Fitness beginners often confuse Pilates with yoga, but they are really two entirely different forms of exercise. Yoga originated in the East and has evolved to include many different varieties, but all are essentially designed to work the entire body physically and mentally. Pilates is a much younger form of exercise, having been developed by one man, Joseph Pilates, a German bodybuilder, gymnast, professional boxer and circus performer.

Pilates emigrated to the United States in the mid-1920’s and opened a fitness studio in New York City. He and his wife Clara taught students to use their mind to control their muslces, a process he originally called “contrology”, which he wrote about in his famous book “Return To Life Through Contrology”.

The students and disciples of Joe Pilates eventually came to call his exercise program by his last name, which we now know as the Pilates method of exercise. Early students of Pilates included famous New York dancers, such as Martha Graham and Geroge Balanchine, but these days the virtues of Pilates are heralded by actresses, professional athletes, and soccer moms. It is a fantastic way to improve posture and tone muscles, especially the deep core muscles that wrap the spine.

The Pilates method has been modified a bit over the years as been passed on from one generation of students to the next. Modern day Pilates incorporates many of the traditional Pilates exercises, but with slight variations. For instance, the Stott method of Pilates has a specific emphasis on spinal rehabilitation, along with Pilates classes for the general public. Stott also has an extensive certification program for Pilates instructors.

Another famous name in contemporary Pilates is Mari Winsor (some people call this Windsor Pilates, but Mari’s last name is actually spelled Winsor). The Winsor method of Pilates is based on a principle Mari calls “dynamic sequencing” that incorporates muscle toning with calorie burning exercises. The Winsor technique is taught in their Pilates studios in California and sold through television infomercials around the world.

How Pilates Works

While most Pilates moves don’t have you moving very far or very fast, most of the exercises require you to engage virtually all of your muscles at once. Some moves have you stretching one muscle while contracting another, which is not at all easy to do. This is where concentration and focus come into play, so Pilates works your mind as well as your body.

Pilates exercises can either be performed on a mat on the floor, or you can make use of one the special exercise machines designed to accommodate Pilates movements.

You may find the Pilates moves performed on the floor to resemble yoga poses. This is not by accident, as Joseph Pilates developed his method after studying yoga, bodybuilding, gymnastics, kung fu and the movements of animals at the zoo.

Some of the traditional Pilates exercises include:

1. The Pilates One Hundred. It’s a warm up for the core muscles that has you lie on your back with knees bent at 90 degrees, arms straight at your sides with palms facing down. Then you lift your chin toward your chest and begin pumping your arms up and down about 3 inches off the floor. You inhale for 5 pumps, then exhale out for 5 pumps, and keep repeating the sequence until you have counted to 100. You are holding your body still throughout this exercise, except for you pumping arms. Eyes are on your belly button.

2. Rolling Like Ball. This sounds easy, every child has performed this move at one time or another, but to do it with proper form is deceptively difficult. Sit up, bend your knees and place your hands behind your knees. Now drop your chin, round your back and pull your abs so your body looks like a “C”. Now balance on your tailbone by pointing your toes and lifting your feet slightly off the ground. Contract those ab muscles and gently roll backward onto your shoulder blades with your knees over your head. Now suck those abs in even further and roll back up. Don’t cheat with momentum, really use those abs, and repeat for 4-6 reps.

3. Spinal Stretch. If you sit hunched over a computer for long periods of time, you’ll love the Pilates spinal stretch. Sit on the floor, legs straight out in front and feet flexed. Sit up as tall as you’re able, consciously roll your shoulder back and down, contract your core and lift your chest. This should put you in perfect sitting position. Now, with chin tucked in, exhale down as you point your fingers and reach for your toes. Now inhales back up as you slowly unroll your spine and return to perfect posture. Repeat 6 times.

Using The Pilates Machines

Two of the most popular Pilates machines are the Reformer and the Cadillac. While the traditional models are available only in Pilates studios, Pilates machines for home use are also available, but in a slightly modified form.

The appearance of the Pilates machines can be intimidating. The Cadillace is a bed-shaped contraption that features straps, poles, bars and springs. The Reformer features many of the same accessories, but looks more like your traditional weight bench.

Because you need a trained Pilates professional to work with you on these machines, it can be an expensive commitment, as most Pilates instructors charge $50-$200 for a one-hour private session. But if you have any interest in doing Pilates at home or in a group class, it’s a good idea to take a couple of private sessions so you can learn what proper form and breathing feel like.

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