Whether it's running or CrossFit, dance cardio or strength training, picking up a new workout can feel a tad overwhelming, and Pilates is no exception. But don't stress: All you need to get started is a mat or square of carpet and a willingness to learn.
"Each Pilates exercise can be modified or advanced, which means there are endless possibilities for growth, and it doesn't have to be intimidating for someone that's never tried it before," says Michelle Yard, certified Pilates instructor at Urban Asanas.
The method — developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 1920s — focuses on full-body integration by targeting all the major muscle groups, especially the core. And whether you're sticking to the mat or kicking things up a notch by using a reformer, Pilates offers a slew of benefits for various ages and fitness levels.
The Perks of Pilates
"Pilates is a well rounded system of movement that provides a number of wonderful benefits, including full-body strength, flexibility, balance and improved coordination of movement," says physical therapist Christine Pieton, owner of Pieton Physical Therapy and Pilates. "It also helps individuals to explore movement in their bodies from the inside out by fostering a deeper understanding of the mind-body connection."
Pilates fans love the core strengthening the practice offers. But your abs are only part of what's known in Pilates as your "powerhouse." All Pilates exercises start from this area of the body, which runs from the bottom of your ribs to your hips, incorporating your ab, lower back, pelvic floor, glute and hip muscles.
When you do Pilates, imagine there is a string lacing all the muscles of this area of your body together, keeping your whole powerhouse connected. Engaging these muscles throughout Pilates movements provides stability, control and strength.
While Pilates can aid weight loss by burning calories and increasing lean muscle mass, it's only one part of the equation. Yard suggests combining Pilates with healthy meals and regular cardio exercise if your goal is to shed pounds. Generally speaking, Pilates burns less calories than more vigorous workouts, such as cycling or running.
But the benefits of Pilates aren't just physical. The focus on breathing and mindfulness makes it great for combatting stress and promoting relaxation, according to December 2013 research published in the Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices.
In order to truly reap the rewards of a Pilates workout, Pieton recommends that you practice two to three times per week for approximately 20 to 60 minutes per session. Overall, consistency and dedication, she says, are more important than the number of sessions.
Signing Up For Your First Class
When you're signing up for class, look for one labeled as "beginner." If the studio you're attending doesn't have a specific newbie offering, Pieton recommends calling ahead to ask which one is best for new practitioners.
You'll be signing up for either a mat or a reformer class, both of which combine a variety of whole-body movements focused on activating the core. Mat classes leverage your own body weight and often incorporate props such as resistance bands, foam rollers or exercise balls. Reformer classes typically consist of small groups and use a large machine with springs, straps and bars to provide resistance that lengthens and strengthens the body.
Before you begin your hour-long class, the studio should offer some sort of assessment. Your Pilates workout is an individualized experience, so mention any concerns, limitations or goals to your instructor before you start. You'll likely be joined in a class by about five to 10 others at a similar experience level, depending on the gym or studio. Mat classes are more widely available in major gym chains, while reformer classes are more common in smaller Pilates studios.
You can expect most classes to start with some fundamental warm-up exercises to prepare your body. Classic Pilates classes all follow the traditional Pilates sequence as originally developed by Joseph Pilates, with only slight variations depending on the instructor. Those standard movements include the hundred, the roll-up and the one-leg circle.
What to Wear
When it comes to what to wear to your first Pilates class, keep it simple. Workout clothes that are stretchy and fit close to the body are ideal. "Wear non-restrictive clothing," suggests Pieton. "It will move with you and encourage you to be mindful of your movement and your body."
Ideally, lean into options that are moisture-wicking, as opposed to something like cotton. Cotton absorbs moisture and can become heavy and uncomfortable once things heat up and the sweat starts dripping. Also: No need for shoes! Pilates is done barefoot.
How to Make the Most of Your First Pilates Workout
Ready to get moving? Yard has a few pro tips for Pilates beginners.
Keep your spine neutral. The lumbar spine should retain its natural curve. To check this, place your hand under the curve of your low back while lying down with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Your hand should be able to fit into the space.
Remember to swivel. Between reps of Pilates exercises, turn your head from side to side every now and then. This simple movement protects the neck and helps maintain the natural curve of the spine.
Anchor your feet. Keeping them grounded into the floor will help you stay in control of your movements.
Beginner Pilates Exercises to Try
Get started with a few introductory Pilates movements offered up by Pieton that you can do on your own at home, before heading into the studio. She recommends performing this series twice through two to three times per week to enjoy the benefits of feeling stronger and more efficient.
1. Double Leg Stretch
- Lie on your back and bend both knees into your chest.
- Give your knees a squeeze while trying to keep your spine neutral. This is your starting position.
- Extend the arms overhead and the legs forward into a hollow hold. Engage through the core.
- Hold for three seconds, return to start.
- Do 10 reps.
2. Leg Pull
- Begin in high plank position with your core engaged, hands directly under shoulders.
- Exhale and lift your right foot a few inches off of the mat, keeping your hips square. Hold for five seconds.
- Slowly return your foot to the mat; repeat on the opposite side.
- Do 20 total alternating reps.
3. Side Lying Banana
- Start lying on your right side with right arm stretched out, head resting on it. Your feet should be stacked.
- Engage your core and exhale as you lift your head, supporting arm and legs a few inches off of the ground. Hold for five seconds.
- Slowly lower back to start. If your core isn't as strong yet, take extra rest between each rep.
- Do 10 total reps; repeat on opposite side.
4. Side Bend Twist
- Start in a left side plank with both feet flexed, top leg slightly in front, right arm overhead.
- Exhale and twist just the rib cage, bringing your right arm down. Your hand should weave under the torso.
- Slowly untwist, looking up to the ceiling as you reach your arm up.
- Do 10 reps; repeat on opposite side. Do two sets.
5. Kneeling Side Kicks
- Start in a modified side plank on your left side, with your left knee down.
- Lift your right leg up with the foot flexed, creating a straight line from head to heel. Your left hand should be placed directly under your left shoulder for support, and your right hand can rest on your hip.
- Inhale to sweep the top leg forward, moving only at the hip.
- Exhale to sweep the top leg backwards, keeping it in line with the torso.
- Do this forward-to-back movement 10 times; repeat on opposite side.