An All-Inclusive Guide to Pilates for Beginners and Experts Alike

Instructors answer "what is Pilates?" and share key benefits of the fitness method. Plus, they reveal the Pilates exercises and Pilates workouts that will leave your entire body shaking in the best way.

woman doing pilates V-Up exercise
Photo: Getty Images

For folks accustomed to grunt-inducing workouts such as HIIT or powerlifting, it can be all too easy to see Pilates as child's play. After all, if it doesn't involve lightning-quick burpees or monstrous weight plates, how challenging can it truly be?

But as the saying goes, the eyes can be deceiving. "Pilates looks delightful, but it's really an intense experience because you're asking your body to use muscles you don't even know you have," says Amy Jordan, the creator, and CEO of WundaBar Pilates. "Within a few minutes of class, you're sweating and you're trembling."

Simply put, Pilates is a workout style that hurts so good and, as it turns out, has plenty of perks to offer. Here, Jordan and other pros break down the basics of Pilates, including what it entails, the common Pilates exercises, and the biggest benefits you'll score in just a few sweat sessions.

What Is Pilates?

Created by Joseph Hubertus Pilates in the 1920s, Pilates was originally named "Corrective Exercise," later rebranded to "Contrology," and ultimately took on its founder's moniker, according to the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA), a not-for-profit professional association. "Contrology means the control of the body, and that pretty much tells you what his original intention for the method was: to learn how to control the body efficiently, connecting the mind to the body," says Sonja Herbert, a classically trained Pilates instructor and the founder of Black Girl Pilates.

To achieve that control, you'll work through specific exercises designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body, paired with focused breaths, according to the PMA. The moves can be performed on a mat with or without props (i.e. dumbbells, resistance bands, a small inflatable ball, a yoga block). Or, they can be done on machines that provide added resistance during strengthening exercises and assistance during stretches, such as the Reformer, Jump Board, or Wunda Chair, says Jordan.

Common Pilates Exercises

Whether you're testing out an in-person class or following along with a virtual workout, you'll likely power through a few Pilates exercises that may already be a staple in your workout routine, such as high planks and side planks. The plank is a head-to-toe exercise that's "the fastest way to a fully functional, strong core, as well as to connect to the back of your body," says Jordan. Holding your arms, legs, and spine at length in the plank position can help strengthen your posterior chain (the muscles on the backside of the body, from the back of your head all the way down to your heels) and improve posture, she explains. (Score all those benefits by adding these plank variations to your abs routine.)

Along with tried-and-true abs exercises, you may also perform more unique core-crushing moves such as "the hundred," which is a static combination of a crunch and a V-up paired with arm pumps and quick breaths, and "the roll up," which involves rolling into a seated position from supine and back down again, says Herbert.

To target the lower body, you might lie on your back and do single leg circles in the air or sit with your legs extended forward and try "the saw," twisting at the torso to touch opposite hand to opposite foot, says Herbert. Other lower-body Pilates exercises may be more familiar, such as the lunge or the glute bridge, adds Jordan. In each workout, you'll target multiple "planes of movement" or angles, performing Pilates exercises lying on your back, standing tall, and on your hands and knees, with the goal of helping you move with ease IRL, says Jordan.

Though you may perform only five to 12 reps of each exercise — focusing on quality, not quantity — you're sure to work up a sweat. The exact tempo of your Pilates workout will vary depending on the studio and instructor, but you can expect to keep your body moving the entire time, says Jordan. "The pace of the class is meant to challenge you with a fluid flow," she says. (P.S. Kristen Bell says classes at this Pilates studio leave her "legs are shaking so much.")

The Benefits of Pilates Workouts

Improve Posture

All that sweat and core work has a few major pay-offs, including improved posture, says Jordan. "[Pilates] is getting you to connect to the back line [aka posterior chain], so you stand better and are just more aware of your posture," she explains. On the same token, the exercise method targets the transverse abdominis, a muscle deep within the core that helps stabilize the lower back and keep you standing upright, says Jordan. Research agrees, as one small study found that participants who did a one-hour Pilates workout twice a week for 12 weeks had improved upper spine and core posture.

Increase Flexibility

The stretching involved in a Pilates workout can do wonders for your flexibility, says Jordan. In fact, a 2010 study found that folks who completed one hour of Pilates exercises twice a week for 12 weeks had significant increases in hamstring flexibility. And in a separate study on 32 individuals who completed one-hour Pilates workouts weekly, participants' fingertip-to-floor distance (think: in a forward fold) shortened by, on average, 4.3 centimeters after six months. (This test will help you find out exactly how flexible you are.)

Strengthen Joints and Improve Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Power through an in-studio Pilates class using a Reformer with a Jump Board, which allows you to "hop" horizontally on a padded surface, and you'll get your heart pumping without killing your knees. "You're sweating like crazy, you're out of breath," says Jordan. "But you're horizontal, or lying on your side or on your knees so that you're not taking the brunt of a jump, as you would on a concrete surface." (Reformer newbies will want to study this guide before their first trial run.)

Even at-home, mat-only Pilates workouts can do your joints some good. The exercise method targets and strengthens the vastus medialis oblique muscle, a stabilizing muscle on the inside of the thigh, directly above the knee, says Jordan. "If you are not conditioning that muscle, you are going to be prone to knee joint problems," she says. "So this is a great muscle to work on if you're a runner or if you spin — you can help protect your knees from your other workouts."

Regardless of the equipment involved, research shows Pilates can improve cardiorespiratory fitness. Exhibit A: A 2019 meta-analysis of nine studies, which researched the effects of both mat and machine workouts, found that Pilates increased V̇O₂ max or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during intense exercise. The higher your V̇O₂ max, the more energy your body can use, and the longer you can exercise, according to UC Davis Health.

Boost Confidence

A confidence boost may not be the most technical benefit Pilates has to offer, but it's one Herbert has noticed most among her clients. "These exercises are very difficult, and it's very hard to get the technique sometimes," she says. "But once you get that exercise, your eyes light up and your body lights up. It's like, 'If I can do this exercise, then what else can I do outside of Pilates that I thought I could never do?'"

The Best Pilates Workouts

Ready to increase your cardiovascular endurance and take your flexibility to the next level? Consider incorporating these Pilates workouts into your fitness routine. No matter which sweat seshes you put to the test, expect to leave your mat with a full-body, feel-good burn.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles