What is Pilates?: A Complete Guide for Beginners, Inc. 34 Exercises + 15 Best Online Classes

by | Jul 12, 2023 | Workouts

Pilates is big RN. In fact, 60.5k of you search for advice and info on the topic every month, so from answering the question ‘What is Pilates’, the best Pilates classes to Pilates for beginners and the difference between Pilates and yoga, we’re here to help. Whether you’re a Pilates pro (maybe you’ve tried a Pilates challenge before) or you’ve yet to set foot in a beginner’s Pilates class, there are a plethora of Pilates YouTube classes out there.

Unlike a gym workout, it doesn’t require a ton of home gym equipment and the bounty of free Pilates workouts online is increasing rapidly. Not to mention the benefits of strengthening and lengthening your muscles with low-impact resistance training like Pilates – a real godsend for those with finicky joints.

Not sure where to start? Well, reader, you’re in the right place. Read on for your Pilates for need-to-knows, what to look for if you’re searching for Pilates online, the 15 best Pilates workouts and our best tips for ensuring a successful Pilates workout. Phew, that’s a helluva lot. Let’s get into it.

What is Pilates?

In New York in the 1920s, Joseph Pilates devised more than 500 moves, 34 of which were mat-based exercises. He drew of methodology he’d developed while working as an orderly in the Isle of Man in the latter half of WWI, where he worked with patients injured in the war.

Now, his revolutionary regime is recognised globally as a way to strengthen the body. Pilates workouts help improve flexibility, balance and core strength and are particularly effective if you suffer from back pain. Research published in the journal PLOS One in 2014 showed that Pilates can both effectively ease back pain and boost functional movement when compared to traditional methods like massage therapy and other forms of exercise.

You can do Pilates with or without equipment (Pilates rings, resistance bands, Pilates balls, Pilates bars and ankle weights are all options), but you’ll reap the rewards whichever you do.

6 Pilates principles

There are six key principles to Pilates, which are essential for getting the most out of each workout.

  1. Centring: This is all about bringing your awareness to the centre of your body—the area between your lower ribs and pubic bone. This area (your core) is the foundation of all Pilates exercises.
  2. Concentration: Giving each movement your full attention is key to yielding maximum results from each movement.
  3. Control: Aim for total muscular control, going slow and steady.
  4. Precision: Focus on proper alignment and core engagement, striving for super precise form.
  5. Breath: Coordinate your Pilates exercises with your breath; one movement on the inhale, one movement on the exhale.
  6. Flow: Try to make each Pilates exercise as fluid as possible, flowing with your breath.

8 Benefits of Pilates workouts

  • Improves flexibility
  • Improves core strength
  • A challenging low-impact form of exercise
  • Can improve posture and stability
  • Can be done with no equipment
  • Increases flexibility and range of motion
  • Improves muscular endurance and strengthens muscle tissue
  • Can be done after injury or as part of physical rehabilitation therapy

What kind of workout is Pilates?

‘Pilates is a low-impact flexibility and muscular strength and endurance movement combined,’ explains Aimee Victoria Long, PT & founder of Body Beautiful Method.

‘Pilates emphasises correct postural alignment, core strength and muscle balance. It is great for ironing out muscular imbalances, injury rehabilitation and injury prevention.’

There are many forms of Pilates:

  • Classic Pilates: The traditional Pilates exercises as devised by Joseph Pilates, performed in the same sequence each time
  • Mat Pilates: 34 mat-based exercises by Joseph Pilates, plus other mat exercises
  • Contemporary Pilates: A mix of traditional and new Pilates exercises, performed in varying sequences using a range of small pieces of equipment
  • Reformer Pilates: A dynamic form of Pilates using a ‘Reformer’ to add resistance and challenge stability
  • Clinical Pilates: Injury and rehabilitation-specific exercises, prescribed by physiotherapists

I’d suggest trying out the different forms to find out what works best for you and what you enjoy the most

Aimee Victoria Long

Does Pilates count as exercise?

‘Pilates is most definitely exercise and when performed correctly it’s very challenging,’ says Long. ‘As an exercise, it counts as a muscle-strengthening workout. Plus, you’re able to work the whole body through Pilates. It challenges your lower and upper body and demands core strength.’

Is Pilates safe during pregnancy?

You betcha. In fact, if you’re expecting, Pilates might be one of the best ways to move your blossoming bod, says Hollie Grant, Pilates instructor and founder of The Bump Plan. ‘Not only is it safe, but it’s the exercise I strongly believe all pregnant women should include in their fitness plan.’

