Here we take a closer look at the founder of the popular exercise routine called pilates, Joseph Pilates, how he came up with the idea, and how it evolved.
What Are the Origins of Pilates?
What is pilates? Pilates was invented by Joseph Pilates. He was a German-born fitness guru who moved to the United States in the 1920s. There, in New York, he founded the first pilates studio.
Pilates has dance, martial arts, yoga, gymnastics, and ballet origins. It also has a focus on breathing awareness, spinal alignment, and core body movements1. Just try the pilates 100 or hundreds exercise for a great core workout.
In effect, it is the full package: A workout for the mind, body, and spirit. It’s a great routine for everyone — no matter your age, size, fitness level, or workout goals.
Pilates exercises can help you strengthening and toning your muscles, lose weight, improve flexibility, and more. Workouts can be catered to the individual, and today, there are many pilates variations available as well. It is also an excellent exercise for beginners.
The 6 Essential Principles of Pilates are as follows:
Who Was Joseph Pilates?
The history of an exercise is often difficult to pin down. But with the pilates history, the story is easy to trace.
The history of pilates starts with Joseph Hubertus Pilates, its inventor.
Joe Pilates (short of Joseph Pilates) was born in Germany in a town called Mönchengladbach in 18832. His mother was a naturopath. His father was a prize-winning Greek gymnast. Both of his parents greatly influenced Joseph’s later interest in therapeutic fitness.
As a young man, he had many medical problems. These included rheumatic fever, rickets, and asthma. He was so sickly, in fact, that his parents were told he may die as a child. Defiantly, however, Joseph did not give up or wallow in his illness.
Instead, he dedicated himself to getting his body back in shape. He took up a number of fitness regimens, including martial arts, bodybuilding, gymnastics, boxing, and yoga. He also went outside to exercise and focused on improving his breathing to better his asthma.
At the age of 19, Joseph took his newfound fitness skills on the road. He began making a living as a circus performer and professional boxer in England.
World War I was about to begin, however, and as a German, this meant Joseph would have to go into a British enemies citizens internment camp on English territory. He was sent to the Isle of Man.
At the camp, Joseph assisted other Germans (many of whom had been wounded at war) in recuperating from their injuries. He removed bedsprings and attached them to the beds the soldiers were lying in. In this way, he created resistance “machines” that the ailing soldiers could work out with.
After the war, Joseph moved back to Germany to continue his work on various types of physical fitness. Before World War II, however, he left Germany for the United States and met his future wife on the passenger ship that brought him there.
Together, he and his wife Clara (a nurse) opened a fitness studio in New York City in the 1920s. It specialized in what they called Contrology, a type of fitness they invented.
Contrology (later to become “pilates”), focused on core strength, alignment of the spine, and awareness of the breath. Their studio became famous throughout New York.
The Pilates taught together until the 1960s, and Joseph wrote two books. Joseph’s philosophy centered around complete connection and coordination of the mind, body, and spirit. You will see this sentiment in most all Joseph Pilates quotes and in his writing.
How Students Became Teachers
One of the hallmarks of pilates exercises has to do with teacher training and the organic way in which students became teachers, especially at the inception of the pilates method in New York.
As Joseph’s fitness method began to take off in the city3, New York professionals quickly found their way to the studio. In fact, the studio’s proximity to Broadway meant that many dancers, choreographers, and performers soon took up the practice and began to share a pilates connection.
These professionals would later go on to become the first generation of pilates teachers and instructors. Joseph himself taught them, and in the 1980s, these teachers began to form their own studios and pilates power gyms. They also trained their own students who would also become teachers.
In this way, the pilates method fanned out in the New York area and especially among dancers and choreographers.
How Movie Stars Helped Pilates to Grow
With its teachings in grace, strength, and rehabilitation, pilates grew quickly among famous figures, including movies stars, musicians, athletes, and others in the spotlight.
This inevitably helped the pilates evolution throughout the U.S. and other countries. Fans heard that their favorite celebrities used pilates to achieve toned, beautiful bodies and optimal health.
Throughout the 90s and into the 2000s, pilates studios began to sprout up in major cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. Today, most cities and even smaller towns have pilates studios. This is true throughout the world, not just in America.
Many well-known people still practice and have a love for pilates as well, including:
- Kate Hudson
- Jennifer Aniston
- David Beckham
- Sophia Vergara
- Jane Seymour
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Gwyneth Paltrow
Pilates: Frequently Asked Questions
Below you will find some of the most asked questions about pilates.
Is Joseph Pilates still alive?
No, Joseph Pilates died on October 9, 1967 in New York.
How old was Joseph Pilates when he died?
Joe Pilates was 83 years old when he died.
Does pilates work?
It depends on how you want pilates to work for you. Pilates is a balanced body workout.
It is most effective at improving flexibility, strength (especially core strength), breathing, posture, and overall physical fitness.
Who can do pilates?
Pilates is for men and women and most all ages. Anyone can do pilates, unless otherwise instructed by a medical professional. You can find pilates for seniors, pilates for athletes, pilates for pre/post natal, amongst the available classes both in studios and online.
The pilates fitness method is for novices and serious athletes alike. Simply find your entry point with pilates classes or instructors that will help you begin at your own pace.
What are the props and equipment used in pilates?
Reformers are the most common pieces of equipment used in pilates exercises.
Other pilates equipment and props include pilates mats, pilates balance cushions, pilates core training balls, foam rollers, weighted pilates balls, and pilates resistance bands.
How do you pronounce pilates?
Pilates is pronounced [pih-la-teeze].
What kind of workout is pilates?
Pilates is a low-impact form of exercise that focuses on toning and strength as well as flexibility and spinal alignment. It can be done on a mat or a machine called a pilates reformer.
While you typically won’t get a cardiovascular workout from pilates, it is an excellent fitness routine to incorporate into your overall workout. It strengthens and tones, but it also improves flexibility, breathing, posture, and joint pain.
Will I lose weight doing pilates?
Pilates can certainly be used for weight loss and to help maintain a healthy physique.
At the same time, remember that pilates works best for toning muscles, aligning the spine, and improving overall health and fitness. In all likelihood, something like the pilates hundreds workout is going to make you sweat the most. Still, pilates is not a traditional form of cardio.
It is also advised that a healthy diet be paired with the pilates method to optimize results.
Is pilates for beginners?
Yes, pilates is a great exercise for beginners. Read more about it in our pilates for beginners blog. While many professional dancers, athletes, and already-fit people do pilates, it's a common misconception that this fitness method is only for the pros. In fact, the pilates origin is one of helping novices in particular.
If you're just starting out, however, be sure to choose a beginner pilates class or workout regimen. Mat pilates is a great place to start.
If you have unique physical concerns or restraints, you can speak with your personal pilates instructor for guidance as well.
If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.
― Joseph Pilates