clubs and some spas and community centers. Try to avoid large classes where you get less individual attention. 

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While some practitioners adhere to the original methods set by Pilates himself, others teach modified versions. In 2000 a court ruling made the term Pilates generic, so it’s now applied to many exercise programs, even ones that oppose Pilates’s original principles. There are, for example, aqua Pilates, cardio Pilates, and other Pilates-inspired programs. What’s most important is that the instructors be well qualified. Some tips:

  • Ask how the instructors were trained (and for how many hours), whether they are certified (did they pass both a written and practical exam?), if they are trained to teach both mat and apparatus work, how long they’ve been teaching, and if they work with people with injuries or other conditions, like arthritis, if that applies to you.
  • Be wary of instructors who were certified simply by taking a weekend or an Internet course.
  • The Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit professional association, recently established a national certification test for instructors who meet specific eligibility criteria, such as 200 or more hours of training.

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