Are you about to try your first Pilates class and a bit nervous about what to expect or what’s going to happen? Yep, I’ve been there – which is why I’ve put together this Pilates 101 post. It’s basically a beginner’s guide to Pilates answering all the questions I had before my first Pilates class (and that you probably do too) – and a few other queries that came up along the way.
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Pilates 101: Your Questions Answered
Let’s start with the big one. The one you’ll need before you even book into your first Pilates session – and this is…
How Do You Pronounce Pilates?
It’s not that obvious. I had a boss once who called it Pie – lates – as in ‘thing stuffed with steak and kidney’ and ‘not turning up on time’. We all wanted to correct her, but because, erm ‘she’s the boss’, everyone just smiled, nodded and really hoped she never had to interview a Pilates instructor.
So, the correct pronunciation of Pilates (in the UK anyway) is Pi – la – teees. Oh, and if you have to write it down, it always has a capital P as it’s named after it’s creator, Joseph Pilates.
Now let’s get more technical and for this bit, I’ve harnessed the wisdom of top UK instructor Kirsten Harle from The Pilates Suite (below) who has three studios here in the UK to help me answer some of the questions.
What is Pilates?
‘Pilates is a form of exercise which strengthens the body, keeping it flexible, symmetrical and aligned, with good posture – all powered by creating a strong core area in the middle of the body. It was developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, He believed that the mind and body were linked and Pilates could bring them together as a training method,’ says Kirsten.
What that means in terms of what you might do in Pilates class is that Pilates is not an aerobic exercise.
You won’t find yourself jumping up and down or flinging a kettlebell about. Instead, you do small, controlled moves that align, tone and lengthen the muscles in order to create a more balanced body.
Think of a mix of yoga, ballet and toning exercises – that’s what to expect in a Pilates class.
Pilates also believed good posture was vital to the correct functioning of the body – and so a lot Pilates moves work on the spine and core. He also believed that good health came from the breath, so there’s a lot of work on this in Pilates, more on that in a minute.
What Do You Do in a Pilates Class?
There are a few different types of Pilates class, but, if you’re trying Pilates for the first time, you’re likely to start with a basic Pilates mat class.
This might be at a specialist Pilates studio, but it’s often a gym Pilates class offered as part of your gym membership and will be held in one of their aerobics studios, or, the yoga studio if they have a special one.
‘In a mat Pilates class you’ll spend a lot of the time lying on the floor doing fairly small movements that have big payoffs,’ says Kirsten. ‘These moves will work on tone, flexibility and balance and almost all of them will involve what Pilates tutors call your Powerhouse – the muscles between your lower ribs and your hip bones.
You’ll spend a lot of time maintaining control of this Powerhouse by pulling your tummy close to your spine and lifting your pelvic floor. Learning this technique is key to getting good results in Pilates and as such no matter how fit you are, or how much yoga you’ve done, if you’ve never done Pilates before, you must make sure you start at a Pilates class for beginners to learn this correct positioning.’
Since I first spoke to Kirsten for this piece, Pilates has exploded and it’s now also potentially more likely that, even as a beginner at Pilates, you might also try a Reformer Pilates class. These are usually held in specialist Pilates studios and use a piece of Pilates equipment called a Reformer.
A Pilates Reformer looks a bit like a wooden bed base, but one with moving parts, straps and pulleys (that’s one above). Again, it uses springs to offer resistance and you sit, stand or lie on it to move.
Reformer work is tougher than mat work – and classes using something called the Lagree Fitness Method or Mega Reformer are toughest of all.
If you’re looking for a beginner’s Pilates class, start with a normal mat class or a basic reformer class before trying anything more complicated. (or, you could try our home reformer Pilates workout which gives similar results no reformer required)
What To Expect in Pilates Class
As Kirsten said, many of the moves will be done lying down – so expect to be flat much of the time.
Don’t expect any music, classes are done in silence.
Another thing that makes Pilates classes a bit different from other classes is that the instructor doesn’t just stay at the front – or at least they shouldn’t.
They’ll demonstrate the move but then walk around the class ensuring everyone is in the right position. They might even touch or move you about a bit to make sure you are.
Because of the importance of this personal attention, the smaller the Pilates class you choose the better – especially if you have any injuries.
