An Introduction to Pilates

While eating a healthy, balanced diet, and taking steps to boost our immune systems is of the utmost importance, it’s also key to take care of our mental health as well as our physical health. So why not think about giving Pilates a go?

Pilates is a form of exercise that benefits the mind as much as the body, and is something that can be practiced just as easily from home as it can from a studio. To find out more, have a read of our introduction to Pilates.

1. What is Pilates?

First things first – what actually is Pilates? Pilates is a form of low-impact exercise that aims to strengthen the body evenly in order to improve general fitness, flexibility, posture, and wellbeing. Pilates was first developed in the 1920s by German physical trainer Joseph Pilates, who believed that mental and physical health were closely connected. Because Pilates requires you to move in a very precise and exact way, it’s also described as ‘a thinking way of moving’.

Pilates is based upon six principles: breath, concentration, control, precision, centre and flow. Also known as the ‘Body Control Method’, Pilates has a particular emphasis on core strength and works by developing our awareness of our own strength and mobility. Each action in Pilates is deliberate, and every stage of movement, from start to finish, is important. Ultimately, Pilates strengthens and stabilises your core, and enables you to move more efficiently while improving your posture, building lean muscle, and expanding your range of motion.

To get an idea of how Pilates works your core, have a watch of the video below.

2. Who can do Pilates?

One of the best things about Pilates is how accessible it is. The slow, gentle movements make this form of exercise ideal for everybody, and Pilates is suitable for all ages, abilities, and fitness levels. Pilates is also very versatile, and exercises can be easily modified to provide either a gentle strength or a vigorous workout. For this reason, it’s just as suited for beginners as it is for people who already exercise regularly.

Pilates is especially recommended for people who suffer from posture-related back pain, sports injuries, repetitive strain injuries, and stress. If you’re a total beginner, it’s recommended that you start with some of the more basic exercises – then, once you’ve got to grips with these, you can move on to more challenging moves. Although Pilates is suitable for everyone, if you have unstable blood pressure, a herniated disk, severe osteoporosis, or are at risk of blood clots, it’s best to check with your GP before starting to practice Pilates. To find out more, check out this YouTube video by Trifecta Pilates.

3. What are the health benefits of Pilates?

While Pilates focuses on core strength, it trains the body as an integrated whole, which means it provides whole-body fitness. Because of its similarities to yoga and emphasis on breathing, Pilates can also have powerful benefits for your mental health as well as physical. So what are some of the potential benefits of practising Pilates?

  1. Good posture. Pilates can help you achieve, and then maintain, good posture. Good posture depends on good alignment – and that requires a strong core. People who practice Pilates often have excellent posture, which is especially beneficial if you suffer from back pain.

  2. Muscle tone. Because Pilates involves working muscles you might not use on a daily basis, practicing it regularly can help to change and sculpt your body. Pilates is known for creating long, strong muscles, which can help you look fit, as well as feel it. Pilates works especially well for people who are usually quite sedate and have lost some muscle tone.

  3. Flat abdominal muscles. Pilates focuses on strengthening your core, which includes the muscles of your back, pelvic floor, and abdomen. When you have a strong core, the frame of your body is better supported, and your neck and shoulders can relax, because your core is doing the work. One bonus of working your core and learning to pull your abdominal muscles in, to get the most from your exercise, is that it promotes strong, flat abs.

  4. Flexibility. As we get older, we usually lose some of the flexibility we enjoyed when we were young. But practising Pilates can gently help to restore your flexibility. While Pilates doesn’t involve as many contorted positions as yoga, you’ll still be bending and stretching, and as a result, your range of motion and overall flexibility should improve.

  5. Improves your balance. Encouraging better posture isn’t the only way Pilates can improve your balance. Because Pilates promotes a mind-body connection that helps you become more in tune with how your body moves, it can also improve your balance. Building strength and balance is particularly useful for avoiding injuries from falls.

  6. Reduces stress. The way you breathe can have a significant effect on your stress levels and mind, and because Pilates is so focused on breathing techniques, it can help relieve stress. Plus, because Pilates requires total concentration, you’ll probably find you become fully engrossed in your movements and won’t be able to think about anything else – and worries or concerns that were previously weighing you down will fade away.

  7. Provides a general sense of wellbeing. According to Joseph Pilates, practising Pilates encourages “the complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit.” When the mind and body unite, it can provide you with a powerful sense of wellbeing, happiness, and calm, and so Pilates can be just as beneficial for your mental health as practices like mindfulness and yoga.

4. What’s the best way to start practising Pilates?

There are two main types of Pilates – mat Pilates and apparatus Pilates. Mat Pilates sometimes involves equipment like weights, resistance bands, foam rollers, and gym balls, but it can also be done with a single mat. Apparatus Pilates requires expensive specialised Pilates equipment, so if you’re just starting out, it’s best to begin on a mat. Once you’ve mastered the basics and are sure you want to continue with Pilates, you can then look into investing in some specialised equipment – or signing up for some apparatus Pilates classes once lockdown is over.

