top of page

What is Pilates.....REALLY? ---> It's Just Exercise - On Really Neat Equipment!

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

"If your spine is stiff at 30, you are old. If it is flexible at 60, you are young"

Joseph Pilates offers photographer Chuck "I.C." Rapoport a firsthand demonstration of his "Bednasium" machine

October 4, 1961 (1)

Movement IS Movement. For the actions of bending at the knee and hip, simultaneously, there are many terms. In the gym, we call it squats or lunges. In dance, we call it plie'. When preparing to shoot a 3-point throw in basketball, we call it the "preparatory phase". In tennis, we call it "a split-step". And, in walking, we call it part of the gait cycle "toe-off & mid-swing" No matter the coined term, for the chosen activity, the body, its muscles, joints, and bones, are always ready to produce the deliberate actions we want to perform. Hence, we look to disciplines of movement that allow us to strengthen, lengthen, and engage our minds in performance of voluntary motion.

Pilates is not an esoteric choice for exercise. It is not yoga or even close to the discipline. Pilates is a system, and method, of movement, on specifically designed equipment, designed by Joseph himself. He did not coin the term "Pilates". This term became a generic term, resultant from legal challenges, in the late 1990's - to early 2000.

"Contrology" was the term Joseph Pilates decidedly chose. He believed, emphatically, at the time, that one had to focus and control one's intention and execution of any one given exercise in order to gain the maximum benefits of an exercise. Additionally, he believed that excessive repetitions were not necessary because one's focus was so intense that the health benefits were achieved with focus, concentration, and intention.

Circa 1950's

Posture & Poise Headdress

His method of movement is simply exercise. As with ALL exercise, the bones of our vertebral column can ONLY perform 4 movements and maintain 1 static position: flexion (bending forward), extension (bending backward), lateral flexion (bending to the side), rotation (revolving around the spinal cord - which it protects), and the absence of movement which it maintains its stacked vertebral bones without motion in any direction. ALL movement and motion relate, and are determined, by the vertebral column, WITHOUT exception. Hence, humans can ONLY move in 4 directions and can choose NOT to move. What is misunderstood as endless exercises, has only to add "choreography" of the remainder of the human body to the obligatory actions of the remainder of the bones, muscles, joints, and nerves.

The DISTINCT and UNIQUENESS of Joseph Pilates' Pilates (Contrology) is the equipment he designed and had built: the Universal Reformer, the Trapeze Table (Cadillac), the Wunda Chair, the Magic Circle, the Head Harness, Toe and Finger correctors/Gizmos, the Spine Corrector, the Ladder barrel, the Guillotine, the Catapult, the Ped-O-Pull, the Straight Back Chair, and the Mat. On these apparatuses, his repertoire of the named exercises can be compared exactly to known exercises of today, just different names, and varied choreography. A unique attribute of performing the same exercise on all the equipment allows the body to strengthen the muscles in varied directional lines of pull whereby the health of the muscles is exceptional. The performance of the execution of a single exercise, such as lunges, demands that the body adapt to the same movement but the plane of movement, the body's position, and choosing between gravity and anti-gravity demands and compels the body to perform at varied angles and creates various shapes as the exercise is performed.

Joseph Pilates Performing The Teaser Circa 1940's (3)

He designed his equipment to be an integrative set of apparatuses that allowed motion to be performed in all planes of movement, benefitting from both gravity and anti-gravity effects. The equipment is made to be utilized interchangeably thereby challenging the vertebral column to move, or not move, in all 4 directions, thereby building strength and endurance of the deep tonic muscles of the back, the QLs, and the hip flexors which all combine to support the trunk and the axial skeleton, for intended movement and to protect the body's visceral organs.

Central to the cornerstones of his system of movement arise from the foundational element of the health of the spine and 6 cardinal principles when executing all movement: Breath, Center, Concentration, Control, Fluidity, Precision. The health of the spine was to be coveted and the 6 principles he outlined worked to ensure that a person attains and maintains exceptional health and a flexible and health spinal column.

At the end of a true Pilates session, based ONLY on his exercises and NOT Pilates-esque exercises (ie. "Poolates"), you have followed a tradition, by now over 100 years old, and set by Joseph Pilates to ensure your session is rooted in engaging your mind and attaining your best health.


(1) Ryan, Laurette, "A Lifestyle". Vie Magazine. May 2018; August 3, 2023.

(2) Skaflen, Kari, "The Pilates Chair". Pilates Nosara, Costa Rica. October 27, 2017; August 3, 2023.

(3) Cooper, Kristi. Pilates History: Who Was Jospeh Pilates?. Pilates Anytime.

Dr. Erica Nelson PT-DPT, MSSM, BSc, MLD

24 views0 comments


bottom of page