Another difference you might notice in any Pilates class is your instructor telling you when and how to breathe. ‘Breathing is fundamental to Pilates, the moves all co-ordinate with the breath, so you’ll also need to master the breathing techniques involved,’ Kirsten told us.
‘Generally we all breathe in a very shallow way using only a very small part of our total lung capacity. Breathing deeply and with control from the right area will expand the lung capacity, helping to keep the mind relaxed and focused.
In Pilates breathing is also integral to how you control and enhance each movement. I am always reminding people during an exercise where the inhale and exhalation takes place – it can take a long time to master and feel natural.’
What Does Pilates Do For Your Body?
There are many benefits to Pilates in terms of both health and fitness.
Let’s start with how Pilates might change your body.
Pilates tones the muscles but doesn’t bulk them – think arms like Jennifer Aniston.
It improves posture and flattens tummies.
It’s not fabulous for weight loss (more on that in a minute) but, because it improves posture you will look taller and thinner and your stomach will be tighter – so you’ll look like you’ve lost weight even if you haven’t (bonus!).
On top of this, Pilates is also good at reducing stress and a few different studies (like this one) have shown that it can help sleep.
If you’re looking for more help in this area, have a look at our guide on ways to fall asleep faster.
Because you develop a very strong core Pilates can also help reduce back pain. In a 2019 study comparing Pilates training with aerobic work for reducing back pain, similar results were seen for both groups – but the researcher said Pilates might turn out to be more effective in the long run because of it’s work on the core.
What to Wear to Pilates
The good news is you don’t need expensive attire for Pilates class – the best clothes for Pilates are just leggings or cycling shorts you can move easily in and a top in which you can move your arms and that doesn’t ride up if you bend over.
It doesn’t have to be super form-fitting, but tighter clothing does allow the instructor to see how you’re moving and ensure you’re in exactly the right position.
When you do decide what to wear to Pilates class, check it’s comfy to lie down (try on your front, back and side) as you’re going to be flat a lot!
You don’t need to spend a fortune on Pilates kit – in fact, there’s a great selection at Sports Direct. You can make up an outfit for under £20.
If you’re in the US, you’ll find a good selection of potential clothes for Pilates class in the sports sections of Walmart and Target (or any other store that sells sports wear) or, check Amazon which has a good selection.
If you do want to go for some more expensive brands, look at Lululemon or check out the selection at thesportsedit.com – but I repeat. You do not have to spend a lot of money on Pilates clothes to go to your first Pilates class!
What Else to Bring To Pilates Class
You don’t really need a lot else as the Pilates studio should provide mats and any other specialist Pilates apparatus you’re going to use.
However, if you have long hair, it is important to also pack a hair toggle to keep your hair off your face (or out of the reformer if you’re using one!).
You can get these in Primark for pennies, but I’m a big fan of Invisibobbles as they don’t tear your hair. Also, weird as it sounds, because they come in a little box, I tend not to lose mine as often as I lose the cheap ones!
You won’t want to drink a lot during class as it’ll just slosh around in your stomach, but it’s a good idea to pack a water bottle so you can grab a drink when you’re finished.
If you’re going to class after work, maybe also pack some make-up remover wipes so you don’t get foundation all over the equipment. These ones are good as they are reusable and come in their own little carry bag so they won’t get grimey in your kit bag.
But, to be honest though, Pilates is probably one of the fitness classes you need the least extra gadgets and gizmos for.
Do You Wear Shoes During Pilates?
No. Another big difference between Pilates and other classes though is you don’t need to wear shoes you work in bare feet.
If that makes you squeamish, you can wear special Pilates socks that have a grip on the sole to stop you sliding about.
You can order a pair on Amazon and have them delivered before your first class.
How Many Times a Week is it Best to do Pilates?
‘If it’s your main fitness activity, ideally twice a week,’ says Kirsten. ‘If you’re combining it with other exercises like running or gym classes go once a week in order to add non-weight-bearing resistance and elongation of the muscles to the mix of activities you do.
Either way, if you can practice any specific exercises at home in addition to this, all the better.’
How Long is a Pilates Class?
Normally about an hour is standard.
It’s best to turn up 5-10 minutes beforehand to pick a good spot where you can clearly see the teacher – Pilates is not a place to hide at that back.
If it’s your first Pilates class, say hi to the teacher so they know and also tell them if you have any injuries or other health concerns. This should also be the case if it’s your 50th Pilates class and you get any new injuries or issues – your teacher needs to know.
