8 Ways Pilates Benefits Your Body
Whether you're looking for a stronger core, better balance, or a calmer mind, Pilates can answer your needs.
Celebrities love it. Some physical therapists incorporate it into their rehab sessions. Serious athletes do it too. Pilates has become a go-to workout for those looking to move better, look good, and feel amazing. In the past few years, so many people have become fans of the exercise regimen that the market research company Allied Market Research estimates the Pilates and yoga market will grow by nearly 12 percent from 2018 to 2025.
While Pilates often gets lumped in with yoga—which also brings a mental focus to a physical practice—the practice has its own set of principles and benefits. So, what is Pilates anyway? This guide breaks down what you’ll do in a Pilates practice and all the benefits you can gain from doing it regularly.
(Related: 6 Ways Pilates May Help You Lose Weight)
What is Pilates?
Created by Joseph Pilates, has been around since the late 1800s. It came to the United States from Germany in the late 1920s, according to the Pilates Method Alliance. You might associate Pilates with core work and moving at a controlled pace either on a mat or a machine. But at its foundation, Pilates is all about moving your entire body as one unit, with the core at the center of every movement.
“Pilates is based on the idea that we should be working all the muscles of the body together, in the way that they should be functionally engaging for really healthy alignment and really healthy human movement,” says Erika Bloom, a certified Pilates instructor and founder of Erika Bloom Pilates. And it leads to some really big payoffs: “A graceful, functional body that moves well will look the best, be the strongest, and be least prone to injury,” she says. “And if you work on coordination, joint function, postures, and alignment predominantly, you’ll see aesthetics of the body change accordingly.”
A Pilates practice can work for nearly everyone, from older adults looking for a daily movement regimen to teenage dancers supplementing their cardio workouts to gain strength, says physical therapist Vanessa Muncrief, owner of VMPT, a physical therapy and Pilates studio in Austin, Texas.
The practice is also great for rehabbing injuries. Take an ankle sprain for example. If you can’t put your full weight on your lower half, you can use the reformer—a machine with springs that lowers the impact of movements, even jumping—to take some of the pressure off. Pilates combines strength and stability while promoting a mind-body connection. It’s a whole-body approach that stands out from other forms of training, bringing lots of benefits for your physical (and mental) health. Here are the ways Pilates can benefit your body and mind.
Excellent core strength
“There are a lot of training methods that think core work is crunches,” says Bloom. “But that’s only working the muscles that pull us into flexion. That’s not how we want to function.” Instead, you want to strengthen all the muscles around the torso and improve both core contraction and lengthening.
Muncrief agrees and explains that in other forms of training in which you might do crunches, sit-ups, and twists, you’re not necessarily taught to properly contract deep core muscles. In Pilates, you are. One way she teaches students to contract the deep core muscles is by telling them to think about zipping up a pair of low-rise pants. The ab contraction you’d feel when you zip them up is the same activation you want throughout a Pilates routine. This deep core activation will come into play during everyday activities like lifting a baby or picking up groceries—even in other forms of movement, like resistance exercise and kettlebell training, Muncrief says. Practicing deep core activation will help you prevent injury when doing these other types of movement.
With its focus on the core, it’s clear Pilates can build strength in your midsection. But it’s not just your middle that gains strength and stability from the practice. Your entire body does as well, including your lower half. Research published in 2018 in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation shows that Pilates can enhance your balance and build strength in the legs, particularly in older adults.
Promotes mindfulness through breathing
Pilates starts with connecting to the breath, Bloom explains. “Our diaphragm is one of the primary core supporters and plays a role in posture,” she says. “So we make sure everyone is breathing well and letting movement follow the breath, rather than moving and breathing arbitrarily.” This way of breathing helps you move with intention because you’re thinking about your posture and flowing from exercise to exercise, Muncrief says.
Focusing on the breath brings mindfulness into your Pilates practice, allowing you to mentally remain in the present. The practice of deep breathing will follow you out of the Pilates studio and into daily life, Bloom says. This can bring a sense of calm to each day and help you be more present in each moment.
Improves your flexibility and mobility
Maintaining full range of motion in our joints is super important for flexibility, mobility, and moving with ease—especially as we age. Pilates supports that mission, Bloom says. To keep a full range of motion, your exercise regimen needs to include both flexibility and mobility training, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. What makes Pilates stand out is that you strengthen the muscles both eccentrically (lengthening) and concentrically (shortening), suggests 2015 research published in the journal Age.
“Yoga is quite static at the end range of motion,” Bloom says. That just means you’re often holding elongated postures. Pilates, on the other hand, lengthens to the point of muscle engagement and then moves back to shortening. So while you achieve the end range of motion, you also learn to move in and out of it with control.
A study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research supports the fact that Pilates improves flexibility, particularly of the hamstrings. This same study found that Pilates can also improve muscle endurance, specifically of the abs. That means you can work longer without hitting fatigue.
Other research, published in 2019 in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, found that Pilates helps with functional movement—you know, the kind of movement you use in your daily life. The study even found that Pilates is more beneficial than yoga in that regard. And research published in NeuroRehabilitation suggests that Pilates can help those with multiple sclerosis gain balance, muscle strength, and mobility.
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Keeps you engaged
With countless variations on Pilates exercises, you’ll rarely repeat the same moves. Pilates involves exercising on all planes of motion and in various positions and directions, Bloom says. Maybe you do extension and then rotation. Or maybe you start on your side and then move to your back.
“The original series from [Joseph Pilates] has hundreds of exercises, but when you create variations, there’s an infinite number of options, which is why it’s so effective,” Bloom says. “You’re constantly changing and not moving linearly.”
Helps with your posture
Feeling the effects of sitting at a desk all day, hunched over your computer? Pilates can help with that. Many of the exercises are done on your back, which helps promote a neutral spine and pelvis, Muncrief says. “Lying down on the reformer, you can’t sit with shoulders forward and head forward,” she explains. “You can’t fight gravity, so your head and shoulders have to relax back.”
Bloom says your Pilates teacher should offer tips on alignment throughout the class. That’ll help you learn where your body is, where it should be, and how to move to achieve ideal alignment. As you move with good alignment in a Pilates class, you’ll build the awareness you need to maintain good posture when you’re sitting, standing, and walking outside of the studio, Muncrief says. Bloom agrees, saying Pilates helps you regain more balance in your body, so you don’t have to consciously think about standing taller or pulling the shoulders back. It just happens. “We have to work those small, intrinsic muscles in the shoulders, hips, spine, and ankles, and stabilize them and bring awareness to balancing them,” she says.
(Related: 5 Stretches for Upper Back Pain)
Eases low back pain
With a stronger core often comes a reduction in low back pain, says Muncrief. Pilates tends to help with both. While more research is needed to support the idea that Pilates reduces back pain, some studies suggest that it can have a positive effect. For instance, a systematic review published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that Pilates provides pain relief.
Great for cross-training
Whether you’re a runner, swimmer, biker, or CrossFit lover, Pilates can round out your training. It offers a soothing alternative to more intense workouts, helping you get stronger from your limbs to your core. “I don’t think anyone should do just one type of exercise,” Muncrief says. “And Pilates is good cross-training for athletes or anyone active who’s looking to change their movement patterns and better their brain and body.”
Where can you do Pilates?
Muncrief says it’s a good idea to start Pilates with a private lesson so you learn the basic techniques, just like you would with tennis or golf. But you can also find more budget-friendly options online. Check out apps like Peloton, Alo Moves, and FitOn for Pilates workouts you can do right at home.
Now that you know about the benefits of pilates, find out if Apple Fitness+ can upgrade your home workout game.