Pilates Principles, Apparatuses and Benefits | 2016 Guide to Pilates

Jessica Lewis
October 24, 2016

Pilates is a physical fitness system invented by Joseph Pilates, a German physical trainer. While developing the technique, Pilates named it ”Contrology”. The term of Pilates was adopted later on, when the method reached the United States where trainers, aware of its efficacy, decided to promote it. Pilates is practiced worldwide nowadays. Various surveys show that Contrology was not initially well-received, with little 5000 people declaring to practice it in 2001. Ten years later the number drastically increased. In 2011 there were about five million people in the United States only who integrated Pilates in their daily activities. Despite its growing popularity, there are little studies related to Pilates’ health-related benefits. Specialists claim that Pilates is a technique with a questionable effect on back pain or muscle strength improvement. It is unsafe to regard Pilates as a possible treatment for any medical condition in the absence of proper research projects and clear evidence.

History of Pilates

When Joseph Pilates first developed the Pilates method he was far away from both his native country, Germany, and his miserable childhood physical condition. Joseph Pilates was born into a family whose life philosophy revolved around the body’s health. His father was a prize-winning gymnast and his mother a naturopath who had the belief the body could heal without the help of external factors. His parents’ principles contributed to Pilate’s future invention to a great extent. Pilates had a frail body during his childhood years. The boy’s muscular structure was weak. He also suffered from rheumatic fever and asthma. Fortunately, he could benefit from his father’s support who introduced him to gymnastics, boxing and jujitsu. By the time he left Germany, he was already a self-educated expert in bodybuilding, yoga and gymnastics. In 1912 he moved to England. A few years later he was interned along with other German citizens in an internment camp. This did not impede the young Pilates from strengthening his body. He became versatile in wrestling and started teaching other people various techniques that presumably would make them stronger during his stay at Lancaster Castle. The authorities moved him soon afterward to another camp on the Isle of Man. There, he perfected his method and named it “Contrology”, a term related to the mind’s role in controlling the muscles. Pilates had a strong faith that insufficient breathing and bad postures actively contributed to poor health. He started studying yoga even more intensely, becoming rather passionate about its holistic principles.

The Pilates technique was enhanced by an equipment Pilates named the “apparatus”. Each device was designed to encourage the process of stretching well as increasing the core strength following mat work. In fact, mastering the mat program was an essential element for the technique’s efficacy rate.

Joseph Pilates published two books during his lifetime: “Your Health: A Correcting System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education” In 1934 and “Return to Life through Contrology” in 1945. Neither of the two books illustrated the types of exercises promoted in Pilates. The system’s inventor had the belief that if people wanted to heal themselves they would turn to Pilates. That is why he chose to focus on his views on naturopathy and overall life philosophy instead. Pilates was more than physical movement. It pointed towards the mind’s role in this entire process and how the brain cells would benefit following their stimulation by physical exercises. Pilates centered on the individual’s well-being and his capacity to master his body all by himself. The Pilates method is not yoga, gymnastics or physical therapy but a sum of elements from each of them. Joseph Pilates sought to promote the “mind over matter” as a life creed and managed to do so, judging that millions of people from all over the world take Pilates classes a century after the system’s invention. Few of the first exercises developed by Pilates himself are integrated with today’s techniques. Neither Pilates nor his disciples took care to document the original method or principles. As a result, what people acknowledge as Pilates at the present moment is a variation of exercises that has common elements with the initial system but is in no way identical to what Pilates had first developed.

Recently, specialists have started to become more interested in the subject. It is well-known that Pilates strengthens the muscles, stabilizes the core part of the body and makes the body more flexible. This is done through repeated strong muscular contractions combined with deep breathing. New studies show that Pilates benefits the body in terms of strength and flexibility and may be efficient in improving the musculoskeletal system of pre-menopausal women and ballet dancers with a spinal deformation. Additional studies indicate that Pilates may positively affect self-image and emotions. Even so, the results of all these research projects are either insufficient or not clear enough as to show the Pilates’ mechanism of action and how it affects the body and mind.

Nevertheless, Pilates practitioners do not pay much attention to these details because Pilates has proven to be practical and beneficial for many of them. While men are a significant part of daily classes, the method is more popular among women who seek to strengthen their bodies and tone up their muscles for a nice physical aspect. The media sources promote the exercises as a means to enhance health and beauty. That may be one of the reasons why so many women choose Pilates over other types of workouts.[1]

Pilates Principles

When he developed the Pilates technique, Joseph Pilates based it on the following principles: centering, breath, concentration, control, precision and fluidity. After the death of Joseph Pilates in 1968, Romana Kryzanowzka became the system’s leading promoter. Two of her students, Gail Einsen and Frank Philp Friedman, published “the Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning” in 1980. It was the first modern book on Pilates that described Joseph Pilates’ original principles and brought the exercises into the lives of millions of Americans through clear and easy to follow steps.


