History of Pilates:
What is Pilates:
Who does Pilates:
Why has Pilates been so popular with dancers?
What is the difference between Pilates mat classes and studio
or apparatus work?
How soon will I notice a difference?


Joseph Pilates was born in 1880 in Dusseldorf, Germany. A sickly child, Joseph suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. A strong determination to overcome these illnesses and to improve his physical health and appearance bred a keen interest in body conditioning. The result of this determination was that Pilates became an accomplished skier, diver, gymnast and boxer.

In 1912 Joseph Pilates left Germany for England to train as a professional Boxer, supporting himself by teaching self-defence to English detectives. His boxing ambitions soon ended with the outbreak of the First World War where he was interred as an ‘enemy alien’ at a camp in Lancaster. While in the camp Pilates continued to instruct in self-defence as well as bodybuilding. Interestingly none of his trainees in the camp died in the influenza epidemic that killed thousands in England that year. He was later transferred to the Isle of Mann where he worked as a nurse; it was at this time that he designed exercise aides for bedridden patients using bedsprings and pulleys. These basic implements have since evolved into the Pilates equipment used today. Indeed it was this experience that inspired Pilates to design the ‘reformer’, a piece of exercise equipment now central to Pilates based studio work.

After the war Pilates returned briefly to Germany, where his exercise method gained favour in the dance community notably among Rudolf Von Laban and Hanya Holm. However concerns about the political situation and requests that he train the German army in his technique meant that he left for America. On the way to America he met his future wife and business partner Clara and by 1923 Joseph and Clara had established their studio in New York. Once in New York Pilates was able to fully develop his overall program of physical fitness exercises, and he coined this method ‘controlology’. Influenced by the early Greeks Pilates emphasised the role of the conscious mind as well as the body in his technique. A sound knowledge of anatomy and exercise experience underpinned and continues to underpin the development of the technique.

Once established in New York Pilates attracted the attention of dancers and dance studios including Martha Graham and George Ballanchine and his technique and exercises were to spread quickly among the dance world. In 1945 his book “Return to Life through Contrology” was published. Pilates however did not reach the UK until the 1970s and it is only in the more recent past that Pilates has started to become recognised and respected among the general population.

Pilates is an exercise technique that uses controlled and coordinated movement. The technique improves muscle control, coordination, flexibility, strength and motor sequencing. It aides posture, breathing and balance, increases body awareness and efficiency of movement, creates a toned and elongated physique and protects the body from wear and tear and injury. Strengthening the ‘core’ or the stabilising muscles of the torso is fundamental. Pilates is particularly good at promoting recovery from injury, the rehabilitative qualities leading to the technique’s increasing popularity and promotion by physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors and medical professionals.

Pilates is often described as having a mind-body connection. As Pilates involves relearning mis-learnt subconscious movement patterns and relocating long forgotten muscles, the ‘mind’ part of this essentially means concentration, that is, you cannot ‘mindlessly’ exercise. You learn to relearn movement patterns and to focus on the muscles you want to use, which with practice will become more automatic, allowing application of the principles to everyday life as well as progression on to more complex and challenging movements. The apparatus and exercises will not necessarily activate the muscles for you: you do this yourself.

The focus in Pilates is on the quality of movement at an individual level. It is safe and relaxing, yet is as challenging as the individual requires, meaning Pilates is suitable for a wide range of populations and ages with varied goals (e.g., fitness, dance, sport specific, rehabilitation, pregnancy, aesthetics and retention of functional movement). Over the years Pilates has evolved as a technique. As well as complimenting and drawing from a number of different disciplines (e.g., dance, yoga, gyrotonics, the Alexander technique, physiotherapy, exercise science) the technique continues to evolve to incorporate the latest research findings from medicine and exercise science.

Historically, participants have been dancers and athletes in training or rehabilitation, however, the functional and aesthetic benefits have meant that Pilates is now reaching a much wider population, becoming popular with actors and celebrities, those with general fitness and rehabilitation goals, those aiming to correct postural malalignment and poor movement patterns as well as older age groups wanting to retain strength and mobility. Additionally, Pilates is particularly helpful with a number of medical conditions such as osteoporosis, arthritis, fibromyalgia, respiratory problems, incontinence and RSI to name a few.

Pilates is similar to and shares benefits with a dance/ballet technique. Think of a professional dancer (male or female) with a strong torso, flat stomach, long neck, no tension in the shoulders, great balance and fantastic range of arm and leg movement, someone who is very much in control of their body. They have spent years pracitising a technique similar to Pilates. Don’t worry you won’t be performing pirouettes but you’ll be working towards a dancer’s body control and toned elongated physique!

The essential differences here are the approach to teaching Pilates, a group versus an individual basis and the use of specialised apparatus (see comparisons below).

  Studio Work Mat/Allergro classes
  Personalised tuition Group tuition (clients do the same exercise at the same time)
  Individualised programme adapted as client requirements change Everyone has the same programme however programme levels may be set (basic, int, adv)
  Sessions are semi-private 1-5 clients per instructor Up to 10 clients per instructor
  Designed to cater for individual needs Caters for individual needs with difficulty
  Uses some mat work as well as special apparatus (reformer, trapeze table, combo chair etc) and studio aids (therabands, balls…) Mat work only, may include some studio aides (therabands, foam rolls etc)
  More or less assistance, resistance and exercise intensity can be easily created using the machines (e.g, using spring resistance, changing the centre of gravity, size and base of support and lever length) Resistance and assistance levels are less flexible as you must rely largely on body weight, gravity and lever length.
  The machines and the personalised attention make it easier to increase exercise complexity, challenging coordination, dynamic strength and flexibility Time constraints and lack of individual attention mean exercises are kept comparatively simple
  Range and type of movement more easily challenged with use of machines Range and type of movement tends to be restricted by flexibility constraints
  You don’t feel you have to ‘keep up’ with others Some people find it motivating to work in a group
  Excellent for rehabilitation Not generally suitable for rehabilitation
  You can only do some of the exercises at home Once confident with the technique, you can do the exercises at home
  More expensive Less expensive


This depends on a number of factors such as your current level of fitness, level of body awareness, the frequency of your visits (and amount of homework you do :-) ), and how you apply what you learn outside the studio environment..