If your fitness routine has been feeling a little stale, trying a new kind of class can make it feel fresh again. Taking a Pilates class might be a good way to expand your fitness horizons, whether we’re talking about a class done on the mat or on a reformer.
Pilates is very versatile—while you certainly can do it in a gym or studio now that most are opened back up, you definitely don’t need to. If in-person exercise isn’t something you feel comfortable with quite yet, or even if you just want to acclimate yourself to the exercise type before joining a public class, there are plenty of streaming or virtual Pilates options too.
Regardless of which way you attend the classes, trying Pilates can be a workout game changer, no matter your fitness background.
“Pilates will meet anybody’s needs to improve their movement in a graceful way, and at the same time make it extremely challenging,” Gabriela Estrade, a certified Pilates instructor and ACE-certified personal trainer based in New Jersey, tells SELF. “You can make so many variations of the same exercises that it stays fresh.”
Want to know what it’s all about? Here’s everything a Pilates newbie needs to know to enjoy their first class.
What is Pilates, anyway?
Pilates is a form of low-impact exercise that aims to strengthen muscles while improving postural alignment and flexibility. A typical Pilates workout tends to be 45 minutes to an hour long, Sonja Herbert, a Pilates instructor and founder of Black Girl Pilates, tells SELF.
You can do Pilates with or without equipment (more on that below), but no matter what, expect the moves to involve slow, precise movements and breath control.
Pilates moves tend to target your core, although the exercises work other areas of your body as well. “Pilates is not restricted to specific body parts,” Herbert says. Yes, many Pilates moves focus on your core and trunk, but that doesn’t just mean your abs. “Although Pilates is specifically defined as exercise for the core or abdominal muscles, it is important that clients know that the core includes the entire trunk, which is the abdominals, the hips, the inner and outer thighs, and the back,” Herbert explains. And many Pilates instructors mix in moves specifically meant to engage areas like your arms, glutes, and lower legs. So expect a workout that works your entire body.
What are the benefits of Pilates?
“Pilates is a full-body exercise method that will help you do everything better,” Herbert says. “It strengthens and stabilizes your core body, which is your foundation, so that you can move efficiently while improving your posture, flexibility, and mobility.”
And if you’re looking for functional movement—the kind that helps you move better on a day-to-day basis with everyday tasks—Pilates can train you in that too. A 2018 study of 90 people published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that participants who practiced Pilates for one hour three times a week for eight weeks improved their scores on a functional movement screen, which measures things like balance, stability, and mobility, more than people who did yoga instead (or who didn’t exercise at all).
Then there are the muscle benefits—especially in the endurance realm. One 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that people who did one hour of Pilates twice a week for 12 weeks reported significant increases in abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility, and upper-body muscular endurance. The researchers theorize that the scapular stabilization cues throughout the moves (when you’re told to bring your shoulder blades together or down), combined with the increase in core strength and endurance, can translate to upper-body strength improvements.
Like other forms of exercise, Pilates has also been found to have a beneficial effect on mental health. A 2018 meta-analysis of eight Pilates studies found that those who practiced Pilates reported a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue, as well as an increase in energy. “Pilates is all about mind-body connection, and can be a great introduction to both physical and mental endurance,” says Estrade. (Of course, no form of exercise is considered a treatment for mental health conditions, and improvements don’t occur for all people—meeting with a mental health professional is still an important step if you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or other issues.)
Ready to start a Pilates practice? Here are a few things to keep in mind for your first class.
1. Pilates can require equipment, but it doesn’t need to.
There are two types of Pilates: mat Pilates and reformer Pilates. Classes are either based on a mat, which is a tad thicker than your standard yoga mat (to cushion pressure points) or a machine called a reformer, which is a sliding platform complete with stationary foot bar, springs, and pulleys that provide resistance.
Both options focus on the concept of control rather than cranking out endless reps or achieving muscle exhaustion. In Pilates, your muscles are working to lift against gravity and (in the case of the reformer) the resistance of the springs or bands, with the ultimate goal of strengthening and isolating the right muscles. Your goal should be to take your time with the exercises, focus on the task at hand, and connect to your breath.
