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Which Is Better: Pilates or Tai Chi?

author image Andrea Cespedes
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.
Which Is Better: Pilates or Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is meditation in motion. Photo Credit ChiccoDodiFC/iStock/Getty Images

You know your fitness abilities and goals best, so only you can decide whether Pilates or Tai Chi is better for you. Both disciplines hone physical control, concentration, small body movements, flexibility and functional strength. Pilates is more Western in its focus, so expect to do targeted exercises with special attention paid to your core. Tai Chi is rooted in Eastern philosophy and has a meditative vibe. Tai Chi addresses the whole of your body and your understanding of how it moves.

Assess your fitness level, goals and personal preference to determine which is better. You might be best off trying both for a few sessions to decide which you prefer.

About Pilates

Pilates is an exercise system developed by German immigrant, Joseph Pilates, in the early 1900s. It consists of mat- and equipment-based exercises that train the whole of your torso between your hips and shoulders. This region — the core — is critical to proper body function. When your core is strong, it helps you escape back pain, improve posture and perform better in sports and life.

Pilates includes hip, back and ab exercises.
Pilates includes hip, back and ab exercises. Photo Credit Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images

A comprehensive Pilates program involves mat and Reformer work, as well as time on other equipment such as the ladder barrel and cadillac. Of course, you can do just mat or reformer work, but using all the equipment provides you the most benefit.

Although you're often reclined or seated during a Pilates session, it feels like exercise. Pilates moves — which include roll-ups, leg circles and side kicks — are a form of calisthenics. You focus as you count reps and perfect form. As your practice progresses, the exercises become more challenging.

Pilates can include work on equipment known as the Reformer.
Pilates can include work on equipment known as the Reformer. Photo Credit muratemre/iStock/Getty Images

Read More: Pilates Workout Differences: Reformer and Mat

About Tai Chi

Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art, approaches fitness and well-being differently than a lot of Western disciplines. It's a moving meditation that encourages positive energy flow through the body. You stand and perform forms that flow in a seamless manner. Your feet feel connected to the earth as you sink your weight and maintain proper body alignment. Your weight shifts from right to left as you concentrate on breath and clearing of your mind.

Tai Chi's basic form contains 13 postures, but as your practice progresses, you'll develop a larger repertoire. Postures are more esoteric than you'll find in Pilates, with names such as "Crane Spreading Its Wings."

Tai Chi is about combining concentration, movement and breath.
Tai Chi is about combining concentration, movement and breath. Photo Credit nullplus/iStock/Getty Images

A Difference in Intention

While Pilates and Tai Chi may both be classified as mind-body systems, their intentions are slightly different:

  • Pilates seeks to build a healthier body by helping you develop certain stabilizing muscles, particularly in the center of your body. 
  • Tai Chi seeks to provide health by cultivating your vital energy through movement, meditation and breath. 

A Difference in Execution

Tai Chi is gentle, slow-paced and repetitive. You aim for fluidity of movement. Pilates can feel rigorous at times, depending on the exercise you're doing and your fitness level. Pilates is about constantly refining your form to maximize function of your spine, hips and other joints. Both are low-impact.

The breath is important to both Pilates and Tai Chi, but serves a slightly different purpose in each. Pilates breath is functional and intends to give you the power to execute each exercise. Tai Chi breath is rhythmic and intentional, so as to calm your mind and create greater concentration.

You may develop some core strength in Tai Chi, but it's not the focus of the practice. You can't help but leave Pilates sessions feeling challenged in your abs and back.

Although Pilates may help calm your mind, it's not the emphasis of the exercise system. Better movement, stronger muscles and healthier joints take precedence. While Tai Chi does focus on proper alignment, it's taught in a methodical, thoughtful way.

Read More: The 8 Best Tai Chi Movements for Health

How to Choose

Someone with arthritis or joint problems may appreciate the slower, gentler nature of Tai Chi more than Pilates. The fluid movement can ease stiffness and pain. Tai Chi may also be more beneficial for older people who need to improve balance and proprioception to prevent falls.

Pilates helps anyone who needs a stronger core. This may be dancers or athletes, as well as people who suffer from low-back or hip pain.

Which system is better also depends on your personal preferences. If you prefer a regimented practice with a clear methodology, Pilates might be your best option. However, if you want to bring a calming, meditative energy into your fitness regimen, Tai Chi should be your choice.

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