Pilates was designed by Joseph Pilates, a physical-culturist born in Mönchengladbach, Germany in 1883. He developed a system of exercises during the first half of the 20th century which were intended to strengthen the human mind and body. Joseph Pilates believed that mental and physical health are inter-related. He had practiced many of the physical training regimes which were available in Germany in his youth, and it was out of this context that he developed his own work, which has clear connections with the physical culture of the late nineteenth century such as the use of specially invented apparatuses and the claim that the exercises could cure illness. It is also related to the tradition of "corrective exercise" or "medical gymnastics" which is typified by Pehr Henrik Ling.
The first generation of students, many of them dancers, studied with Joseph Pilates and went on to open studios and teach the method are collectively known as The Elders. Modern day Pilates styles, both "traditional" and "contemporary", are derived from the teaching of these first generation students. The method was originally confined to the few and normally practiced in a specialized studio, but with time this has changed and pilates can now be found in community centers, gyms and physiotherapy rooms as well as in hybrid practice such as Yogilates™ and in newly developed forms such as the Menezes Method. The “traditional” form still survives and there are also a variety of “contemporary” schools, such as Stott Pilates, which have adapted the system in different ways.
The Pilates method seeks to develop controlled movement from a strong core and it does this
using a range of apparatuses to guide and train the body. Joe Pilates originally developed his method as mat exercises, but, in common with many other physical culture systems from the first part of the twentieth century, he used several pieces of apparatus to help people "get the method in their bodies". Each piece of apparatus has its own repertoire of exercises and most of the exercises done on the various pieces of Pilates apparatus are resistance training since they make use of springs to provide additional resistance. Using springs results in "progressive resistance", meaning the resistance increases as the spring is stretched. The most widely used piece of apparatus, and probably the most important, is the Reformer, but other apparatus used in a traditional Pilates studio include the Cadillac (also called the Trapeze Table), the high (or electric) chair, the Wunda Chair, the baby Chair, and the Ladder Barrel, the Spine Corrector (Step Barrel) and small barrel. Lesser used apparati include the Magic Circle, Guillotine Tower, the Pedi-Pole, and the Foot Corrector. In contemporary Pilates other props are used, including small weighted balls, foam rollers, large exercise balls, rotating disks, and resistance bands. Some of the traditional apparatuses have been adapted for use in contemporary pilates (e.g. splitting the pedal on the wunda chair). Some contemporary schools, such as the British Body Control Pilates, work primarily on the mat with these smaller props, enabling people to study the method without a full studio.
Currently the Pilates Method is divided into two camps, Classical/Authentic Pilates or Contemporary/Modern Pilates. Classical/Authentic Pilates teach the exercises in an order that does not vary from lesson to lesson. Teachers of this style of Pilates seek to stay close to Joseph Pilates's original work and generally use equipment that is built to his specifications. Most classically trained teachers will have studied the complete system of exercises and can generally trace their training back to Joseph Pilates through one of his proteges. Contemporary/Modern pilates breaks the method down into various parts and the order of the exercises varies from lesson to lesson with many changes made to the original exercises.
Pilates demands intense focus: "You have to concentrate on what you're doing, all the time and you must concentrate on your entire body. This is not easy, but in Pilates the way that exercises are done is more important than the exercises themselves. "Contrology" was Joseph Pilates' preferred name for his method and it is based on the idea of muscle control. Nothing about the Pilates Method is haphazard. The reason you need to concentrate so thoroughly is so you can be in control of every aspect of every moment. All exercises are done with control with the muscles working to lift against gravity and the resistance of the springs and thereby control the movement of the body and the apparatus. The Pilates Method teaches you to be in control of your body and not at its mercy. In order to attain control of your body you must have a starting place; the center. The center is the focal point of the Pilates Method. Many Pilates teachers refer to the group of muscles in the center of the body – encompassing the abdomen, lower and upper back, hips, buttocks and inner thighs – the “powerhouse." All movement in Pilates should begin from the powerhouse and flow outward to the limbs.
