So you want to do Pilates?

By Sophie Mendelson


In recent years, Pilates has become very popular. This program of exercise, which once induced wrinkled brows and a whole slew of creative pronunciations, is now familiar fare to the fitness savvy across the country—and they’re hungry for more. It’s now possible to find Pilates classes listed in many gyms and fitness centers, as well as spin-offs from “piloxing” to “yogalates.” While it’s wonderful that programs are so much more widely available than they once were, the proliferation of the Pilates name has led to something of a decoupling of the word “Pilates” from the authentic system of exercise invented by the man, Joseph H. Pilates, for which it was named.

Here at Excel Pilates DC, we’re committed to the power and depth of the original Pilates Method of Body Conditioning, a highly evolved and in-depth program designed to empower all participants to be in control of their own health and wellbeing. This is the Pilates that’s had a meaningful impact on Lesa McLaughlin and the Excel Pilates staff, and it’s the Pilates that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of our clients every day. We believe that if you want to do Pilates, then you should do Pilates.

But with all of the options out there, it can be challenging to discern Pilates-inspired workouts from the real deal. That’s why we’ve created this guide: to help you identify the spaces and teachers that will empower you to practice Pilates authentically. Read on to discover eight things to know when choosing a Pilates program that will offer you the highest quality experience!

Authentic Pilates is…

1) …the system of exercise invented by Joseph H. Pilates

Joseph Pilates began designing the Pilates Method of Body Conditioning in 1902, and continued to expand the method throughout his lifetime. As a child, Joe suffered from a variety of ailments including asthma and rickets. Determined to take control over his health, he became a student of exercise. By the time he was a young man, Joe had developed his skills as a gymnast, diver, skier, and boxer. Interned in England during WWI, Joe designed exercise techniques to accommodate wounded soldiers, emphasizing the abdominals and back muscles in order to help patients build strength and flexibility. To this end, he invented several pieces of equipment, still in use today, that use springs to generate muscle conditioning. Upon moving to New York in the mid-1920s, Joe and Anna Clara Zeuener—commonly known simply as Clara, and thought to be Joe’s wife—opened the first Pilates studio, and the method soon became popular within the city’s dance community. Joe began referring to his method as “Contrology,” and promoted his system as universally beneficial to all participants of any fitness background.

2) …a method that utilizes the full range of exercises and equipment attributed to the original work of Joseph Pilates.

Authentic Pilates can be instructed through the use of:

  • Mat work
  • Reformer
  • Cadillac
  • Wunda Chair
  • Barrels
  • Arm Chair
  • Electric Chair
  • Guillotine
  • Magic Circles
  • Hand weights or small dumb bells
  • Toe Tensometer
  • Neck Stretcher
  • Foot Corrector

These apparatus comprise the range of equipment and exercises developed by Joseph Pilates during his lifetime. At absolute minimum, an authentic Pilates studio will offer instruction in mat work, Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, and Barrels.

3) …taught by well-trained instructors.

In order to provide students with the highest level of experience, knowledge, and safety, it’s essential that Pilates instructors have practiced extensively at a personal level as well as completed a comprehensive Pilates teacher training program. Teachers who are dedicated to the mission established by Joseph Pilates in his original work will be versed in all of the exercises included in the Pilates Method, as opposed to an isolated set of exercises, and will build their understanding through continuing education study throughout their careers.

4) …practiced with full concentration in a studio environment.

Pilates entails the integration of mind and body—a challenging task requiring the utmost concentration. To this end, the Pilates Method is maximized through one-on-one or small group sessions conducted in a focused studio environment (this means no music). A studio is traditionally a place where you study art, and a Pilates studio is a place where exercise is practiced as an art form. Additionally, as a place of study, the studio invites practitioners to actively engage with the Pilates Method as students, rather than passively receiving the teacher’s instructions.

5) …constructed through the systematic layering of exercises.

Pilates is about quality, not quantity. The method builds from the foundation of the powerhouse in order to work the whole body with the goal of achieving optimal function. Pilates emphasizes alignment and symmetry, as well as flow of movement: students learn to transition efficiently between exercises and to execute transitions and repetitions with a specific rhythm. When designing a session, the teacher gradually extends the sequence to include a greater number of exercises while maintaining the same number of repetitions as the student advances.

6) …exercise.

Pilates is a system of exercise designed to work the entire body through a method that is by nature high-intensity but low-impact. It offers many health benefits, from improved strength and flexibility to better balance and alignment. While many doctors recommend Pilates as a method of staying in shape or as a component in a process of rehabilitation, Pilates is NOT physical therapy. It is a form of exercise with therapeutic benefits and has the potential to make a lasting impact on students’ health and wellbeing.

7) …for EVERYONE.

The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning is designed for, and accessible to, ALL PEOPLE. That includes people of all genders, all ages, all levels of fitness, and all abilities. It’s for runners, dancers, skiers, baseball players, yogis, mall walkers, recreational table tennis players, gym rats, and couch potatoes. A well-trained instructor will be able to create a Pilates program for any person with the desire to improve their fitness through dedication and practice—because Pilates is for everyone.

8) …invigorating!

In the words of Joe himself, the Pilates Method, “restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit.” We couldn’t agree more. Unlike other kinds of exercise that ask you to “go to failure,” Pilates is designed so that you can practice every day without straining or injuring yourself. We suspect that the more you practice Pilates, the more energy you will have to work out, the more you will look forward to your next workout, and the more frequently you will practice!


Sophie Mendelson has been doing classical Pilates since she was 9 years old. She has her bachelors in American Studies from Yale University and earned her 200-hour yoga teacher certification from Flow Yoga Center in Washington, DC. In her spare time, she writes about agricultural practice and policy issues. In October 2016 she will begin the organic farmer training program at The Farm School in Massachusetts.