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A Pilates Primer

“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.” Joseph H. Pilates, the founder of what we commonly refer to as “the Pilates Method” or just “Pilates,” used to share this belief with his students. In fact if Joseph Pilates had had his way, people all over the world would be practicing his exercise technique, which he originally named “contrology.”

Exactly what does this buzzword Pilates refer to? This article will give you a basic understanding of both the method and the man, and equip you to address general questions from your clients. You’ll also learn a few Pilates exercises you can easily include in your ongoing classes. Who knows? You may become so hooked that you choose to become a fully trained Pilates instructor!

Who Was Joseph Pilates?

First, a brief history of the man behind the Pilates Method: As a German national living and working in England
at the outbreak of World War I, Joseph Pilates became a political war prisoner and was placed in an internment camp. Confined in cramped quarters, Pilates, a boxer and an acrobat, developed specific mat exercises to keep himself strong and flexible. He taught these exercises to other prisoners, eventually catching the attention of the British military when none of his followers were stricken during an influenza epidemic. Pilates was removed from the barracks and put to work assisting with the physical rehabilitation of injured soldiers.

Being an innovator and a visionary, he tore apart some hospital beds, devising a way for the wounded to begin rehabilitation while lying on their backs. His hospital bed structure later developed into the equipment now known
as the “Trap Table” or “Cadillac.” After the war, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany, and in 1926 he moved to the United States. On the boat to America he met his wife, Clara, with whom he set up an exercise studio shortly after arriving in New York City.

Six Key Principles of Pilates

According to the late Eve Gentry, dancer, choreographer and Pilates elder (the designation for someone who trained directly with Joseph Pilates and carried on his work after his death), “Pilates is not just a series of exercises;
it is a concept, a philosophy.”

The Pilates philosophy includes six key principles. These principles emphasize simplicity and precision. As Deborah Lessen, a former Martha Graham dancer and the current owner of New York City’s Greene Street Pilates Studio, explains, “Simple exercises teach the participant how to work correctly.”

By understanding the key principles of Pilates and incorporating their message into any of your current exercise classes, you will add excitement, encourage results and enhance the mind-body connection that is necessary for full human movement potential.

Principle 1: Centering

In Pilates, all movements originate from the center of the body, which is located in the pelvis, just below the navel (inside). Anatomically, our center connects several large muscle groups and refers
to the musculature located deep within the abdominal area. From our center
we support our spine and major organs, strengthen the back and improve alignment and posture. With a properly developed center we are less vulnerable to fatigue and lower-back pain.

Visualize your center as a sphere. As you contract the muscles in this area, imagine the sphere shrinking in size—a three-dimensional movement. During Pilates exercises you and your participants want to maintain this contraction without holding your breath.

Principle 2: Control

In Pilates, control is essential to the quality of every movement. Overexertion of the muscles is not a principle of Pilates. Joseph Pilates often reminded his adherents: “Don’t use a 10-pound effort for a one-pound movement.” The underlying assumption is that exercise motions and movements performed without control can lead to injury, but exercises performed with control produce positive results.

Principle 3: Concentration

The mind-body connection is at the very core of Pilates, and the key to coordinating mind and body is concentration. In this discipline, the focus is on careful, precise and slow foundation work. Before you perform or teach a movement, organize your thoughts and cues to encourage full-body awareness. In class, ask your participants to follow your directions exactly with respect to detail. During each movement have participants stay aware, not only of the moving body part, but also of what the rest of the body is doing.

Principle 4: Precision

Movement precision builds on concentration. Precision is achieved by clearly moving, directing and placing the body and its parts. Realize and cue that every movement has a purpose and every cue or instruction is important to the success of the movement. Choose your words and visual cues clearly and consciously. Don’t just repeat catch phrases such as “navel to spine” or “Scoop your abdominals inward” unless you and your participants really understand such cues. Include all relevant details, but eliminate repetitive or confusing directions.

Principle 5: Breathing

Pilates, like yoga, calls for complete, thorough and purposeful inhalation and exhalation. But in Pilates, unlike in yoga, inhalation is through the nose and exhalation through the mouth. Conscious breathing and specific breathing patterns assist movement by focusing the attention and direction of the body and by delivering oxygen to the muscles being used. Full breathing also assists in removing nonbeneficial chemicals that may be stored in the muscles (Pilates 1945).

Visualize the capacity of the rib cage expanding three-dimensionally with each breath. In three-dimensional breathing, the ribs expand forward, sideways and backward during each inhalation. Pilates reminded practitioners to “fill [their] lungs from the bottom and empty them from the top.” Always remind your participants to breathe thoroughly and deeply during their exercise movements.

Principle 6: Flowing Movement

Dynamic fluid movement makes Pilates different from other exercise techniques. Smoothness and evenly flowing movement go hand in hand, assisting the connections (or transitions) between movements. An exercise should have a specific place where it begins and ends, with a seamless middle of precise motion emphasizing grace and control. Don’t allow jerky, quick or unclear movements in yourself or your participants.

