An effective and low-impact workout, Pilates has been around for nearly 100 years, but has grown in popularity in recent decades. The unique strength training exercises work deep muscles and can improve everything from flexibility and balance to circulation and muscle control. Whether you’re just starting an exercise regimen or returning to workouts after an injury, Pilates is great for all levels of fitness, but is an especially good routine for beginners. Here’s everything you need to know about Pilates for beginners, including what equipment you need to get started and a complete workout plan, designed by fitness experts.
What Is Pilates?
“Pilates is a mind-body exercise that challenges your core and sculpts lean muscle,” says fitness instructor Cassey Ho, founder of Blogilates and author of protein-based cookbook Sculpt. Developed by Joseph Pilates, the exercise combines core stabilization, strength, flexibility, balance and proper alignment with concepts like mindfulness, breathing techniques and fluidity of movement.
The workout was initially designed to help injured athletes and dancers return to exercise in a safe manner and also maintain fitness moving forward. “All that pulsing paired with deep mind-muscle connection is what makes Pilates extremely effective,” Ho says.
Benefits of Pilates Will Inspire You to Fire Up Your Core
Ho says that one of the main benefits of Pilates stems from the fact that the workout strengthens your deepest muscles, which are much more difficult to target with other types of workouts. One of the biggest positive benefits is the intense core engagement, which Ho says hits the deepest parts of your abdominals. “A stronger core also helps with better posture which ends up making you look taller and more confident!” Here are just a few of the health benefits you can reap from practicing Pilates:
1. It increases core strength
Pilates is famously known for its emphasis on the core — the center of the body from which all movement stems. The core is all of the surrounding muscles of the trunk that when strengthened and pliable, support and stabilize the body.
Pilates improves core strength and function. Core strength is a key factor in decreasing back and hip pain, decreasing pelvic floor dysfunction, and is the area from which explosive movement derives, hence its nickname “the powerhouse.”
2. It improves posture
Your parents had the right idea when they told you to stop slouching and sit up straight.
Improved posture is the difference between weak, imbalanced muscles, headaches, shoulder or back pain, and sitting or standing tall with ease.
Pilates focuses on the full body’s alignment, ideal range of motion at the joints, and a balance of all opposing muscles. It improves posture by bringing awareness to your alignment and strengthening neglected postural muscles.
3. It decreases back pain
Pilates targets the deeper abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor to both contract and release — a true sign of strength. These muscles work like a brace to lift and support the organs and protect and stabilize the back.
4. It prevents injuries
Pilates balances the muscles of the body so that they are neither loose and weak nor tight and rigid. Muscles that are too loose and weak or too tight and rigid can make the body more susceptible to injury.
Pilates focuses on developing dynamic strength, which means you are better able to support and stabilize your joints while moving. Research has suggested that Pilates is an effective method for reducing injury risk in sport.
5. It increases energy
By focusing on breath, Pilates improves cardiorespiratory capacity. This stimulates feel-good hormones, oxygen flow, and blood circulation.
Pilates achieves all of this and, due to its low impact nature, rarely leaves you feeling fatigued. Instead, it gives you a boost of energy.
6. It enhances body awareness
Pilates is a mind-body practice that enhances proprioception, or body awareness. The attention inward and ability to focus on the sensations in your body heightens your awareness of comfort or pain, your emotions, and your surrounding environment.
With enhanced proprioception, the body is better able to respond to stimulus, which can prevent injuries and falls. Better body awareness may even help you prevent overeating, as you’ll be more in tune with your body’s hunger signals.
7. It decreases stress
Continuing from the benefit of body awareness, the inward focus and use of breath from Pilates can down-regulate the nervous system. This, in turn, can take you out of fight-or-flight mode, lower cortisol, and decrease stress over time.
8. It reduces menstrual pain
Dysmenorrhea is the condition of painful menstrual periods, and if you’re someone who’s experienced it, you know how debilitating it can be. Research has suggested that Pilates can help reduce menstrual pain.
9. It improves flexibility and mobility
First, let’s define the difference between flexibility and mobility.
Flexibility is the amount of passive stretch in a muscle. Mobility is the range of motion at a joint. Good mobility requires flexibility but also strength.
Mobility is something you should strive for, while flexibility in and of itself isn’t functional. You need a balance of strength and flexibility to optimize mobility.
A Pilates practice keeps moving with smooth transitions between precise and slow, controlled movements. Instead of stretching after a strengthening exercise, most Pilates exercises are a combination of the two, which improves strength, flexibility, and mobility
10. It improves balance
Balance is important at any age and necessary for everyday activities involving coordination, like walking, or any of life’s nonlinear movements, such as reaching up and twisting.
Pilates improves balance and gait not only through core strengthening but because of its focus on alignment and whole body exercises.
11. It boosts your immunity
Research shows that Pilates helps boost immune system functioning, especially in older adults
But while much research has been done on older adults, these findings suggest all ages could experience a boost to immunity through Pilates, mainly because of improved circulation.
Along with improved circulation comes improved immune system function. A good immune system is a function of properly flowing blood and lymph — both of which are boosted by Pilates
12. It improves cognitive functioning
Studies have shown improved cognitive functioning after Pilates training.
Several markers were assessed, such as new neuron development, blood flow to the brain, increased neurotransmitters, and longevity of neurons responsible for learning, memory, and executive thinking
13. It can improve motivation
Along with improved cognition, one study found Pilates was effective for improving motivation in a student population.