pilates_300x503According to Joseph Pilates, centering refers to the body’s core where most energy is stored and sent towards other body areas. The center is the point on which practitioners focus when performing the exercises. Trainers and teachers alike affirm that the core is represented by the group of muscles in the center of the body. This included the area or abdomen, hipbones, lower and upper back, buttocks and inner thighs. Joseph Pilates labeled the core the “powerhouse” of the body. Soon afterward, the term became synonymous to those of center and core in the medical and fitness communities as well. The base, understood from the inventor’s perspective, was similar in shape to a box delimited by two lines, the first one stretching from one shoulder to the other while the second line connected the left hip joint to the right one. It was essential to include the shoulders and hips in the Pilates routine for the exercises to be more efficient. In addition, Pilates took things even further and added the arms and legs as active parts in the method’s development. What people see today in Pilates studios is the technique perfected by Pilates that includes the core, arms and legs. All Pilates movements begin from the center and move towards the body’s extremities

Core stabilization was of utmost importance for Pilates. He regarded it as the principal responsible for the body’s strength and stability. In spite of this, current studies show that no element in the core’s structure is more vital than another. Moreover, the limbs have an importance of their own. Pilates exercises cannot be correctly performed without them. The technique’s effectiveness is given by a sum of factors that focus on the core but do not ignore other elements such as mental focus, breathing and regular practice. An exercise must be executed with patience and correctness and repeated for as much as possible. Research projects show the connection between core strength and lumbar spine stability. Specialists affirm that stability is best obtained when engaging the entire spinal musculature. The core benefits from the exercises that stimulate the upper and lower back muscles.


Aside from the core that he deemed as the body’s powerhouse, another essential element of Joseph Pilates’ method was breath. In his second book ”Return to Life through Contrology”, Pilates dedicated an entire section of his introduction to the importance of a correct breathing process. He stated that correctly performed breaths were fundamental not only to the Pilates method but as a part of everyday life also. In that passage, the reader notices the impact his childhood had on his life perceptions. Raised by a mother who followed the path of naturopathy, it was only natural for the young Pilates to offer it equal attention. Naturopaths firmly believe in the body’s ability to heal through various internal processes, breathing included. Pilates sought to increase blood oxygenation and promote its circulation throughout the body. Full inhalation followed by forced exhalation was the key to his method. Pilates stressed the importance of keeping the lower abdominals close to the spine by drawing the navel towards it. The breathing must be performed by directing the air into the lower ribcage, the back and sides of it more specifically. The exercises are done with rhythmic breathing and deep air inhalation and exhalation.


Throughout his life, Joseph Pilates focused on a single principle that represented the main pillar of his method and a personal creed: mind over matter. In other words, it is the mind that controls the body. The body is able to do anything one sets his intention to as long as the mind remains focused. Pilates required from its technique’s practitioners full concentration on the moves, breathing rhythm and mental attitude. In Pilates, unlike in other workouts practiced by the general public, the manner in which an exercise is executed is more important than the exercise itself. Correctness is the key. Furthermore, being committed to every single movement helps one gain the most benefit from the Pilates workout. Concentration is vital for a strong mind-body connection. One can do as many repetitions of an exercise if the mind is present and attentive to other factors such as right posture or rhythmical breathing.


Control is directly related to the practitioner’s capacity to concentrate on an exercise. Body control can be easily achieved if the mind is focused and the movements are done from the core. Complete muscular control leads to safe and correctly executed actions. Full attention is required as not to injure the body. This way, the Pilates method is no longer about the exercise’s intensity and a number of repetitions but safety. Joseph Pilates based his approach on this principle of muscle control, as seen from the technique’s name, Contrology.


Precision is essential to correctly executed ePilates exercises. It is often times regarded as the element that distinguishes Pilates from other types of traditional workouts. Many techniques practiced by Pilates trainers are not very different from the exercises included in other workouts. Still, the manner in which they are executed is. Pilates focuses on doing precise and perfect movements even when performed a few times, then many repetitions performed without attention. Quality over quantity is what many Pilates teachers believe in. precision requires full core stability and involvement which may be followed by the integration of other body muscles like those of arms or legs.


There are no isolated moved in the Pilates system. The body acts as a whole and every movement is natural and connected to another one so there is no pause between repetitions. All exercises are performed without rigidity because they are designed according to the body’s mechanism of action, one characterized by ease and fluidness.[2]

Studies suggest that Pilates exercises offer improvement in pain and functional ability when compared to similar physical activity methods. Pilates depends on external factors such as the base of support and gravity effects. The core is the central element in Pilates so is essential for it to be strong. To strengthen it, experts recommend the development of muscular endurance to prevent any kind of injury and enhance the core components.

