Pilates for Beginners: How to Get Started

Your co-workers have been raving about it. Health guru’s can’t stop extolling its benefits. Celebrities swear by it. It’s over 100-years old which, in the flash-in-the-pan world of fitness, is testament to both its popularity and effectiveness. Pilates might just be the best exercise you aren’t doing.

Looking to not just get strong and toned, but more graceful too? Pilates is for you. It’s long been a favorite with ballet dancers. Dancers back in the day caught on to the awesomeness of Pilates first and only later did it go mainstream. So mainstream, that many basic fitness exercises popular today are actually Pilates moves. The plank? It’s a Pilates’ move!

Developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, Pilates is a form of bodyweight resistance training. It’s clever, it’s simple, and boy is it effective. Though Pilates is known for its postural and core conditioning benefits, it is so much more than that. We explain.

Mat Pilates vs. Reformer Pilates

Joseph Pilates designed his system of exercise with the aim of improving both body and mind as, like many physical culturists of the time, Pilates believed that the two were inseparable. In the early days of Pilates, this form of exercise was only really practiced in specially equipped studios and was considered to be a form of corrective “medical gymnastics”.

There are two main types of Pilates; mat based Pilates which focuses on bodyweight exercises plus the use of some small items of equipment such as the iron ring or resistance bands and Pilates using equipment such as the reformer, barrel ladder, tower, trapeze and Pilates chair.

Mat-based Pilates classes can be found in a variety of venues such as gyms and sports clubs usually at no additional coast, while equipment-based Pilates is much more specialized and only found in Pilates studios.

Pilates experts tend to recommend that beginners start with mat classes and then add reformer work after about three months of once-a-week mat classes. Starting with mat work first allows you to focus learning how to control your muscles during the exercises. Though Pilates mat classes may not appear to be as glamorous as reformer Pilates, it will help tone your body and improve your strength, posture, and flexibility.

Pilates Principles

Pilates’ system of exercise is based on six principles: Centering, Concentration, Control, Precision, Breath and Flow. Each exercise and class should adhere to these fundamentals…

  1. Centering: The term used to describe how you should focus on the center of your body, which Pilates called the powerhouse and is more commonly known as the core. This is basically the space between your lower ribs and pelvis.
  2. Concentration: Focusing your awareness on the muscles you are working to obtain maximum value from each and every movement.
  3. Control: Each exercise in Pilates is done purposefully and with control. No movements should happen by accident.
  4. Precision: Every exercise must be performed in a very specific way. There is an appropriate limb placement, joint alignment and movement path for each part of the body.
  5. Breath: Most Pilates exercises involve regulation of breathing and Pilates himself placed an emphasis on thinking of the lungs as bellows. Deep, full breaths are a big part of Pilates.
  6. Flow: Fluidity and grace are hallmarks of Pilates. Exercises are never hurried, done jerkily or using muscles not supposed to be involved in a particular exercise. Pilates machines like the reformer will rattle and shake if the exercises are done in any way other than smoothly. This principle applies equally to mat-based exercises.

The Benefits of Pilates

Pilates’ method of exercise is associated with a number of benefits. It is said to:

  • develop long, lean muscles
  • help improve posture and relieve back pain
  • increase core strength and stability
  • improve mobility and flexibility
  • enhance functional fitness and strength
  • improve balance and body awareness
  • improve sports performance
  • customizable to suit all fitness levels
  • complimentary to other forms of exercise such as running or strength training

While most of these benefits are unsubstantiated, that simply means that no one has taken the time to study them. The popularity and success stories that normally accompany Pilates suggest that this system of exercise really does deliver.

It’s worth mentioning that Pilates is neither known for significantly improving cardiovascular fitness, nor is it an effective fat burning workout. But that’s not it’s purpose. If you want to improve your cardiovascular fitness you need to do some kind of aerobic training such as running or cycling and for calorie/fat burning, or a more intense form of exercise like circuit training or interval training might be more effective.

What to expect at a Pilates Class

Your first Pilates class may seem like a daunting prospect but, don’t worry, most classes are conducted very professionally and you’ll find lots of like minded people, plus a knowledgeable instructor ready and willing to help you.

Pilates clothing. Choose clothes that are nonrestricting and comfortable but not so baggy your instructor cannot see your limbs. Pilates is normally done barefoot so no need for fancy footwear. You won’t need any specialist equipment – it’s all provided for you. If you like, you can bring a towel which is big enough to completely cover your mat (if does get sweaty!) or your bring your own mat if you prefer.

Pilates classes. Make sure you check if you need to book in advance – some classes strictly limit the number of attendants. Arrive a few minutes early and introduce yourself to the instructor so you can identify yourself as a newcomer. Let your instructor know if you have any injuries or medical conditions that may interfere with your ability to exercise. That way, they can offer adaptations and alternatives accordingly.

What you’ll be doing. Your first class should be a relatively gentle affair designed to ease you into Pilates and teach you a few of the basic, classic, Pilates exercise and principles. You will learn how to engage your core, focus on your center, breathe properly by expanding your ribs sideways to allow air deep to the lower lobes of the lungs and various other essential Pilates’ techniques. It’s a lot to learn but that’s okay – the instructor is there to help you. Each workout follows an intensity arc and will start with warm-up exercises, build up to a peak and then end with a cool-down.

Ask questions. At the end of your class, feel free to ask your instructor any questions and get them to clarify any exercises you were unsure off.

The day after. Often Pilates classes don’t feel that hard – compared to traditional workouts. But the day after you’ll be feeling it. You may feel some stiffness in your legs, core or arms; this is entirely normal and just goes to show that you’ve had an effective workout. However, if your neck or back is sore, it’s likely you were doing something wrong, and you need to mention this to your instructor so you can work out what it was.

Practice makes perfect. You will make faster progress if you practice what you learned in class at home – but only if you practice using good exercise technique. To get the most from Pilates, aim to practice three times a week. If you’re a beginner once a week is fine, then as you become more proficient add an extra class and later another. You’ll be seeing results in no time!

Do I need to go to a class to learn Pilates?

There are lots of DVDs, books and even smart phone apps that suggest that you don’t need to go to a class to learn Pilates. While you might be able to learn the basics of some of the more simple exercises, the best way to master this exercise system is with experienced and hands-on coaching.

Just because what you are doing looks like Pilates, doesn’t mean that you’re really doing Pilates. Pilates is very subtle and much of what’s going on during the exercises you can’t see. Also, each exercise requires lots of body awareness. But it’s super easy to focus on just one body part and forget about what the rest of your limbs are doing.

If you’ve mastered the basics and want to do some extra practice at home, a book or DVD can be very useful but if you are a Pilates beginner, your best bet is to start learning from an inductor before trying to exercise on your own.

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