Here are some of the benefits for mums-to-be:

  • It strengthens muscles most affected by pregnancy (like abs, glutes and pelvic floor)
  • It’s low-impact
  • It can reduce back pain
  • It helps keep you mobile
  • It improves balance

‘It is incredibly safe, yet very effective and it means that many women can still feel the “burn” during their pregnancy, whilst knowing their babies and their own health isn’t compromised,’ Hollie says.

Can you start Pilates during your pregnancy then? ‘If you didn’t practice Pilates before pregnancy, it’s the perfect time to get started and it’s never too late! Many of my clients turn up to class on their due dates!’

Is 20 minutes of Pilates per day enough?

Short on time? When it comes to bang-for-your-buck sessions, Pilates delivers.

‘When it comes to something like Pilates it’s more advantageous to do a little bit every day, rather than an hour-long class once in a blue moon,’ Hollie says. ‘Little and often will help lead to sustained change and really help you to understand the basics of Pilates.’

‘My clients often describe how they are more in tune with their bodies for the rest of the day after practising Pilates and they feel less pain – why wouldn’t we want that every day?’

Can you do Pilates at home?

Yes, there are styles of Pilates that require some hefty equipment (think the reformer, Cadillac or Wunda chair), all you need for Pilates is an exercise mat.

‘We use bodyweight as our resistance,’ Hollie says. ‘Now don’t think that means it will be easy – your body might weigh 60kg or more – those kettlebells you think are heavy at the gym are probably more like 10kg.’

Is Pilates good for weight loss?

Can it help you lose weight? As always, the answer to this one is: it depends.

Effective weight loss is multi-faceted, so it’s difficult to pinpoint one thing that specifically results in weight loss, says Hollie. ‘It’s affected by sleep quality, hormones, stress levels, diet and activity levels.’

A lot to consider, then. However, a calorie deficit – burning more calories than you consume – can often help people reduce their weight. The calorie deficit largely depends on how much you eat, but any activity can certainly help raise the roof on your daily energy expenditure, or calorie burn.

Cardio is often touted as the best way to up that daily burn – which, of course, Pilates is not. ‘Pilates is not aimed at cardiovascular strength, it is aimed at muscle strength,’ Hollie explains. ‘However, if you were doing zero exercise before and then started adding in Pilates to your weekly routine, in basic terms, yes, it could help you lose weight as you would inevitably be burning more calories moving than not doing Pilates.’

Hollie is quick to add that hoping Pilates will be the magic bullet to weight loss is pretty self-defeating. ‘Putting Pilates and weight loss in the same sentence almost denigrates Pilates – Pilates is about so much more than weight loss and has the power to change people’s lives for the long term, something weight loss doesn’t necessarily deliver on.’

Pilates vs. yoga

Wondering what the difference is? Well, they’re both done on a yoga mat (for the most part) but there are some key differences between the exercise protocols.

‘One of the main differences between Yoga and Pilates is that Pilates focuses on relaxing tense muscles and strengthening others. Yoga tends to be used for improving the flexibility of the body,’ says Long.

Is yoga or Pilates better for improving overall fitness?

‘Both disciplines have great benefits. Depending on your goals. If you’re looking to improve your core strength, Pilates is a great form of exercise. It will help improve deep core strength, muscle control & stability, posture and coordination while improving muscular endurance,’ says Long.

‘However, if you’re looking to predominantly improve flexibility and prefer to incorporate a spiritual element to your training, then yoga may be more appealing to you. That being said there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate both Yoga and Pilates into your training programme.’

So, no need to double down on one discipline – there’s myriad styles of Pilates to try and, done regularly, you’ll notice big strength gains, particularly in your deep core. Mix in with your regular workout routine and you’ll be set for success. Go on then.

Is Pilates enough on its own?

As with every type of exercise, Pilates is best performed as part of a well-rounded routine. While it certainly has its pros, you should consider incorporating other forms of exercise that train your body in different ways. Here are a few different modalities to think about adding in and why:

  • Cardio workouts – Pilates isn’t a cardiovascular exercise, so including a cardio workout in your routine (ideally once a week) will help keep your heart healthy, as several studies have proven.
  • Weightlifting – Pilates does count as strength training, but research has shown that lifting heavier weights will help with increasing your bone density and muscle mass. Try one workout per week.
  • Yoga – If flexibility is our goal, studies show that adding in one yoga session a week will help you get there. Pilates will help improve flexibility, but you’ll hold poses for longer during yoga, which is where you’ll make the biggest gains.

All that said, remember that there’s no use in doing a workout you don’t enjoy. If you hate cardio, for example, don’t try and force yourself through a 5k run every week. Try tacking on a 10-minute speed walk to the end of your Pilates class. Likewise, if you hate weightlifting, try going a little heavier with any weight you use in your Pilates class, but don’t set out to do a whole hour of heavy lifting. Lastly, if the idea of enduring a full yoga class is enough to send you over the edge, aim for a 10-minute full-body stretch every week instead.