The Pilates system focuses on the importance of a neutral body posture that implies the alignment of the pelvis, scapulae and spine. The joints are stacked, the pelvis leveled and the lumbar and thoracic curves neutralized. The majority of Pilates movements require this type of alignment to be correctly performed. It is important to adopt the posture to avoid possible complications.


Joseph Pilates was a nurse-physiotherapist to his fellow inmates at the Lancaster Castle when he started developing the Pilates technique. At that time he was already educated in many workout types including those of boxing or yoga. In addition, he was familiar with the concept of anatomy and aware of the human body’s capacity to regain its health and strength. He designed the first apparatuses from objects found at Lancaster Castle such as bedsprings, bed frames or footboards. Wisely combining them, he created a resistance-type equipment for disabled patients. These early models represent the predecessors of today’s equipment found in Pilates studios. The most used ones are: the reformer, Cadillac, wunda chair, high chair, magic circle, pedi-pull, ladder barrel, small barrel, baby chair, mat, breath-a-size, spine corrector and toe corrector. The equipment requires total core strength, whole arm and leg strength and full concentration.

Benefits of Pilates

Various health and care associations deemed the Pilates method as having little effectiveness on health improvement. In 2015, the Australian Government’s Department of Health published a review of seventeen alternative therapies to determine if any of them was efficient enough as to be covered by health insurance. Pilates was included on the list of treatments with insufficient evidence and improper studies conducted on its capacity to help alleviate pain or other medical issues.

Researchers stated that Pilates might enhance body stability and core strength if the exercises are correctly executed. There is evidence that Pilates may provide greater benefits than other workout methods. Despite the specialists’ opinions, Pilates enjoys great popularity at the present moment. Any of the twelve million practitioners can confirm that the technique is practical and full of advantages. Here are some of the benefits of practicing Pilates:

  • Improves muscle strength: there is a single constant of the Pilates technique that has passed the test of time- the importance core muscles hold in properly executed exercises. All the body parts engaged during a Pilates session remain contracted throughout the exercise. The muscular tension combined with a movement’s repetition leads to lean and strong core muscles.
  • Improves flexibility: this can be done either through simple Pilates exercises or with the equipment’s help. Frequent stretches elongate the muscles and improve body movement fluidness. The majority of regular workouts tend to build bulky muscles, thus decreasing flexibility and increasing the risk of injuries. Brazilian specialists conducted a study to show to what extent Pilates exercises can improve flexibility. The participants, all women, were asked to perform twenty Pilates sessions. At the end of the study, they became 19.1% more flexible. Pilates is an excellent way to help the body feel loose. Many people that practice yoga have made the transition easier through the Pilates system.
  • Improves posture: Pilates is all about control and the capacity to concentrate for extended periods. It is easily understandable how through constant practice, many of the habits developed during a Pilates workout can be integrated into the everyday life. Correct body posture in Pilates is vital. The body should be aligned and correctly contracted for a higher efficacy degree. The spine is one of the body parts that benefits the most after a session. Naturally, the body will maintain a good posture without the need of constant reminders.
  • It can ease back pain and strengthen the back muscles: Pilates exercises rely on a strong core in order to be correctly executed. The core was described by Joseph Pilates as having the shape of a box being composed of the thoracic cavity, abdominal muscles and those along the spine. The stronger the core, the better the back condition. According to a study published in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, patients who practiced Pilates for only four weeks in a row experienced more relief than those who tried medical treatments. This is valid only for people with back pains due to muscular tension or minor skeletal system problems. The more severe cases require a specialist’s advice. It is not safe to execute any type of workout if one’s health condition does not allow it.
  • Improves concentration: movements executed during a Pilates session need the practitioner’s full attention. Pilates requires focusing on the breath that should be rhythmical, on the way the body parts are aligned and how easily the movements flow. Furthermore, the Pilates exercises include several repetitions so it is almost impossible to execute them if one is not entirely present correctly.
  • It is good for the joints: the majority of exercises included in the Pilates technique in implemented in a reclining or sitting position . This way a negative impact on the body is unlikely to occur. Many physical therapy facilities use Pilates together with other healing techniques to ease a patient’s rehabilitation. Pilates movements are slow so they put minimal strain on the joints while improving their mobility. Pilates equipment can be used as well in these cases.

Pilates is a great workout system. Studies may deny its effects on the individual’s health status but the millions of Pilates practitioners can contradict them any day. The technique includes body resistance training or yoga postures as Joseph Pilates was visibly passionate about them. The workouts are not as challenging as one would expect them to be. Most of the positions are executed white sitting and constant pressure is put on the core muscles only as to strengthen them. The joints and skeletal system are not negatively affected in any way. Pilates is more popular among women. It keeps them in shape without bulking them up and provides numerous benefits, both physical and mental. Regular Pilates workouts improve body control and focus. Practitioners regard Pilates as a way of life. Luckily, many studios offer classes for people interested in reaching their full potential.