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The Power of Pilates

Feb/08/2022 / by KT Hall
Image credits: Shutterstock

The Swan. The Elephant. The Hundred. No, the topic is not your favorite zoo animals or that new TV series. It’s Pilates.

Emphasizing certain body movements, these workouts are more about controlled movements and not a bunch of crunches (so rule that out, too). Designed to help increase flexibility – at any age, Joseph Pilates, the German inventor of the popular, low-impact body stretches, summed it up best: “We retire too early, and we die too young; our prime of life should be in the 70s, and old age should not come until we are almost 100.”

If you’re looking for a workout you can do at home that doesn’t require lifting weights, or heavy cardio, you might want to try Pilates. The movements are based on specific body positioning and breathing techniques that can help tone, strengthen and tighten your muscles. And, with so many variations, all you need is a towel or mat to get started!

Let’s explore these Contrology or barre-type exercises and how to introduce them into your daily fitness routine (alongside your cardio and other exercises).

Is Pilates the Same as Yoga?

If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young” ~ Joseph Pilates

Pilates uses your body weight and extremities in controlled moves to condition and strengthen your abs and pelvis. And, no, these strengthening exercises are not the same as yoga. Pilates emphasizes your body movements while yoga focuses on the mind, body and spirit connections.

Engaging the transverse abdominal muscle group, these barre-type exercises focus on building your core through controlled pressure and slow, methodical movements. Hence, the mechanics can help you engage smaller muscle groups in your strength training workouts or with cardio.

As Pilates sculpts your muscles, you don’t have to worry about getting bulky like you might with lifting weights. A lot of dancers, models and actresses do Pilates stretches to improve their flexibility, physical condition and posture.

Celebrities and athletes also do barre stretches and use reformers. They include Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson, tennis player Andy Murray and NFL stars Brandon Cooks and Calvin Johnson.

Does Pilates Include Cardio? Why Do Pilates?

A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion” ~ Joseph Pilates

Pilates is a low-impact workout. Hence, it does not focus strictly on “getting in a good sweat” and getting your heart rate pumping like with Zumba or your spinning class. The cardio in these exercises is different as it’s often quite a rigorous workout that requires a great deal of concentration. While heart-healthy, the emphasis is more on conditioning and toning your muscle groups.

When deciding between yoga, general gym workouts, swimming or Pilates, there are several reasons to try the latter.

These include:

  • With thousands of modifications and versions and regardless of age, anyone can do Pilates.
  • Pilates for beginners is available and you can advance to more difficult positions.
  • Because your abs and back are the powerhouses of your body, these movements use your arms and legs to help strengthen, define and tone your body. You will also have a more supportive spine.
  • As a way to improve your posture, Pilates exercises can give you better balance and stability as you focus on your spine, pelvis and gait.
  • Pilates decreases stress, helps you unwind and can lower your heart rate, cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • While focusing on breathing (like yoga), these movements can lead to increased energy as you increase the flow of oxygen.
  • With an emphasis on the mind/body connection, Pilates can help you center and channel your thoughts.

At Home or in the Gym?

Patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavor” ~ Joseph Pilates

Pilates can be done at home or at the gym. If you want to do Pilates at home, you can use a mat or towel and a mirror as these are the only requirements.

When done at the gym, there are large pieces of equipment called reformers that you will use for Pilates. While some gyms carry this equipment, if yours doesn’t, look specifically for a Pilates studio in your area.

If you prefer to do a Pilates workout at home, you can also purchase your own Pilates reformer which might run on the low end for $750. On the high end, these wood machines and the various equipment packages they include can run from $4,899 to $7,649. Before you start shopping, use these tips on how to buy a reformer.

What are Pilates Exercises Like?

You will feel better in ten sessions, look better in twenty sessions, and have a completely new body in thirty sessions” ~ Joseph Pilates

In exploring the degree of difficulty, the exercises below are a medium. Meaning, they require concentration and focused breathing. Hence, you will constantly move your extremities to activate and engage your core muscles.

While most will find these workouts intense, they’re not designed to build up a sweat (but you will feel those muscles burn!).

Where to Start Pilates Classes

A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion” ~ Joseph Pilates

A typical class might cost $50 for private sessions or up to $30 for group classes. While there’s no licensing required to teach a class, shop online for an instructor and read their reviews. You want someone you can build a rapport with, especially if you are seeing them a few times a week.