Buy a mat

So what’s the best way to start practising Pilates at home? First, you’ll need to buy a Pilates or a yoga mat. Pilates mats are usually slightly thicker than a standard yoga mat, to cushion pressure points, but if you already have a yoga mat at home, you can probably still use it – just ensure it feels thick enough that your spine is supported. If you’re just starting out, a mat is the only piece of equipment you’ll need – as the most important thing is getting confident with the basic movements and breathing techniques.

Find an online Pilates class for beginners

There are plenty of Pilates classes and courses available online, but YouTube is one of the best places to start. If you want to start off very gently and not push your body too much, check out the Introduction to Pilates course by the NHS. Made up of gentle, slow-paced classes, and focusing on low-impact movements, these classes are a great way to learn the basics of Pilates without risking injury. Classes like these can be perfect for people who have a low fitness level, or past injuries and/or health conditions.

For something a bit more challenging that’s still aimed at total beginners, check out the free 30-minute beginner workout by Cassey Ho from Blogilates; one of the leading online Pilates instructors. This video might not be new (it was posted way back in 2011) but it’s known to be one of the best online classes for people new to Pilates and covers all the fundamentals, from breathing to posture to form. The Blogilates channel has countless videos aimed at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, so it’s worth browsing their videos and seeing which ones are right for you.

Alternatively, check out the 20-minute Pilates workout from Kait at PsycheTruth, which works the legs, glutes, abs and arms while building overall body strength and teaching you the basics. If you prefer a male instructor, or want to try a class that’s specifically aimed at men, have a watch of this 15-minute mat workout from John Garey.

For something a bit more in-depth, you may want to check out Pilates Form by Tela Anderson. Over the course of six 30-minute classes, you’ll learn how to engage your core and control your movements, and will be getting to grips with classic Pilates exercises like the single-leg stretch, Pilates roll-down, spine stretch, and more. While Tela Anderson’s courses aren’t free, the good news is that you can do a 14-day free trial, and have the chance to delve into the course and see if you like the teaching style. If you do, you can sign up for a yearly plan for £15 a month, and gain access to hundreds of Pilates, yoga, and meditation courses that you can do from home.

However, there are thousands of free Pilates classes and courses on YouTube, so before you pay for any lessons, you might want to get a feel for Pilates on YouTube first – you can just have a browse and see which channels and instructors you like best. Have a watch of the video below to see what a Pilates class aimed at over 50s looks like.

5. Consider joining an in-person class when it’s safe to do so

Because Pilates involves precision and lots of careful movements, most people do benefit from in-person teaching when they’re starting out. It might not be possible right now, but lockdown won’t last forever, so you may want to find some classes to attend once gyms and fitness studios reopen. To make sure you’re in safe hands, head over to Pilates.co.uk and check out their directory to find classes near you. All Pilates studios, teachers, and instructors featured on the Pilates.co.uk website meet or surpass the UK standard.

Pilates is usually taught either in a dedicated Pilates studio with apparatus, or in an open area with mats. Because of their technical nature, apparatus classes should be taught on a one-to-one basis for beginners, while mat classes shouldn’t have more than 12 participants, to ensure attention is given to everyone. So what’s the right Pilates class for you?

If you’re already pretty fit and are keen to try Pilates for the first time, a group class might be best. Group mat classes sometimes involve other pieces of equipment like hand weights and resistance bands, although they have a focus on using just bodyweight alone to improve strength and stamina. However, if you want to take a more personal approach to learning Pilates, either due to injury, inexperience, or a lack of confidence, a private Pilates class may be a good place to start. Then, once you’re feeling more confident, you can move onto group classes or learn from home.

Mat classes are generally recommended for beginners, as they don’t require getting used to special equipment like apparatus classes do. However, some apparatus classes are suitable for beginners, particularly those that use a machine called a reformer – a sliding platform with a stationary foot bar, springs, and pulleys providing resistance. To see what reformer Pilates looks like, have a watch of the video below.

Final thoughts…

Just like mindfulness and yoga, Pilates is about uniting the mind and body, and practising it regularly can return many positive health benefits. If you’re looking to build lean muscle, improve your flexibility and balance, gain mental clarity and improve your core strength, Pilates can help you achieve these goals – and the great thing about it is that you can start at home and go at your own pace.

Like anything else, Pilates takes practice, and it can take a few sessions to get to grips with the basics – but the rewards can be so powerful it’s absolutely worth persevering. If you’ve ever thought about trying Pilates, now might be the perfect time to start.

Have you tried Pilates before – or do you already practice it regularly? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave us a comment below or join the conversation over on the Rest Less community.

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