“The reformer experience is maybe the most fun you’ll have in a Pilates class,” Heather Andersen, founder of New York Pilates, tells SELF. “The machine gives you added resistance and a sliding surface that challenges your workout. It often feels like you’re flying or gliding.”
There are also a few other pieces of Pilates equipment you might want to be aware of, though they probably won’t show up in most beginner Pilates mat classes.
The most common pieces of equipment are the Wunda, a low chair with padding and springs, the Cadillac (which looks a little like a bed with a canopy frame and is used in various ways for advanced students), the spine corrector, the high chair, and the Magic Circle, a ring you often use between your legs to create resistance. “In most class settings, you will typically use the reformer, the chair, Magic Circle, spine corrector, and a smaller version of the Cadillac called the tower unit,” says Herbert, who advises beginners to take a few private lessons, if possible, to safely learn how to use the equipment before signing up for a group class.
Regardless of what class you choose, make sure to let your instructor know you’re a beginner. This way, they’ll be able to keep an eye on you throughout the class and offer modifications or form adjustments.
2. Many beginner classes will feature the same group of exercises in each class.
There is an established set of Pilates moves that are common in beginner classes, Herbert says. They include:
- The Hundred (a breathing exercise that also targets core strength and stability
- The Roll-Up (a slow, precise move that stretches the spine and the back of the body and strengthens the abdominals)
- Leg circles (which strengthen the hips and core stabilizers)
- Rolling Like a Ball (which massages the spine and opens up the back)
- Series of 5 (a group of moves that strengthen the abdominals and back muscles)
Then as you get familiar with the moves, your Pilates class can build on them, offering progressions to continue to challenge your muscles.
“For example, the Pilates Hundred exercise can be enhanced with a ball between your ankles to add more connection to your midline,” says Estrade. “In Rolling Like a Ball, a ring between your ankles can challenge your stability.”
3. You can get a good Pilates introduction at home, virtually.
If you feel more comfortable trying out a new exercise modality in the comfort of your home rather than acclimating yourself in a public, in-person class, you can get started with Pilates virtually.
“Virtual classes can be very ground-level and authentic, and can introduce you to studios where you can attend live classes if you feel comfortable later on,” says Estrade.
There are also a bunch of fitness apps you can use for a Pilates workout:
- Peloton ($13 per month)
While this app is probably most known for its cycling classes, it also offers Pilates options. “The classes are convenient, well-paced, and easy to access, making them perfect for those who like all their exercise activities—cycling, weight training, yoga, HIIT—in one place,” Estrade says.
- Centr ($10 per month)
This app, created by actor Chris Hemsworth, has a four-week yoga and Pilates program called Centr Align (taught by yoga expert Tahl Rinsky and Pilates instructor Sylvia Roberts) that is suitable for beginner to intermediate levels.
- Open ($20 per month)
Open offers Pilates classes in addition to breath work, meditation, and yoga for an all-encompassing mind and body routine.
- Obé Fitness ($17 per month)
Take a live Pilates class or do one of hundreds in the on-demand library, where you can sort classes based on your fitness level, class length, and more.
4. You’ll feel your muscles burn during class, and you might be sore the next day.
While you may not be crushing high-intensity exercises like squat jumps or lifting heavy dumbbells, the mostly bodyweight routines that Pilates classes offer can be pretty intense. Take the aforementioned Pilates Hundred, for example. A core-focused move that involves less than two inches of constant movement will make your abs burn. A good instructor should give you modifications so that you can perform each movement with good form (another reason to introduce yourself as a beginner before class starts).
Dedicating your entire focus to even the smallest movements means that you’ll work the muscles that each exercise intends. And that means you can be dealing with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after your workout.
“The soreness of Pilates is different from the burn you get from pulsing in a barre class or throwing around a kettlebell,” Estrade says. “It’s a more subtle soreness, where you sometimes find muscles that you didn’t know you had.” For instance, your inner thigh muscles can be hard to hit in other kinds of exercise, but Pilates tends to isolate them well—so you may experience some unexpected soreness there.
But if your muscles are feeling it, don’t fret: While next-day soreness may be at a whole new level after your first week, your body will get more used to the movements with time. Being sore the next day just means you’re challenging your muscles in new ways or working muscle groups that don’t usually get much attention—it’s not something you should “chase,” or the marker of a successful workout.
