Meeting Mr Pilates - Click the button for a wonderfully informative 12 minute BBC Sounds report


The History of Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. He was a sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and it was these illnesses that inspired Pilates to dedicate his life to becoming physically stronger. In his youth, Pilates studied and became proficient at bodybuilding, diving, skiing, and gymnastics, and by the age of 14, Pilates was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts.

In 1912, Pilates moved to England and worked as a boxer, circus performer, and self-defence trainer of English detectives. During World War I, he was interned as a prisoner in Lancaster Castle. Whilst there, he worked as a nurse and trained other interns in physical fitness. He set up pulley systems above patients' beds to enable them to exercise and later developed the Cadillac, Reformer and other equipment of which modern versions can be seen in the latest Pilates studios. After the war, Pilates continued his fitness programme in Hamburg working with the local Police. 

By 1926 Pilates left Germany to live in America. Whilst on the ship to New York he met his future wife Clara. Once in New York, Pilates set up an exercise studio and by 1940 he had achieved notoriety in the dance community. A dance magazine in 1956 reported 'virtually every dancer in New York between 1939 and 1951 has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates'. 

During his lifetime only two of Pilates' students opened up their own studios. When in 1967 Pilates passed away, he had left no will and no succession for the Pilates work to carry on. Over the subsequent years, many more Pilates studios were opened and more Pilates training courses were developed. Instructors brought innovations and advancements to the Pilates' work, and it is still advancing and developing throughout the world to this day. 


Pilates Principles


Pilates teaches the art of clearing your mind and focusing your body so that you can concentrate on every movement. This will focus the mind and body together.



When inhaling normally, the lungs expand, the diaphragm drops and the abdomen moves out. During exhalation, the diaphragm lifts and the abdomen moves in. This is natural 'abdominal' breathing.


To strengthen the abdominals they must be contracted, therefore abdominal breathing is not possible. During Pilates lateral thoracic breathing is used, where the core muscles are contracted to 20-30% and the breath goes into the ribs. Breath should be at a comfortable controlled rate and used with the movements. If more than one breath is needed to complete a movement then it must be taken, the breath must not be held.



In Pilates, the movements come from the body's core and the exercises aim to strengthen these muscles. All Pilates exercises are controlled by the deep abdominal muscles including the Transverses Abdominis, Lumbar Multifidus, and Pelvic Floor muscles.



In order to execute the movements properly, Pilates shows the importance of mastering body alignment and positioning.

Flowing Movement

For a balanced and functional training programme, Pilates exercises should be performed in a continuous, flowing way with the eccentric and concentric phases of contraction achieved under slow, controlled movement.



All Pilates movements should be performed with complete control, the focus should be on quality not quantity. Weaker parts of the body are strengthened which helps to create balance and reduces the risk of injury. Control requires many of the principles of Pilates, in particular concentration is required to control the movements whilst  focusing on good technique and body awareness.


The following three principles have been added in recent years:



Pilates teaches you to be aware of your body's strengths and weaknesses, which in turn heightens body awareness, control, and effective movements. Pilates will challenge each person in a different way.



The use of repetition and frequency of exercise session increases your body's skill level and ability to deal with the rigours of daily life.



By learning how to focus your mind on how your body feels during exercise you are able to learn to release the tension within your body. With the release of tension and stress you are able to develop a flowing, natural fluidity.