Pilates aims for elegant sufficiency of movement, creating flow through the use of appropriate transitions. Once precision has been achieved, the exercises are intended to flow within and into each other in order to build strength and stamina. In other words, the Pilates technique asserts that physical energy exerted from the center should coordinate movements of the extremities. Pilates is flowing movement outward from a strong core. Precision is essential to correct pilates: "concentrate on the correct movements each time you exercise, lest you do them improperly and thus lose all the vital benefits of their value”. The focus is on doing one precise and perfect movement, rather than many halfhearted ones. Pilates is here reflecting common physical culture wisdom: "You will gain more strength from a few energetic, concentrated efforts than from a thousand listless, sluggish movements". The goal is for this precision to eventually become second nature, and carry over into everyday life as grace and economy of movement.
Breathing is important in the Pilates method. He saw considerable value in increasing the intake of oxygen and the circulation of this oxygenated blood to every part of the body. This he saw as cleansing and invigorating. Proper full inhalation and complete exhalation were key to this. "Pilates saw forced exhalation as the key to full inhalation." He advised people to squeeze out the lungs as you would wring a wet towel dry. In Pilates exercises, you breathe out with the effort and in on the return. In order to keep the lower abdominals close to the spine; the breathing needs to be directed laterally, into the lower ribcage.
Pilates emphasizes the concepts of core strength and stabilization. Students are taught the
concepts of core strength and stabilization, as well as to use your “powerhouse” throughout life’s daily activities. As Joseph Pilates called it, your “powerhouse” is the center of your body or your core and if strengthened, it offers a solid foundation for any movement. This power engine is a muscular network which provides the basic control and stability in the lumbopelvic region, which furthermore consists of the Pelvic floor muscles, the Transversus, the Multifidus, the diaphragm, the muscles of the inner thigh, and the muscles encircling the sitting bone area.
You activate the power engine effectively by hollowing of the deep abdominals and pelvic floor muscles (“Deep muscle corset”), by drawing the navel back into the spine in a zipping-up motion, from the pubic bone to the breast bone thereby engaging the heels, the back of the inner thighs, the deep lower back muscles, and the muscles surrounding the sitting bones and tailbone area without inhibiting the natural function of the diaphragm – that is without holding your breath either from lifting the chest upwards or contracting the chest.
Apart from providing core control and stability to the lumbopelvic region, in the sitting position the power engine elevates the torso and places the centre of gravity at its highest and most efficient position; in prone position it elongates the body bi-directionally to reduce weight in the upper body; in supine position it elongates the body bi-directionally and places the centre of gravity again at its highest and most efficient position. The Power Engine opens up the vertical dimension of the body by grounding the pelvis to the earth and by elevating the spine towards the sky, much like a tree; the pelvis being the root and the branches being the spine.
The human spine is made up of a complex chain of ligaments, fascia, bone, muscles and inter-vertebral discs which is required to be both stable and flexible. The natural curves of the spine (cervical and lumbar) are interdependent and whilst each curve supports the other, any deviation can also affect the other. In Pilates the aim throughout most stabilising exercises is to maintain these natural curves and create a neutral position for each joint that is close to its optimal alignment. In this neutral position the deep postural muscles of the spine (Multifidus and Transversus Abdominus) can be recruited effectively, thus strengthening each vertebrae in alignment to reduce stress on the spinal tissues and inter-vertebral discs. A neutral spine in the semi-supine position involves the alignment of the head, shoulders, thorax, spine and pelvis to ensure that all sections of the body are in their ideal place. The head should be centred, with a small head cushion under the head to prevent the chin from lifting and the neck extending. The head and neck should be gently lengthening away from the shoulders. The shoulders are relaxed with a sense of a gently drawing down action of the shoulder blades to stabilise the scapular and release neck tension.
In recent years the term “Pilates” has entered the mainstream. Following an unsuccessful intellectual property lawsuit, a US federal court ruled the term “Pilates” generic and free for unrestricted use. As a result, anyone, trained or untrained, can offer “Pilates” as a service to the public. Consequently, people may face extensive and conflicting information about what Pilates is, how it works, and what credentials they should seek in an instructor.