What is Pilates? Build strength and balance with our beginner’s guide

Our Pilates explainer covers what it is, how to pick the right type for you, and where to find a class.

Have you ever wanted to try Pilates but aren’t sure what’s involved and whether it’s for you? Then our expert guide is for you.

Pilates is a great low-impact exercise which can help with strength, flexibility and muscle tone. Here we bring together experts to answer the most common questions you may have – including what Pilates is, how to find a class and the benefits of practising this form of exercise. 

A close up of women in a pilates doing four point balancing exercisesCredit: Shutterstock / Sabrina Bracher
Pilates is a great form of exercise, helping to build strength, flexibility and balance

I started practising Pilates almost 15 years ago. I was recovering from spinal surgery and both my surgeon and physiotherapist advised me to do it, as developing strong core muscles would be vital to my recovery. 

I took their advice and since then I have attended a regular Pilates class. No one knew if I would make a full recovery from my surgery, but I believe that this form of exercise was fundamental to me being able to do all the things I loved again – from hiking, to running, paddleboarding and even climbing – and most important for me, it helps keep me virtually pain free. 

However, Pilates isn’t just for people with back problems. It is practised by runners, athletes and those just wanting to stay flexible and strong. If you haven’t tried it yet, then read on to find out why you should give it a go. 

A woman practising pilates on a reformer machineCredit: Exceptional.com
Cherryson practising Pilates on a reformer machine – she says it helps with back pain

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a system of low-impact, repetitive exercises, such as shoulder bridges, leg lifts and curl ups. It is performed on a cushioned mat or other equipment.

Concentrating on strength, balance and flexibility, it is typically a medium intensity workout – it will raise your heart rate, make you breathe a little faster and raise your body temperature. 

Pilates also concentrates on the mind-body connection. Breathing is a vital part of it, along with a focus on making each exercise as precise and beneficial as possible. 

The practice was developed by Joseph Pilates, who devised an exercise programme for injured dancers and soldiers often using unheard-of and innovative techniques to get them moving. Originally from Germany, he opened the first Pilates studio in 1926, in New York. 

What is Pilates good for?

There are so many reasons why you should practise Pilates. It is a great way to exercise and is often used for rehabilitation after injury or illness. 

Many people, like me, only discover Pilates after suffering back problems, and research shows that it does make a difference. 

Yet it has so many more health benefits, especially as we get older, and helps with balance, flexibility and core strength. 

Lynne Robinson co-founded Body Control Pilates in 1995 and now, almost 30 years later, it is a world leader, with more than 1,500 trained instructors.  

Lynne Robinson who founded a world wide pilates organisationCredit: Body Control Pilates
Lynne Robinson, the co-founder of Body Control Pilates

Robinson says: “It’s hard not to see Pilates as the ultimate antidote to ageing. More than just an exercise regime, it’s a conditioning programme for both mind and body.

“With regular practice, people report that their posture and overall muscle tone dramatically improve. In fact, it is often others who first notice this as you stand taller, straighter, with your waistline more streamlined. “ 

She adds: “If stiff joints trouble you, Pilates can help by gently mobilising them and then strengthening the muscles which support them.

“You’ll learn how to breathe more efficiently and how to connect to your deep core muscles.

“Every exercise works on this natural inner girdle of strength, improving your core stability. This is just one of the many reasons why Pilates is often recommended by medical practitioners for the management of low back pain.” 

Can Pilates help with weight loss?

Although Pilates is a great exercise, it won’t necessarily help you lose weight unless you combine it with healthy eating. But a 2021 study of more than 300 people found that practising Pilates can dramatically reduce body weight, BMI and body fat percentage in adults who are overweight or obese. 


What are the types of Pilates?

There are six different types of Pilates. They are:

  • Mat Pilates
  • Reformer Pilates
  • Classical Pilates
  • Contemporary Pilates
  • Stott Pilates
  • Clinical Pilates

Mat and Classical Pilates are the most commonly practiced forms, but all of them have specific benefits and appeal. Below we outline each in more detail.

Mat Pilates

This is the most accessible form of Pilates. It is practised on a mat and focuses on core strength and flexibility. You can practise this one-to-one, in a class, or at home in an online class.

Reformer Pilates

Reformer Pilates is great for beginners and the more advanced alike. It’s performed on a specially designed reformer machine and uses the same exercises as mat Pilates.

The machine looks like an 8ft (2.4m) long bed frame, with springs, ropes, pulleys and a sliding carriage. It is adjustable for body size, level or skill. Your body weight and the adjustable resistance of the springs are what make the exercises easier or more difficult.

A woman on a reformer Pilates machine being coached by an instructorCredit: Shutterstock / Iryna Inshyna
Reformer Pilates involves a specially-designed machine

Classical Pilates

This form stays true to the original workout developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s.

The exercises in a session are performed in the precise sequence he intended, starting with foundation exercises as a warmup and progressing to more advanced movements.

Contemporary Pilates

This is essentially everything that came after classical Pilates. It is based on Joseph Pilates original work but there have been changes – i.e. exercises have been added or modified as our understanding of the human body has developed. It also doesn’t follow the exact order of Pilates’ original workout. 

A group of people doing the shoulder bridge Pilates exerciseCredit: Shutterstock / BearFotos
‘Shoulder bridge’ is one of the Classical Pilates moves

Stott Pilates

Developed by Canadians Lindsay and Moira Merrithew and a team of physiotherapists, this form contains the same exercises, but focuses more on the alignment of your posture by keeping the spine in a neutral position rather than flat back. The sequence of exercises is also different to the original classical form.

