What is Pilates?

The Pilates fitness method was founded in 1925 and was defined by the original Joseph Pilates as “the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure”. Joseph Pilates was regarded in Europe and the United States as a fitness expert well before he was 20 years old. He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including Yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By the time he was fourteen, he had developed his body to the point that he was modeling for anatomy charts.

The original Pilate’s class in New York City was considered a requirement for training and body sculpting for dancers appearing in Broadway shows. Joseph Pilates was highly regarded for his rehabilitation work through Pilates fitness. Many dancers, acrobats and circus performers were sent to him for conditioning through Pilates instruction. The Pilates body in motion, they quickly learned, was the body that would best move them through life and work.

Pilates is a full-body exercise system that uses a series of machines and exercises. It works the entire body, both the right and left sides, in unison. It focuses primarily on what Joseph Pilates called the "powerhouse". This is a group of muscles that begins two inches below your navel, goes two inches above your navel and then wraps completely around your front and your back-kind of like a corset. It also includes your buttocks. Joseph Pilates said, "practice your exercises diligently with the fixed and unalterable determination that you will permit nothing else to sway you from keeping faith with yourself." He didn't just teach core stability, this continues to be a misconception. The method is as much about mobility as it is stability and in fact it is about how to balance the two for normal function.

To understand Joe’s work, one has to understand the problem he was trying to solve. It was not a problem of saggy bellies, arms, and behinds alone. Rather, it was a problem of decreasing health due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles all around him. He knew that if he couldn’t fix everyone’s lifestyle, he could at least bring people back into their bodies. His mission was to show the world a way to physical health through better exercise, sleep, and hygiene practices.

It is noteworthy that much of what we consider to be “Pilates” was in fact around well before Joe. In the context of physical culture of his time, most of the exercises, the use of springs in training equipment, and his philosophies and theories around physical health were very common. But what truly set Joe apart — even compared to today’s standards of movement education — was his talent in engineering unique apparatus and furniture, and his holistic understanding of human movement.

Joe documented an incredible awareness of all of the body’s systems and their role in movement. According to him, the main reason to condition our muscles and connective tissues is to create space and support for our organs and joints to function better. He believed that as our modern lifestyles mess with our innate movement potential, cultivating improved physical function had to precede the acquisition of specialized strength and motor skills. Modern exercise science shows he was right, which is why training methods based on “natural”, bodyweight movement, and barebones gyms are back on the rise in today’s fitness landscape.

Of course we know that a movement practice benefits the entire body beyond the muscular system. But it’s important to know just how much Joe Pilates emphasized this all throughout his career. Pilates offers a method of communicating to people about their bodies, what they can do, what they should do and how to keep looking forward to the next challenge in a safe and appropriate way.

After conducting research on 40 patients who use Pilates as a form of rehabilitation following joint replacement surgery, Dr. Brett Levine, orthopedic surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, has co-authored the book, Pilates for Hip and Knee Syndromes and Arthroplasties. Seventy percent of the patients were extremely satisfied with their outcome after using Pilates. Dr. Levine believes Pilates is an excellent form of exercise post-surgically and pre-surgically because it is low-impact and strengthens the core, improves range of motion of joints and studies show it quickens recuperation time after injury.