5. There’s some lingo involved.
Every workout from barre to CrossFit has its own set of terminology, Pilates included.
“I love the language of Pilates, and a great teacher will use cues in a way that brings your anatomy and movements to life,” says Estrade. “The connection of hearing the words, visualizing the exercise, and performing it can be transformative and inspiring—and like learning any new language, there is always lingo.”
For Pilates, know that your powerhouse refers to the center of your body, where all of your power comes from to execute movement. Peel through your spine means slow movement from vertebra to vertebra. You’re also likely to hear certain instructional phrases. “Cradle your head in your hands” allows your cervical spine to be supported in your arms. “Tuck your chin toward your chest” helps you to initiate your deep abdominal muscles and take your head and neck out of the equation. And finally, “Slide your shoulder blades down,” will help lengthen your back by opening up your shoulders.
Don’t fret over all these new phrases, though: You’ll get used to them with time.
6. The right clothes can make you more comfortable.
Even if you typically prefer loose-fitting workout wear, you may want to try more body-hugging options for Pilates classes. “This way, the instructor can see your movements better and your clothes don’t get caught in springs or other equipment,” Carrie Samper, national Pilates training manager at Equinox, tells SELF. Capris or leggings may be a better option than shorts, which can ride up during the moves where you’re lying down and moving your legs above you, she says.
As for footwear, you can either be barefoot or wear socks for your session. Most studios have their own suggested protocol. Find it on the studio’s website, ask the front desk when you check in for your class, or call beforehand so you know before you get there.
If you’re going to go for socks, find yourself a pair with rubber detailing on the soles so you don’t slip on the mat or machine. A barefoot or socks-only approach will also help you navigate in and out of the straps on a standard reformer with ease.
7. Pilates should be a part of a well-rounded workout routine.
Even if a studio offers unlimited classes for the first week—or if you have unlimited access to them on your app—don’t plan on hopping into a class every day. Your body needs a day or two to recover from fatiguing resistance exercise such as Pilates.
“Pilates stretches, strengthens, and aligns your body all at the same time,” says Samper. “With that said, it also complements every other fitness endeavor because it prepares your body to move better in every way. Adding it into your routine will help you lift heavier weights, run faster, swim with better form, or even achieve that elusive arm balance in yoga.”
Just don’t go overboard with Pilates, though—even if you fall in love with it, resist the urge to make it your only exercise. Cross-training (like taking the time to run or weight train, in addition to Pilates) is important, no matter which exercise modality you consider your main type.
“If you are a marathon runner, the stretch and lengthening from Pilates will help with off-day recovery and injury prevention,” says Estrade. “For those same reasons, it can be the perfect complement to free-weight training.”
For instance, Estrade adds Pilates exercises to her warm-ups to prep her muscles for what’s to come in her strength session, and includes them as finishers to help really burn out the muscles afterward. “I’ve seen how the core-strengthening and controlled, thoughtful movements of Pilates helps all that,” she says.
8. It’s important to guard against injury, especially when you’re just getting started.
Mild or moderate soreness isn’t serious, nor is it something to worry about, but it’s possible that you can injure yourself with Pilates. Overdoing it on Pilates, especially if you’re new to working out in general, can over-stress your muscles, particularly if you don’t give them ample recovery time before your next class.
Lower back strain—think, an achy or sharp pain in your lower back, which can radiate down your butt and thighs—can be a common Pilates injury, especially if your form isn’t on point during the moves. You may also experience rotator cuff tendinopathy, where you may feel pain and reduced mobility in your shoulder joint as you move, which can be a result of repetitive movements, Estrade says. Whatever the injury, if you feel pain or impeded mobility that persists past the day or two of simple DOMS, you should pause your Pilates routine and consider seeing a doctor or physical therapist.
While no one can 100% prevent injury in any kind of exercise, there are some ways you can protect yourself when getting started with Pilates. For instance, start with a beginner class that will help you learn basic Pilates movements, says Estrade. She also encourages you to go slowly and focus on the mind-body connection, which can help give you insights into your own body. Finally, consider taking a private lesson (especially if it’s your first time on a reformer) to help you feel more comfortable and confident. And, of course, like with any type of exercise, a proper warm-up is key.
“The basics of exercise still apply: Start low and go slow,” says Estrade.
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