Are you looking for Pilates exercises for beginners? Click on the YouTube links below to view sample exercises, or you can buy or download a DVD online for $10-$20. However, there are hundreds of videos online that are free, like this beginner Pilates video.

Pilates Precautions

Before any real benefit can be derived from physical exercises, one must first learn how to breathe properly. Our very life depends on it” ~ Joseph Pilates

Always consult a physician before starting any new workout regimen and avoid Pilates if you have an injury, pain or had recent surgery on your knees or back.

For Pregnant Women

Have a Pilates program you want to start? Ask your doctor first and avoid positions in your second and third trimester where you lie on your back, which can decrease your baby’s blood flow.

Give this prenatal Pilates pregnancy video a try.

Back and Knee Injuries

Because Pilates strengthens the muscles in your thighs, it can prevent you from developing certain types of knee injuries and arthritis. It’s also an ideal exercise for those with mild pain in their low back as these movements can create a more supportive base.

Here are a few lower back pain exercises to explore. Or, try these if you are using a reformer.

Diabetes and Arthritis

Pilates may not be ideal for people with certain types of diabetes. While increasing your muscle mass might improve your body’s use of glucose, those with diabetic retinopathy may need to avoid certain positions.

Pilates may be recommended for those with arthritis, as it can improve your joint flexibility and balance and help you maintain your body weight. Take a look at these gentle Pilates arthritis stretches.

Taking a Pilates Class

The mind, when housed within a healthful body, possesses a glorious sense of power” ~ Joseph Pilates

Unlike other workouts (cardio, ab exercises, etc.) where you can pick and choose the exercises you want, some instructors might ask that you do barre exercises in exact order. That way you have warm-ups or prep work for more challenging movements.

Generally speaking, each Pilates workout should take about 45-minutes to complete and you can do them 3 to 5 times weekly in addition to your cardio as these are not aerobics exercises.

If you do a Pilates routine on your own, do the movements in front of a mirror to help you maintain the correct form and to reduce the risk of injury.

Pilates for Beginners at Home: Sample Pilates Exercises

Change happens through movement and movement heals” ~ Joseph Pilates

Interested in Pilates exercises at home? Below are a few examples. Select from a couple of the warm-up stretches (at least 2 to 3) before choosing the more advanced moves.

Ab Scoop

Like crunches that target your core (rectus abdominis), you can work your way to a six-pack. They differ from crunches because you draw in and then slowly curl your abs up and down. See the ab scoop in-depth.

Ball Rolls

For improving mobility in your spine and abs, stay curved over by engaging your core (not gravity from leaning backward). Watch the beginner ball roll on a mat with an instructor.

One Leg Circles

These target the hip flexors, abs, and quads, to expand your range of motion. Use controlled movements and save the rocking and rolling for your background music! See single leg circles with an instructor here.

Open Leg Balances, Rockers or V Sit-Ups

To improve mobility in the hamstrings and abs, hold this position with your back and core engaged. The key is keeping your legs and arms straight. Practice makes perfect. Watch an instructor explain open leg rockers.

Side Kicks 

This pose absolutely relies on your core to tone your inner thighs and legs. However, don’t let your chest and ribs sink into the floor. See side-lying tips here.


A deep side stretch, the twist here is keeping your hip down when you stretch to the side. Watch mermaid with an instructor versus reformer mermaid.

Planks / Front Support

Targeting the arms, shoulders, abs and back muscles, the goal is keeping your body stiff in a linear plane. A tip? See an instructional plank and remember to squeeze your glutes while engaging your legs for added relief. You can plank us later!

Roll Down the Wall

For better posture, incorporate this hamstring, back and ab stretch into your regimen. Who doesn’t need a good stretch? Watch wall roll downs for hip and back pain relief.


With the emphasis on your back, thighs, hams and obliques (side muscles), level your hips as you twist. And, draw in your core and keep it engaged when reaching forward. While similar to a corkscrew or spine stretch, see other saw mat exercise differences here.

Swan Stretch

An intermediate ab and back muscle maneuver, use this counter stretch toward the end of your forward flexing routines. Watch swan stretch with an instructor.

The Hundred

Targeting the abs, breathe deeply into your lower ribs with your abs drawn in. Use your ab muscles to hold your weight (not your shoulders or sensitive neck muscles). Have 5 minutes? Try the Hundred ab workout.

The Roll-Up

A great ab warm-up, focus on engaging your core, not the momentum or your quads (don’t cheat!). Need help? Let an instructor help you roll with it.

Continue your fitness journey on by checking out Best Arm Workouts