What Is Pilates? Everything You Need to Know About the Workout of the Moment

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

You may be aware that Pilates is having a moment right now. But you may be wondering, what is Pilates, exactly? And what should I expect before signing up for my first class?

We get it: Starting a new workout routine can be intimidating. But we’re here to help. We consulted multiple experts—instructors, studio owners, and masters of all different types of the discipline—to answer all of your burning questions. You’ll be a pro on the Reformer, the Tower, or the mat in no time.

Let’s go back to the basics. What is Pilates, exactly?

Simply put: Pilates is a low-impact yet high-intensity workout that uses a variety of apparatuses in order to create tension in the muscles and get results.

One of the hallmarks of the discipline, which was invented by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century as a form of physical rehabilitation, is that it is effective without putting stress on the joints of the body the way high-impact sports such as running sometimes do.

“There’s no impact on your body,” Sarah Brooks, an instructor who owns her own studio, Brooks Pilates, in New York, tells Glamour. “It’s slow, it’s controlled, it’s an intelligent form of exercise. You have to think about what you do before you do it. It’s very much about the mind-body connection and your breath work. So as much as it’s challenging, it’s also super calming and just feels good.”

Many Pilates instructors and adherents tout this ability to get toned and fit without risking injury as one of their favorite parts of the workout. According to Amanda Lensak, the studio manager at the West Village, NYC, location of the national chain Club Pilates, clients can expect to improve their flexibility, strength, and posture, no matter what their fitness background.

“It’s a low-impact exercise that’s gentler on the joints, and it’s suitable for all various fitness levels,” she tells Glamour.

What are the different types of Pilates?

The two types of Pilates that you’ve probably heard of are Reformer Pilates and mat Pilates. The simplest way to remember the difference is that in Reformer Pilates, you use an apparatus (it kind of looks like a bench with a bunch of springs attached), while mat Pilates just requires, well, a mat, no equipment needed.

Brooks explains that the Reformer is meant to enhance the experience by adding resistance in order to help you in the movements you do in class, such as adding tension to your lunges, for example.

“The intention and the reason behind the design of the Reformer is to get you stronger so that you can do the mat movements correctly and do them better,” she says. “So the Reformer was designed to help assist you through those movements.”

While these two types of classes are the most common, Joseph Pilates actually patented dozens of different apparatuses throughout his life, and some Pilates studios make use of these different pieces of equipment as well. Alexa Idama is a teacher of what is known as classical Pilates, which incorporates other apparatuses that Pilates used like a Cadillac, a Chair, and a Ladder Barrel.

“It's a whole system of apparatuses,” she tells Glamour. “Joseph Pilates actually invented even more than that. But those are typically the pieces that you would find at a classical studio.”

Some Pilates studios also incorporate elements of other workout types into their classes, such as introducing cardio elements into the class.

Should I try mat or Reformer Pilates first? Which is better?

The experts we spoke to said you can, and should, try both Reformer and mat Pilates classes. They complement each other, and both provide benefits.

“I think the best thing about the Reformer is it’s suitable for anybody,” Lensak says. “I wouldn’t necessarily say you should start with mat and work your way to Reformer…. It’s really just a matter of preference, but depending on what your specific fitness goals are.”

Eliza Millard, a Pilates instructor and content creator based in Melbourne, Australia, tells Glamour that while she personally loves both, she has noticed that Reformer classes tend to be the most popular in her area.

“You’ll find that many of the exercises you perform in a mat class can also be done on the Reformer,” she says, noting that on a Reformer, you can change the resistance in order to make workouts easier or harder, which you can’t really do on a mat.

Generally, the experts agreed that working on a Reformer can help you get deeper and have more resistance during the movements than using a mat alone.

“I think overall you’re going to see a benefit from both, but you’re going to see more of a benefit in terms of strength and toning when you’re working on a Reformer,” Lensak says.

“The machine was designed to help you get stronger to do mat properly,” adds Brooks.

I’m a beginner. What should I know before attending my first Pilates class?

While Pilates is totally accessible to anyone (even those who are injured, pregnant, or who have a limb difference can be total pros), the Reformer is a bit technical.

It can take a few sessions to get a hang of exactly how to use it and how to do so effectively, which is why most instructors recommend starting with a beginner or a basics class your first time.

“If you’re going in and you haven’t been acquainted with the machine, it leaves more room for injury. So I definitely encourage intro sessions to start off with,” Lensak says.

Most Pilates studios offer classes that will walk you through the basics, and some even offer private instruction for newbies.

“Generally, studios will have an entry package that allows you to experience the work,” says Idama. “If you’re a beginner, I highly recommend taking advantage of one of those packages so that you can get one-on-one instruction from a teacher, and that the teacher can then tell what you need to do for your body.”

However, Millerd says that just because the equipment can be technical, you shouldn’t be intimidated before your first time.

“My best advice for newcomers is not to worry about anyone else; do it for you,” she says. “The instructors are there to help you. It’s an achievable form of exercise for all levels.”

If I can’t make it to a studio (or it’s not in my budget), can I do Pilates at home?

We know that classes at a studio can add up. Luckily, there’s a ton of free mat Pilates workouts on YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok that you can try.

“My favorite Pilates exercises to do at home or at the gym are often core exercises,” Millerd says. “I love a dead bug series, especially using dumbbells to really challenge my core.”

Brooks cautions that she does recommend people start out with a class or two in-person just to make sure you’re doing the moves right and aren’t at risk of injury before trying it out at home.

“I’m all about throwing on a free YouTube if that’s what you need to do, because I think movement is so important and I think everyone should do it,” she says.

Originally Appeared on Glamour