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The Pilates Chair: From Classical to Contemporary

This versatile equipment can meet a wide range of needs, from postrehabilitation to athletic conditioning to small-group training.

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The Pilates chair—or “wunda chair,” as Joseph Pilates called it—is a powerful piece of exercise equipment. Its small size belies its remarkable ability to build core stability, upper-body strength and lower-body power to improve performance in athletes, retrain the body after injury and increase overall physical conditioning. Although it’s been part of the Pilates system for many years, the chair is currently experiencing a new level of interest as a great tool for teaching clients either individually or in small groups.

The Evolution
of the Pilates Chair

The chair was originally designed as a home exercise machine for New York City apartments. Early designs converted easily from a chair you could sit on to a wunda chair you could exercise with. The equipment was very simple, consisting of a seat, a pedal and springs that attached to the pedal to adjust the resistance. Joe incorporated the piece into his Pilates system at his Eighth Avenue studio in Manhattan, where he also worked with the mat, reformer, cadillac, barrels and small apparatus. He used the chair to rehabilitate clients with knee injuries and to train more advanced clients in full-bodied, acrobatic exercises. Joe’s background in gymnastics was reflected most clearly in the chair exercises. Men often preferred this apparatus because of its emphasis on
upper-body strength.

Along with the wunda chair, Joe also designed a high chair, which included pads to adjust the seat height, boards to align the legs when stepping up onto the seat, a back to keep the knees in line with the toes, and handles to assist a client in the more challenging exercises. Key elements of the high chair—such as the handles—have made it into today’s chairs, while other elements are used less often.

After Joe Pilates’ death, the chair fell into disuse as most of the students who carried on his work focused on the mat, the reformer and the cadillac. Of the Pilates elders who trained directly with Joe, Kathleen Stanford Grant is considered the most knowledgeable on the chair. Most classical chair exercises that we know today were passed down by her or through the archival photos and videos of Joe teaching on the chair. More recently, as the popularity of Pilates has grown, interest in the chair has revived, and many innovations have been added to the simple machine that Joe built:

  • A split pedal allows reciprocal action of the limbs, as in walking and climbing.
  • The chair’s height on some models now matches that of the cadillac,
    enabling beginning or injured clients to use the table’s support for more challenging exercises.
  • The number of springs on some chairs has increased from two to four, offering a wider range of resistance options.
  • Newer, lightweight models make chair use convenient in health clubs and multipurpose spaces.
  • The addition of resistance tubing has expanded the repertoire of chair exercises.

Today, a Pilates chair is available to suit any need, from postrehabilitation to athletic conditioning to small-group training. Programming and exercise options have also expanded, turning the chair from a specialty piece into a full-body conditioning machine. Its size and portability make it an ideal addition to a crowded Pilates studio, personal training gym or group exercise room. Whether you are a fully trained Pilates instructor looking for inspiration, a personal trainer seeking to add a new and effective training tool to your toolbox or a group exercise instructor wanting to take your Pilates teaching to the next level, the chair is a wonderful tool.

Pilates Programming
on the Chair

Of all the pieces of Pilates equipment, the chair offers the most athletic challenges. There are numerous intermediate to very advanced exercises, in addition to essential exercises for beginners. To perform the more advanced chair exercises well, you need good upper-body and leg strength, scapular and pelvic stability and a strong core. Unlike moves on the reformer or the mat, most chair exercises are performed while sitting or standing, which provides an excellent environment for functional and athletic training for clients at any level of ability. This makes the chair a choice Pilates entry point for men and women used to “feeling the burn,” as well as for deconditioned clients needing to develop basic strength, coordination and balance. The chair is very effective for creating sport-specific programs for skiers, runners, bikers, soccer players and basketball players, as it develops explosive leg power integrated with core strength and good biomechanics.