Clinical Pilates

As its name suggests, this is used for patient-specific treatment after an injury or surgery.

It differs from other forms of Pilates because it takes into account an individual’s specific injuries and physical needs so each workout is designed for each person practising it.

Can anyone do Pilates?

Pilates is often recommended by physiotherapists after injury and can be modified to provide either a gentle strength training program or a challenging workout –it is suitable for both beginners and for people who already exercise regularly. 

Robinson says: “Every exercise works on this natural inner girdle of strength, improving your core stability. This is just one of the many reasons why Pilates is often recommended by medical practitioners for the management of low back pain.” 

But Pilates isn’t just for people with backache. 

“Pilates is a scientific, considered practice that changes the way you move, the way you feel,” says Natalie Clough, a leading Pilates instructor from London. She runs in-person and online classes.

“It isn’t just rehab, it can strengthen your body for competitive sports, even extreme sports. I’ve taught athletes, ex-athletes, runners, people competing in Ironman, and from all walks of life.

“You can work really hard in a Pilates session – that’s the beauty of it and why it’s so incredible. It is whatever you want it to be.” 

If you have any health issues or concerns, then speak to your GP before you start Pilates. Robinson advises that there are some conditions that it isn’t recommended for, including herniated discs, unstable blood pressure and severe osteoporosis.

How to find a Pilates class

If you are nervous or have any concerns, it’s worth booking a one-to-one session with an instructor to start with. But if you are relatively fit and want to try Pilates for the first time, then a group class is ideal.  

Clough says a good way to find a class is through word of mouth. 

She says: “Chances are you’ve got a friend or a family member who does Pilates and they will rave about their instructor. That’s the best starting point.” 

A woman pilates instructorCredit: Natalie Clough
Clough says finding a good Pilates class can be the key to transforming your body

If you don’t know anyone, she suggests doing an online search, either using Google or social media. Read the reviews and look at the instructor’s website if they have one, so you can decide whether they will be right for you. 

“Then email the instructor beforehand or turn up a bit early to the class so you can have a chat first,” recommends Clough. This is particularly important if you have any injuries or concerns that you’d like to speak about. 

“Don’t expect to be good at it the first time, just like you wouldn’t expect to play like Rafael Nadal on your first tennis lesson. The more you do it, the better you will get.” 

A group of women in a pilates classCredit: Shutterstock / BearFotos
Joining a Pilates class is an ideal way to gain confidence and meet people

Lynne Robinson also says in-person classes are a great way to start. 

But she warns: “Avoid large classes and any class where the teacher stays out front, as even in a group class you should receive individual attention.   

“You may prefer to look for specialist teachers with further training and qualifications. This can vary from teachers working in professional sport, to teachers qualified to work with osteoporosis, menopause, low back pain, even golf.   

“Whatever your interest, Pilates can help you do it better. But above all, find a teacher whose classes you enjoy and, remember, Pilates is for life.” 

Can I do Pilates at home?

You don’t need to go to an in-person class to practise Pilates. It is a great exercise to do at home. 

There is a huge choice of online instructors, with live classes or on demand. These include Robinson’s Body Control Pilates, Clough’s Lifebody platform, and The Girl with the Pilates Mat, Rachel Lawrence, who has more than 200,000 followers on her free YouTube channel. 

Brighton-based Lawrence says: “An online class is a great way to start your practice. Going to an in-person group can be pretty scary to someone starting out and an online class gives you the opportunity to get the feel of it. 

A man practicing Pilates at homeCredit: Shutterstock / Prostock-studio
Various at-home Pilates options are available, from YouTube videos to online classes

Don’t worry about not knowing what you are doing, as an online instructor will give you a lot of instruction during a lesson.

“When I teach a class you can watch what I am doing and I will describe exactly how it feels and how to get the best out of the exercise for your body.

“You won’t get it right to start with and Pilates looks different for everyone – a 20-year-old will never look the same as a 60-year-old.

“The most important thing is that as long as it doesn’t cause you any pain, then you are doing it fine.”

A woman doing pilates balancing on an exercise ballCredit: Rachel Lawrence
Lawrence has more than 200,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel

She also recommends looking at different classes online to find one that really suits you.

“Remind yourself that this is the start of a new lifestyle,” she says, adding to remind yourself: “I want to keep doing the things that I love doing for as long as I possibly can. I’m going to bring Pilates into my life so that I am fitter, more flexible and stronger.”

What do I need to practise Pilates?

Lawrence says it is cheap to start, but a cushioned mat is vital. 

“Don’t use a yoga mat,” she warns. “They aren’t thick enough. As we get older, our bones, and especially our spines, can feel a bit more tender, so you want a good quality mat, at least 10mm [about a third of an inch] thick.”

Lawrence recommends the Core Balance Pilates Mat (£24.99) as a great budget option. 

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Core Balance Pilates Mat

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Core Balance Pilates Mat

“You don’t need special clothes,” Lawrence adds. If you are working out at home, you could do it in your pyjamas.But leggings for women, jogging bottoms for men, and a T-shirt arebest, and alsogreat for an in-person class. 

“Many people also use non-slip socks, which give you added security and warmth during winter.” 

In time you will use equipment such as a Pilates ring, ball, strap and blocks, but initially a mat and comfortable clothing is all you need to get started. 

Try a beginners Pilates workout

Ready to give Pilates a try? Robinson suggests trying this video from her Body Control Pilates YouTube channel as a taster of what to expect in a class.

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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