34 Pilates exercises

There are 34 original Pilates exercises, founded by Joseph Pilates and detailed in his book Return To Life. No matter which type of Pilates you do – reformer, mat, hot or otherwise – these Pilates exercises are the foundation of every class. Joseph would execute the exercises in the exact order listed below, as he believed this was key to reaping the rewards, but you’ll find that most current Pilates teachers will mix them up.

  1. The hundred
  2. The roll-up
  3. The roll-over with legs spread
  4. The single-leg circle
  5. Rolling like a ball
  6. Single leg stretch
  7. Double leg stretch
  8. Spine stretch
  9. Rocker with legs wide
  10. The corkscrew
  11. The saw
  12. The swan dive
  13. The single-leg kick
  14. The double-leg kick
  15. The neck pull
  16. The scissors
  17. The bicycle
  18. The shoulder bridge
  19. The spine twist
  20. The jackknife
  21. The side kick
  22. The teaser
  23. The hip twist
  24. Swimming
  25. The leg pull-front
  26. The leg pull-side
  27. The kneeling side kick
  28. The side bend
  29. The boomerang
  30. The seal
  31. The crab
  32. The rocking
  33. The control balance
  34. The push-up

15 best online Pilates classes

Ready for your fix of Pilates online? Course you are. Here are the 15 YouTube workouts worth your time and sweat. There’s Pilates for beginners options, as well as harder classes for those more familiar with the discipline. The best bit? They’re all options to do Pilates at home! You don’t need to leave your living room and they’re all entirely free – hurrah!

Pilates classes under 10 minutes

1. Blast your core in five minutes | Isa Welly

2. Challenge your core in ten minutes | BodyFit By Amy

3. Advanced Pilates in ten minutes | The Live Fit Girl

Pilates classes under 20 minutes

4. 13-minute pregnancy glute workout | Pilates PT Hollie Grant

5. Feel-good Pilates in 15 minutes | Freshly Centered

6. Total-body Pilates flow in 18 minutes | Lottie Murphy

7. 20-Minute inner thigh isolate workout | Casey Ho

8. 20-minute full-body intermediate Pilates Class | Move with Nicole

Pilates classes under 30 minutes

9. Beginners Pilates in 23 minutes | Isa Welly

10. Pilates for your bum in 25 minutes | BodyFit By Amy

11. Pilates for solid glutes in 25 minutes | Fiit

12. Cardio Pilates in 26 minutes | Jessica Smith

Pilates classes 30 minutes or longer

13. Pilates PT Method™ 30-minute workout | Pilates PT Hollie Grant

14. 30-minute weighted Pilates total body workout | Isa Welly

15. Fat-burning Pilates in 60 minutes | Pilates With Hannah

5 tips for a successful Pilates workout

1. Clear a space big enough

We get it – your flat share may not even have a living room, but as long as you can stretch your arms out without touching the wall, you’re fine.

2. Invest in the right equipment

Before you slip into a ‘pelvic curl’, you’ll need to get your hands on a few pieces to make your session as comfy and safe as possible.

First up, sort yourself out with an exercise or yoga mat. FYI, thicker styles support and cushion your spine better than their cheaper cousins, particularly on a hard floor rather than carpet. If you’re a beginner or prone to back pain, a cushion under your bottom or back can alleviate pressure and provide extra support.

Some classes may require a resistance band, which come in different lengths, strengths and sizes. If your Pilates workout calls for one, they should guide you on which type. Watch the workout before to know exactly what you’ll need. A word to the wise: the thicker the resistance band (and the tighter you pull it), the harder your muscles work.

Other Pilates workouts might ask you to use a small inflatable Pilates ball or a Pilates ring – both pieces of equipment that help with alignment and engaging the correct muscles. Again, see what’s asked of you before you dive into the workout and come up short.

3. Breathe, rather than brace

We all think we know how to do it, but breathing is one of the most common Pilates mistakes. Don’t hold your breath as you’ll end up bracing your core and working the wrong muscles.

Instead, breathe deeply through the exercises and focus on scooping your belly button in and up.

4. Put your phone on silent

Pilates requires concentration, focus and precision, so the last thing you want is a bazillion Instagram notifications going off in the background. Put your phone on silent or leave it in the next room.

5. Shut all pets out of the room

There’s nothing worse than finally nailing an exercise only to be thrown off balance by a well-meaning furry friend. Try to keep your animal pals in another room during your workout.

This article was first published in womenshealthmag.com.

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