Should You Eat Before Pilates?
It’s a bad idea to have a big meal more than two hours before any workout – and particularly one where you’re going to be using your core!
However, it’s been a long time since your last meal, try something like a banana and yogurt or a protein or meal shake (I’m a big fan of the ones by Purition) about an hour before your workout.
That will give it enough time to progress through the digestive system and give you an energy boost, but not upset your stomach.
Is Pilates Any Good for Men?
Pilates often has an image of being an exercise for women. ‘Why don’t more men do Pilates’ is actually a question that’s asked online. But don’t forget Pilates was actually created by a man – and by all accounts, Joseph Pilates was seriously muscular!
Some of the top Pilates instructors are men – Sebastian Lagree, Aaron Smith from KX Pilates, David Higgins from Dynamic Pilates and male celebrities who do Pilates include footballer Christian Ronaldo, former basketball player Kobe Bryant and David Beckham.
And none of those are going to get sand kicked in their face either.
So yes, Pilates can absolutely be a good exercise for men.
No, if all you do is the odd mat class it’s unlikely to give you arms like Chris Hemsworth – but, it will create extra core strength that creates the support you need to lift heavier weights and it stretches muscles in ways that help reduce risk of injuries if, say, you play team sports – note all the guys I mentioned up there are professional athletes and this is why they integrate Pilates into their routine.
How Many Calories Do You Burn in Pilates Class?
About 175 an hour for a 150lb woman – an hour’s running will clock up about 600 calories in the same time.
Because of this, while there are many benefits to Pilates, it won’t cause you to shed heap loads of fat – it’s more about preparing the body under the fat for when you lose weight from other means!
That doesn’t mean it won’t have some results. A study in Turkey which saw women doing 90 minutes of Pilates, three times a week for eight weeks saw weight and levels of body fat fall. The women also shrank on their waist, tummy and hips.
But, if weight loss is your goal, you’re better using a mix of healthy eating, cardio and weight training to shed fat than relying solely on Pilates for weight loss.
Saying that though, there are a number of reasons, over and above calorie burn, why yoga can help boost your weight loss results – and yoga and Pilates share many of the same traits so, you might want to have a look at that.
What Helps You Get the Best Results from Pilates?
‘Make each movement small, slow and controlled; even an abdominal curl feels so much harder the smaller the movement, and this takes a lot more body awareness,’ suggests Kirsten.
‘Being slow and controlled also ensures you work the Transverse abdominis (deeper core muscles) as opposed to the Rectus abdominis ‘six pack’ which sit above. The most challenging part of Pilates for a beginner to grasp is the ability to isolate these smaller deeper muscles of the core correctly.
This should happen with almost every exercise in Pilates, and it’s a skill that everyone needs to learn. The ability to tune into their body and feel what they are meant to be doing can sometimes take months to really understand.’ Talking of months…
How Long Will it Take to See Results from Pilates?
The best quote on this has to come from Joseph Pilates himself who said, “in 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 sessions you’ll see a difference and in 30 sessions you’ll have a whole new body.”
However, this comes with a word of caution from Kirsten. ‘The difficulty is that it’s very easy for the body to cheat in Pilates if you don’t understand what each movement is meant to feel like. It can seem really easy and slow in the beginning, which in a way can put a lot of people off if they don’t feel something ‘working’. As a result, some people will choose to focus on gym work when they can make the muscles fatigue in a noticeable way.
The irony is the longer you do Pilates, with the right tuition, the more challenging it becomes. Some clients say it can take three months or more before they are truly conscious of a change in strength and/or flexibility.’
Can You Teach Yourself Pilates?
If you are a total Pilates newbie, it’s best to have a few sessions in a class or one to one with a teacher just so you get used to what the moves feel like. Once you have a good idea of what you’re doing though, you can easily practise Pilates at home.
You’ll just need a good Pilates mat so you can do the moves comfortably. Pilates mats tend to be slightly thicker than yoga mats so it’s important to buy a specific Pilates mat rather than buying a yoga one.
For this, I would go to a specialist fitness supplier like Physioworld to make sure you’re getting a good quality, professional product. Click here to check out their Pilates mat.
You’ll then need a routine to follow and there are a lot of online Pilates classes out there now.