As elder Gentry used to say, “The most important thing about exercising, next to the exercise itself, is how you do it. Remember that the body is a moving object. Every part of it, inside and out, is designed to move. Should movement be inhibited, stopped or misdirected, there is sure to be trouble. We should take as good care of our bodies as we do of our cars.”

A Creative Approach

Kathleen Stanford Grant, another Pilates elder and a movement teacher at Tish School of the Arts at New York University, says, “You must learn how to be a real and creative teacher. Have a language . . . that keeps people moving. Keep your teaching fresh through creative images.” By taking this advice to heart and incorporating the Pilates principles into your classes, you can give your participants a genuine mind-body exercise experience while eliciting positive changes in their bodies.

Focus on Mat Work

Mary Bowen, a Pilates elder and Jungian analyst who has been practicing and teaching Pilates for more than 45 years, informs us that “historically, work on the reformer (the primary piece of Pilates equipment) was the introduction and beginning to Pilates work. Only after experiencing the resistance of the springs on the reformer was an exerciser introduced to the mat.” Today, however, practicality reigns. Now most participants are introduced to Pilates through mat work. Starting with mat work instead of equipment has pros and cons.


  • Mat work is portable; you can perform the exercises anywhere.
  • Mat classes are less expensive ($15 or less) than private lessons (which run as high as $60 per hour) and less costly than an initial equipment investment.
  • An instructor who charges per participant can potentially earn more from mat classes than from private sessions with equipment.
  • No bulky equipment is required.


  • Participants must create their own resistance.
  • Participant safety and correct execution of the exercises are highly dependent on the instructor’s cues.
  • Many of the standard Pilates mat exercises are inappropriate for special populations, such as pregnant exercisers, people with osteoporosis and seniors. These groups need to modify the mat work or start on the specialized equipment.
Sample Pilates Exercises

Following are some basic foundation, or core, exercises you can incorporate into a stretching or strengthening section of your classes. Include three repetitions of each exercise. Be aware that these exercises will change the dynamic in a class, especially if you have just cooled down from an intense cardio segment. Use visual images and clear words to capture the attention of your participants. Get them to focus internally—staying in their bodies and out of their heads.

When you include these moves in a class, try using the following captions word-for-word as cues.

1. Percussive-Breath Warm-Up Focus

(Courtesy of Pilates instructor Kathy Stanford Grant)

A. Lie supine on the floor, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Knees should be hip width apart, feet in line with the knees. The angle at the knee joint should be approximately 45 degrees.

B. Peel the head slightly off the floor. Reach and lengthen the arms toward the feet. Focus on engaging the center (abdominals) and magnetizing the tailbone to the ground. Hold this position as you perform the following breathing pattern:

  •   Inhale; exhale. (Think of sniffing in through the nose and blowing out through the mouth.)
  •  Inhale; exhale. (Sniff; blow.)
  •   Inhale, inhale; exhale, exhale. (Sniff, sniff; blow, blow.)
  •   Inhale, inhale, inhale; exhale, exhale, exhale. (Sniff, sniff, sniff; blow, blow, blow.)
  •  Inhale x 4; exhale x 4.
  •   Inhale x 5; exhale x 5. On the fifth exhale, focus on a long, continuous flowing breath until you squeeze every last atom of air from your lungs.

2. Pelvic Curl With a Lift

A. Start supine on the floor with knees bent and feet on the floor. Hip bones, knees and feet are aligned. A small ball or rolled-up towel may be placed between the knees.

B. Inhale to prepare. Exhale and draw in the abdominal area as you curl the tailbone upward.

C. Keeping the movement smooth, lift the pelvis into a bridge. Sequential movement of the spine—one vertebra at a time—is important. Press evenly on the feet, feeling your footprints on the floor. Think of using the backs of the thighs to assist the movement. Lengthen the tops of the thighs. Engage the abdominal area throughout the movement. Do not curl too high or overextend the rib cage. Think of keeping the ribs soft and slightly down once you have reached the top. Hold for three counts.

D. Inhale at the top. Then exhale, returning to the start position by reversing the sequence used on the way up.

3. The Swan (Spinal Extension)

A. Lie prone on the floor with arms bent and hands placed just wide of the shoulders.

B. Exhale to prepare, then inhale as you think of pushing a marble across the floor with your nose. Keeping your nose turned up, allow the rest of your upper body to continue the extension and reach your head toward the ceiling.

C. Gently push into the floor with your hands and arms for support and lift up to a comfortable position. Do not straighten or lock your elbows as you extend your body. Make sure you contract the soft sphere of your abdominal wall and fully engage its muscles to assist with the lift. Hold the top of the range of motion for four counts. Do not hold your breath or release the abdominal area.

D. Once you’ve reached the top of the movement, inhale, exhale and return.

Kevin Bowen

Kevin A. Bowen is founder and president of the Pilates Method Alliance. He is also owner and director of the Inside Out Method, a Pilates studio and teacher-training facility in Miami.

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