Pilates: Health Benefits, How to Get Started, and How to Get Better

Medically Reviewed
reformer pilates
Pilates is a low-intensity muscle-strengthening workout that focuses heavily on building strong core muscles.Stocksy

Pilates — once a niche strength, mobility, and recovery technique for dancers — has gone mainstream. The low-intensity, muscle-strengthening workout can promote flexibility, mobility, and posture. What’s more, it can set your body up to complete other more intense strength-training safely.

You can find classes at fitness studios and gyms across the country, as well as online.

Read on to learn what it is, the health benefits it offers, and how to get started.

What Is Pilates?

Pilates — an exercise technique that was created by Joseph Pilates, an athlete and physical trainer, in the early 1900s — uses roughly 50 exercises to work the muscles, enhance endurance, and improve balance, posture, and flexibility, according to a previous review.

“It helps to work on smaller muscle groups, stabilizing muscle groups, and the core — the muscles in our trunk,” says Heather Milton, CSCS, a board-certified clinical exercise physiologist with NYU Langone Health in New York City. Building those muscles can help you complete everyday tasks more easily, and lower your risk of injury, she says.

Pilates can boost your overall fitness.?A small study in people who were overweight or obese,?published February 2019 in?PeerJ, found that three one-hour Pilates sessions per week helped participants improve lean and fat mass, trunk endurance, and flexibility.

But Milton says most people should consider Pilates a complement to your aerobic exercise and resistance training rather than the only type of workout you do.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Physical Activity Guidelines?(PDF) recommend that adults do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity plus two strength-training sessions each week.

Pilates doesn’t exactly fit as a standalone strength workout, however, because there’s not enough resistance involved.

Jesse Barnett, CSCS, a Pilates instructor and National Strength and Conditioning Association–certified personal trainer with Physical Equilibrium in New York City and East Hampton, New York, says a true strength-training workout would involve heavy resistance of some kind, and movement that taxes the muscle you’re working to the point of fatigue.

But, it’s also important to consider your current fitness level. For people who don’t move much, or for older adults with less fitness, reducing sedentary behavior with an activity like Pilates can offer health benefits, according to the HHS Physical Activity Guidelines. Lower intensity exercises will feel more vigorous to these individuals.

And some Pilates classes can be more challenging.

The Health and Human Services guidelines call out yoga and tai chi as two types of exercise that vary in intensity. Pilates is similar, says Tasha Edwards, an American Council on Exercise (ACE)–certified wellness coach and founder of Hip Healthy Chick based in Huntsville, Alabama.

Taking a reformer Pilates class, which is Pilates performed on a reformer machine that uses spring systems for added resistance, is one way to increase the intensity, says Edwards, who is also an Athletics and Fitness Association of America–certified personal trainer and a fitness instructor certified in Pilates, yoga, barre, and Zumba.

But ultimately to achieve more fitness, you should be doing both strength training and Pilates, and not one or the other, she says.

There’s no set guideline for how often you should do Pilates, but Edwards and Milton recommend twice per week, in addition to other workouts.

The Health Benefits of Pilates

Not only does Pilates help strengthen several major and smaller muscle groups throughout the body, but it offers a few health benefits for specific populations. Pilates has been shown to:

  • Help People With Parkinson’s Disease One?review and meta-analysis found Pilates helped patients with Parkinson’s disease improve their fitness, balance, and functional autonomy, with benefits to the lower body, specifically. The researchers noted that the exercise can be safely prescribed to those with mild to moderate Parkinson’s.
  • Boost Balance, Strength, Flexibility, and Functionality for Older Adults, and Significantly Lower the Risk of Falls Ultimately, that can help elderly people live independently, according to a?systematic review and meta-analysis.
  • Reduce Pain and Enhance Function Among Patients With Chronic Lower Back Pain?Another?systematic review?has shown this benefit.
  • Support Mental Health According to a?study involving 63 overweight or obese participants, completing one-hour Pilates sessions three times a week for eight weeks positively impacted anxiety, depression, and quality of life. Milton adds anecdotally that low-intensity activities like Pilates can help reduce stress.

Adding Pilates workouts to your routine can also prepare your body for more challenging strength training.

“Pilates a lot of time can be used as a base for strength training, meaning if someone has a lot of instability and lack of core control, then they may want to start with Pilates and introduce higher intensity strength training later on when they're more prepared for it,” Milton says.

