In the 1990s, ballet dancers were the people most in-the-know about pilates. Since pilates for beginners (and professional dancers) provides a lot of benefits, including better core strength and flexibility, ballet was a natural pairing with pilates. However, by the mid-2000s, pilates became fully mainstream and a great workout for everyone. Though, it might surprise you to find out that pilates actually started in the United States in 1926!
Over its impressive nearly 100 year stay in the U.S., pilates has benefited many people. Pilates is utilized by the mainstream as a form of muscle building and flexibility exercise, but it is also employed by physical therapists to help restore and heal clients. As such, it is a good form of exercise for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Don’t confuse its low-impact style for an easy workout. While your heart might not be pumping like it is when you go for a long run or do a HITT workout, you’ll find that the balancing and small, repetitive movements leave you plenty sore the next day. The ultimate goal of pilates is to make you feel more powerful and also to feel more at ease in your body.
What do you need to know before you start?
First and foremost, there is definitely a place and space for beginners in pilates. A lot of the imaging and marketing surrounding pilates studios is much like the image above, meaning that the marketing shows someone who is very advanced doing a very cool pose in front of a beautiful background. But, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and no one becomes advanced at pilates in a short period of time either.
As someone who had been practicing yoga and barre for about 4 years, my first pilates workout made me question if I really knew my own body. A great trainer or coach will start you with the basics; afterall, you have to learn to walk before you run. Also, given that a goal of pilates is flexibility, safety is also a concern, so even advanced practitioners will still go back to the basics often to reground themselves. Like all exercise, please listen to your body. Remember, there is a difference between pain and soreness and that line can mean the difference between building muscle and injury.
As a teacher, I would often tell my students, “I am looking for quality over quantity in this writing response.” The same is true for pilates. When you stabilize one portion of your body, another portion is making small movements. It’s better to make small, safe, controlled movements and increase your range and reps over time.
Another tool in your bag is your breath control. Much like with yoga, where you will practice ujjayi breathing, in pilates you use your breath to stabilize your core and expand your lungs as you work out. The idea is that your core lifts your lungs and ribcage allowing them to expand as much as possible, which helps you move through more difficult positions and stabilize your body overall.
Finally, pilates has a lot of specific vocabulary. You might not get all the words right away. That’s okay. No one does. Use as many context clues as you can, and NEVER be afraid to simply ask. Your trainer knows you’re new, and they want to help you!
What equipment do you need?
You might assume you need a machine like the one pictured below. However, you would be wrong. In order to start pilates, all you really need is a small towel and a mat. If you have a yoga mat, you’ll likely want to also find a thick towel or blanket to put on top of it. This is because pilates for beginners requires some rolling exercises that can be painful on a thin yoga mat. You can also use a soft, carpeted area if you don’t have a mat.
As you increase in your workouts, you’ll want a few more items. You might want to try using resistance bands or light weights in your reps. Alternatively, you can buy more specialized pilates equipment like a magic band or a Swiss ball. However, these items are definitely not necessary for beginners.
What should your workout plan be?
Much like in yoga, breath work is foundational in pilates, so you’ll want to focus on that at the beginning. Strong breath work will help you pace yourself, control your movements, and keep your body in sync as you work through the movements.
Because pilates is low impact, you can definitely do pilates 2-3 times a week as a beginner. To ring a bell that’s already been rung, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. If you are aiming for 3 workouts a week and you notice pain, drop down to 2 times a week. Your body will thank you and you will grow stronger if you practice mindfulness rather than pushing through workouts that your body is telling you are not right.
Also, remember your body is different day to day and moment to moment. As a distance runner, there are days I can push out a 10k (6.2 miles) with ease, but other days when an old injury in my knee means 2 miles is the most I will get out without hurting myself. That’s all perfectly normal and fine. As you get deeper into pilates workouts, you’ll find that you are working joints and muscles that aren’t often worked for you and you might need to take more time between workouts than you originally anticipated. That’s not a failure! It’s simply your body responding to a new form of exercise.
Finally, I would recommend at least a few sessions with a pilates instructor before branching out of your own. Form is so important in pilates, and it’s really important to learn from someone who knows proper form to ensure the least chance for injury.
Check out HOKALI’s pilates membership, connect with instructors and studios near you to get started. Most studios will offer 1-1 workouts as well as group classes. They also offer mat workouts or machine workouts or even circuit workouts. You’ll need to make decisions about what is the most interesting to you and go from there. I would recommend trying each of the types of workouts your local studio offers to get a sense of what pilates can offer you. For me, machine workouts are significantly harder than mat workouts, and I need to pace myself much more, but you might find your home on the machine. From there, you’ll work your way up with online or in person classes.