I haven’t tested them all so I’m a bit wary of suggesting specific classes but there’s a good free beginners Pilates video here from the NHS – so you know that’s legitimate
If you want to mix things up a bit, then you can find a range of online Pilates workouts for beginners at Instructors Live – these are the service the NHS use and so I have confidence recommending them.
Or, if you would prefer to try a Pilates DVD then the Beginners Guide to Pilates by Kristen McGee comes highly recommended (check it out here). It has four short workouts that you practise separately while you get the hang of things, or join together to make one longer workout. It’s also available as an Amazon Prime TV download if you don’t want to wait.
I’m not sure that books are the best way to learn Pilates but, if you like fitness books then Lynne Robinson was one of the pioneers of Pilates in the UK and has books for all ages so definitely check out her page on amazon and see if there’s something that you like the look of.
At this point, I had a final question for Kirsten which was…
What Do You Wish Everyone Knew Before Their First Pilates Class?
‘In a way, I prefer them to come not knowing much at all, as I sometimes find that bad habits can be hard to break! This can be true if they have been doing Pilates in a large mat class where tailored training isn’t an option; we find they often don’t really understand how to engage the muscles correctly and the best technique for each movement,’ she told me.
The Pilates Dictionary
If you’re doing some online research to find your first Pilates class, or, even at some point when you’re lying on the mat in your first class you might see some words or phrases that you don’t yet understand. so in our last section of Pilates 101, here’s what some of the common terms mean
Cadillac: If the Reformer chair is a normal bed, the Cadillac is a four-poster – except instead of hanging curtains off the posts, you hang off it – or pull and push things that are attached to it (it’s what that guy in the pic above is using).
Dynamic: You might see classes listed as Dynamic Pilates or Dynamic Reformer. These are (usually) done on the reformer and can often be a bit faster or tougher than normal classes. You should understand Pilates before trying any classes using the word Dynamic.
Imprinted Spine: This position pushes the lower back to the floor and helps you support your core during Pilates moves. It’s used to give extra back support in moves where your feet or legs are raised off the floor. One of the most important things to learn when doing Pilates as a beginner is this position.
Lagree: A particular method of Pilates created by Sebastian Lagree. It uses an adapted form of the Reformer called a Megareformer and is a pretty tough workout. You might want to work up to this one.
Magic Circle: This is a flexible ring that can be used in Pilates classes to increase an exercise’s resistance.
Powerhouse: A word in Pilates used to describe the core of the body – ie your abdominal muscles. Pilates is very good at targeting the deeper muscles that support the back and create a flatter tummy.
Neutral Spine: A relaxed position from which you start many exercises. It sees you with a naturally curved lower back. Again, it’s important that you are properly taught this by a teacher.
Switching On: When you do a Pilates move you don’t just go into things cold, you lightly contract the muscles to get them switched on a ready for action. Learning how to switch on your core is one of the most important things you need to learn in Pilates to get good results.
Table Top: Lying on your back, with your legs in the air, knees bent, shins parallel to the floor = so you look a bit like a table top!
The Hundred. This was one of Joseph Pilates’ original exercises and sees you lying on your back, head and legs off the mat, arms by your sides, core switched on, breathing correctly – you then beat your arms towards the floor 100 times. Don’t just use that description to try it though – you need to get the breathing and muscle positions right. Check out a video at the very least!
Wunda Chair: Another of Joseph Pilates’ inventions it’s a hybrid seat-come-exercise device involving a seat held on springs that you sit, stand or balance on.
Zipping Up: This is basically pulling up your lower abs pelvic floor as this lightly switches on your tummy muscles helping them work harder. It’s also why Pilates is also good at helping your pelvic floor.
So there you have it – The Wellness Nerd Beginners Guide to Pilates.
If it’s inspired you to find a class, lucky Surrey types can find Kirsten’s studios in Farnham and Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey. And this is where you can find out more about her.
If you have any more questions about Pilates? Jot them down below and I’ll see if I can find out the answers.
What to Read Next
If you’re interested in the more holistic side of wellness, you might want to have a look at our beginners guide to meditation, which explains just how little time can give you results when you meditate.
Or, find out more about a fascinating way to release stress and tension on the body called TRE. This uses gentle shaking movements and can help reduce aches, pains and emotional stress. Find our guide to TRE here.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.