For the muscle strengthening benefits, Milton says you’ll start to notice those after practicing Pilates twice per week for about six to eight weeks. You may see the mood-boosting and stress-relieving benefits much sooner.

Learn More About the Health Benefits of Pilates

Is Pilates Good for Weight Loss?

There’s no question that Pilates offers muscle-strengthening benefits. “It really does help to strengthen our muscles and works on the stabilization of joints, as well as smaller muscle groups that helps give us muscle definition,” says Bianca Melas, a Pilates instructor with AloMoves based in Sydney.

It may help promote weight loss, but it depends on your activity level, your diet, and a lot of other factors. A?meta-analysis involving 11 randomized control trials focused on overweight or obese adults found Pilates reduced body weight and body fat, but did not affect waist circumference. Most of the studies included in the research compared the effect of adding Pilates to study participants’ routines for a set period of time (8 to 24 weeks) versus keeping up with their current lifestyles. “If you are not doing any exercise and you start with Pilates, there's a chance you can lose some weight,” Milton says.

But know that Pilates may not be the most effective form of physical activity to support weight loss, if that’s your goal. That’s because the focus is on toning muscles and improving mobility rather than burning the max amount of calories.

Previous research conducted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) (PDF) found Pilates doesn’t meet the recommended guidelines for improving cardiovascular fitness and, from an aerobic standpoint, is roughly equal to walking 2 miles an hour. That means it’s not a major calorie-burning workout; it would take about 50 minutes to burn 175 to 250 calories (versus a 155-pound person burning 360 calories running for 30 minutes at a 10-minute-mile pace, according to Harvard Health Publishing).

How to Get Started with Pilates Workouts

Milton recommends starting with one or two sessions a week. These workouts can be as short as 20 minutes and you can progress to up to an hour as you get stronger and more confident, Melas says.

For most people, there’s no need to check with a doctor before starting a Pilates workout, Barnett says. “Pilates is a low impact type of movement, and it's largely therapeutic,” he says. You should, however, get the okay if you are recovering from an injury, if you haven’t been cleared for movement, or you have another health issue that could interfere with your ability to safely exercise, he adds.

There are many different ways to practice Pilates, including using specialized equipment such as a tower or a reformer. If you’re just starting out, though, mat Pilates is the way to go, Milton says.

It’s a good idea to start with a small class — or better yet, one-on-one instruction. The size of the class and the quality of instruction matters when you’re new. “There are a lot of great Pilates instructors out there who will make sure everybody in the class (or if it's one-on-one) has great posture and form and are doing it with good technique and activating the right muscles,” Milton says.

Large class sizes, on the other hand, make it more difficult for instructors to give each person one-on-one attention. That can result in poor form, and that ultimately could lead to injury.

The best way to prevent injury is to learn how to do the Pilates moves correctly, Barnett says. “If you do it correctly, it should not injure you,” he says. That’s why it’s important to master the moves with the help of an instructor before practicing Pilates on your own or through an online platform.

The emphasis on form and technique is why it’s important to seek out an instructor who is certified to ensure you’re really doing Pilates rather than someone’s interpretation of it. Edwards suggests looking for an instructor who’s been certified by the National Pilates Certification Program, though she adds that you can also find quality instructors through word of mouth in your community.

How to Make Pilates More Advanced

Maybe you’ve been practicing Pilates for some time and want to take the intensity up a notch.

“Once you have a grip on the fundamentals and language used in Pilates, I would encourage people to try more styles, picking up cardio Pilates or higher resistance styles to challenge your practice and strength,” Melas says. “Focusing on form, alignment, and slowing the exercise can also really increase the burn, intensity, and challenge.”

If your instructor offers a more advanced modification, take it. (Though if it feels too intense, dial back.) “As an instructor, I am always thinking of layering exercises so that the class can be tailored for someone who is a beginner and someone who is advanced,” Melas says.

You can also take classes that add dumbbells, ankle weights, wrist weights, or resistance bands.

“However, always be mindful of form and know your limits,” Melas says. “I am constantly reminding clients that it’s okay to drop the dumbbells or take off ankle weights when form isn’t on point.”

If the extra resistance causes you to lift by the wrong muscles or sacrifice form, you’re no longer doing the exercise correctly and should drop the weight to avoid injury and to make sure you’re getting the most out of the workout.