Because of the chair’s simplicity and adaptability, its programming can be as varied as the imagination of the instructor. Here are a few of the experts who are making the Pilates chair their own:

Master instructor Elizabeth Larkam, director of Pilates and Beyond at Western Athletic Clubs, San Francisco, teaches innovative programs on the chair for clients recovering from hip and knee replacement, dancers healing from an injury and athletes of all kinds who want to improve their performance. She is creating new exercises on the chair by combining its natural versatility with small props, such as rotator discs, to retrain balance, strength and good biomechanics.

Valentin, of Pilates Body by Valentin in Dublin, California, teaches men-only classes on the chair and has a regular following of local businessmen who like the physical challenge offered by this equipment. Reflecting on the chair’s popularity with men, Valentin points to the athletic nature of the exercises, their upper-body focus and the fact that limited flexibility is not a barrier to success—as it can be on the reformer.

Tom McCook, director and co-owner of Center of Balance in Mountain View, California, uses the chair in group classes and for training Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Natalie Coughlin. He finds the flexibility and functional exercises on the chair allow him to create specialized programs that positively impact athletes’ performance.

Rachel Battaglia, group exercise director for Triton Sports Center in San Antonio, launched a very successful EXO® Chair group program in June 2008. At this time, she offers eight classes weekly, with eight to 10 participants in each class. New programming options are always important to a health club’s success, and chair classes have given new visibility to Triton’s Pilates program. The chair’s economical size is also an advantage for multipurpose studios.

Sample Exercises

The exercises that follow illustrate the unique properties of the chair as it relates to preparing the body for both athletic and day-to-day activities.

This is a basic chair exercise that builds leg strength, pelvic stability and core strength. It is appropriate for anyone with relatively healthy knees. With light resistance it is great for building functional leg strength for anyone who is having trouble getting out of a car or off the couch. With stronger resistance it is used to strengthen the legs for increased power in jumping, running or cycling. The focus is on maintaining good leg alignment and pelvic stability.

Cues. Sit on front edge of chair with feet on pedal, and press pedal down. Keep pelvis in neutral by staying right on top of sit bones, and don’t flex or extend spine as legs move. Line up legs so hips, knees and ankles are in one line.

The lunge is a more advanced exercise that focuses on leg strength, pelvic stability, balance and coordination. It is extremely valuable for building the strength needed to go up steps, hike or run uphill, or increase the power of the down stroke in cycling. It can also be used to challenge balance and stability. For clients recovering from a knee injury, this exercise—with extra resistance on the pedal—can be used for support once they are past the acute stage and are working to regain strength or to return to athletic activities. The focus is on maintaining good leg alignment while the legs are under load.

Cues. Press pedal down with one foot until it is on chair base. Place other foot on chair seat. Use handles, end of cadillac or wall for support and balance, if needed. Keeping pelvis level and hip, knee and ankle in line, step up onto seat without allowing knee to move beyond toe. For beginning version, keep supporting foot on pedal; for more challenge, rise all the way up onto top leg.

Pull-ups are a wonderful full-body exercise that works the core and develops scapular stability and upper-body strength in coordination with the lower body. For athletes, dancers, yogis and gymnasts it can be used to build upper-body strength for inversion exercises, such as handstands, walkovers or handsprings. For regular clients this move helps build a strong upper body for lifting groceries and getting children in and out of car seats. The focus is on deep abdominal engagement, scapular stability and spinal alignment.

Cues. Stand on pedal and place hands on back or sides of chair top. Engage abdominals to lift pedal. Keep pelvis level, shoulders stable and abdominals deeply engaged as pedal moves up and down with control.

Chair Training

Pilates chair training is included in any comprehensive Pilates instructor-training program offered by a reputable company. Many companies also offer chair training as a stand-alone module with a prerequisite of Pilates mat and/or reformer training. To teach the chair well requires a good understanding of how the body and the equipment work, as well as an ability to sequence a class or session to benefit the client or clients in front of you.


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Nora St. John

Nora St. John, education program director for Balanced Body University, has been teaching Pilates for 20 years and loves to introduce new people to its many delights!

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