Another study explored the type of motivation that drives those who practice Pilates, and found that Pilates practitioners are more driven by intrinsic motivation rather than external validation.
14. It improves your sex life
Pilates can make a romp in the sack more enjoyable for more than one reason. First, it builds endurance, strength, mobility, and flexibility that can enhance your bedroom adventures by allowing you to get into and hold positions longer.
But also, Pilates is an effective tool for improving pelvic floor strength and function, and a strong pelvic floor correlates with increased sexual pleasure
15. It enhances sports performance
Whether you’re a professional athlete or weekend warrior, Pilates can elevate your sport or activity.
Pilates balances the body by strengthening muscles, mobilizing what’s rigid, and lengthening tight areas. This, in turn, enables you to react quicker and prevent injury.
Research performed on athletes in multiple sports demonstrates improved speed, gains in muscle mass and trunk strength, a more stable core, improved vertical jump, and better flexibility when kicking
16. It strengthens your bones
The current lifestyle of more sitting and less moving is detrimental to our health and our bone density. Strong bone density prevents osteoporosis and osteoarthritis and can affect people of any age.
Studies have shown Pilates to be effective in increasing quality of life, relieving pain, and increasing bone density.
17. It boosts your mood
Exercise of any sort offers that magical elixir of endorphins.
But studies that specifically explored the mood-boosting benefits of Pilates have found that subjects experienced a reduction in anxiety, fatigue, and depressive symptoms, and a release of negative thought patterns
18. It improves sleep
Studies suggest that Pilates can lead to better sleep, especially in people under the age of 40. One study found that postpartum women benefit from better sleep when adding Pilates into their weekly routine
19. It encourages playfulness
Last but not least, many people think Pilates is a fun change of pace from other workouts.
Where else can you “roll like a ball,” be a “seal,” hang like a “monkey,” or just play with trying new positions? Finding a sense of play can enhance your physical health in several ways
Not to mention, the most beneficial exercise regimes are those that you enjoy doing — because then you’ll keep exercising.
Pilates Tips for Beginners
“Pilates is perfect for beginners, or even someone coming back into fitness after some time off,” Ho says. “Literally every move has a modification, so you can take what you need and then level up as you grow stronger.” She adds that since Pilates is a low-impact form of exercise, it’s also easy on the joints.
Mat Pilates is also a great entry into fitness for beginners since it doesn’t require anything else besides a yoga mat, which means it’s easy to get started. “All you need to start is some space to move,” says Ho. “If you don’t have a mat, just find a soft and sturdy surface to lay on, like carpet. When you’re ready, you can add intensity with resistance bands, light weights, blocks or a Pilates ring.”
When it comes to specific Pilates terms and lingo, Ho says that as you practice you’ll quickly learn the names of the moves you love. Some common terms that you may hear frequently used in a Pilates workout include:
- Pilates stance: This movement involves heels together and toes apart.
- Midline: An imaginary line from your head to your toes that your instructor will cue you to “hug” to help with balance and engage your core.
- Tabletop: You begin a few core exercises in tabletop, laying on your back with your legs up in a 90° angle.
- Tuck: This just means a slight round in the low back to encourage good alignment and core engagement. Booty in, core engaged.
10-Minute At-Home Pilates Workout for Beginners
This short but effective workout is a great entry into Pilates and targets the abdominals. You can try this 10-minute Pilates workout at home right now — no special equipment required. Follow along with the video and read on for Ho’s specific instructions on how to properly perform each exercise.
1. The 100s
- Lay on your back, bend your knees and lift your feet off the ground, stacking your knees over your hips and keeping your shins parallel to the floor.
- Lift your head and shoulders off of the ground making sure to lift using abdominal muscles by pushing your ribs up and shifting them toward your hips to keep pressure off your head and neck and to keep abs engaged.
- Extend arms by your sides and pump them up and down, inhaling on a count of four and exhaling for a count of four.
2. Single Leg Stretch
- Lay on your back, bend your knees and lift your feet off the ground, stacking your knees over your hips and keeping shins parallel to the floor.
- Lift your head and shoulders off of the ground, making sure to lift using your abdominal muscles, pushing your ribs up and shifting them toward your hips to keep pressure off your head and neck, keeping abs engaged.
- Extend one leg and pull your opposite leg into your chest, then switch, alternating.
- Lay on your back with legs extended, inhale as you lift one vertebrae at a time, rolling your body up to a seated position.
- Then with control, exhale as you lower back down one vertebrae at a time. To modify this move to be less intense, bend your knees and grab the back of your legs for support as you roll up.
4. Single Leg Drop
- Lay on your back, bend your knees and lift your feet off the ground, stacking your knees over your hips, keeping shins parallel to the floor.
- Drop one foot to the floor, lightly tapping your toes, then alternate with the other leg.
5. Double Leg Lift
- Lying on your back, extend both legs into the air and exhale as you drop both legs towards the floor (but make sure to stop when your legs are in line with your hips). To modify, bend your legs.
- Start on all fours with knees directly under your hips and hands directly under your shoulders (to increase intensity shift forward slightly).
- Lift knees off the floor, keeping your hips in line with your shoulders and not lifting up too high.
- Brace your belly and breathe.
How to Continue Your Pilates Journey
In addition to in-person workouts at your local Pilates studio, there are a variety of on-demand and live Pilates classes available through workout apps and Youtube workout channels.