Nutrition Tips for Pilates

Generally, the advice on what to eat before, during, and after your Pilates workout is the same as any other exercise. Jennifer Scherer, an ACE-certified fitness nutrition specialist, personal trainer, and owner of Fredericksburg Fitness Studio in Fredericksburg, Virginia, recommends eating 60 to 90 minutes before your workout, ideally a mix of complex carbs and lean protein, such as oatmeal and two hard-boiled eggs or Greek yogurt and berries.

Pay attention to your own body, though, and do what feels best for you.

You don’t need to worry about eating during the workout, but feel free to drink water to stay hydrated, Scherer says.

After your workout wraps up, try to refuel within two hours. “Refueling after a Pilates session is no different than refueling after any other strength or resistance training,” Scherer says. “You want to consume a balanced meal complete with protein, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy.” She suggests brown rice, grilled chicken, veggies, an apple, and milk.

More FAQs About Pilates

Do I need to warm up before a Pilates workout?

No — Pilates has a built-in warmup. “[Pilates] begins with exercises that warm the body up and get the blood flowing and circulation going,” says Daniela Mazal, a Pilates instructor and owner of Old School Pilates based in Los Angeles. “Each exercise prepares the body for the next, and this continues throughout the entire routine.”

How many calories does Pilates burn?

It’s tough to say since this depends on each individual and how intensely you’re working out.?Previous research from the ACE, mentioned earlier, found a beginner Pilates 50-minute session burned about 175 calories, while an advanced 50-minute routine burned 250 calories.

What muscles do you use for Pilates?

Pilates primarily works the muscles in the trunk area, including the abdominals, glutes, and muscles that run along the spine. It also works hip stabilizers, abductors, and muscles in the neck, back, and shoulders, Milton says.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t try Pilates?

If you are recovering from an injury or have a medical condition, make sure you have clearance from your doctor. Milton also advises people with cardiovascular or blood pressure issues to speak to a doctor first. “Sometimes with core exercises you find a lot of people hold their breath, and that can change blood pressure,” she says.

What’s the difference between Pilates and yoga?

According to the?Cleveland Clinic, Pilates puts more of a focus on core work than yoga does, and there are philosophical differences too, with yoga emphasizing a body and spirit connection and Pilates placing more of a focus on breath.

What should I wear for Pilates?

Wear something that’s breathable, comfortable, stretchy, and relatively form fitting so the instructor can see your body and correct form if needed, Barnett says.

Are there any common Pilates injuries and how can I avoid them?

Pilates doesn’t come with a risk of any specific injury — that is, so long as you’re performing the moves correctly. The best way to prevent injury from occurring is to do the Pilates moves correctly and to always pay attention to your form.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • Kloubec J. Pilates: How Does It Work and Who Needs It??Muscle, Ligaments, and Tendons Journal. April–June 2011.
  • Suarez-Iglesias D, Miller KJ, Seijo-Martinez M, et al. Benefits of Pilates in Parkinson’s Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.?Medicina. August 2019.
  • Fernandez-Rodriguez R, Alvarez-Bueno C, Ferri-Morales A, et al. Pilates Improves Physical Performance and Decreases Risk of Falls in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.?Physiotherapy. September 2021.
  • Lin H, Hung W, Hung J, et al. Effects of Pilates on Patients With Chronic Non-Specific Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review.?Journal of Physical Therapy Science. October 2016.
  • Luiz Vancini R, Bonal Rosell Rayes A, Andre Barbosa de Lira C, et al. Pilates and Aerobic Training Improve Levels of Depression, Anxiety and Quality of Life in Overweight and Obese Individuals.?Arquivos de euro-Psiquiatria. December 2017.
  • Wang Y, Chen Z, Wu Z, et al. Pilates for Overweight or Obesity: A Meta-Analysis.?Frontiers in Physiology. March 2021.
  • ACE-Sponsored Study: Can Pilates Do It All??ACE FitnessMatters. November–December 2005.
  • Trending Topic | Physical Activity Guidelines.?American College of Sports Medicine.
  • Everything You Want to Know About Pilates.?Cleveland Clinic. August 20, 2020.
  • Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans [PDF].?U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2018.
  • Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights. Harvard Health Publishing. March 8, 2021.
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