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What Is Pilates and How Does It Differ From Other Workouts?

This low-impact workout can benefit athletes of all types.

a woman performing a core movement demonstrating the benefit of pilates

As empowering as it can be to lift heavy or tap into your speed and power with cardio, there are so many other types of workouts that can help you maximize your performance potential. Pilates is a classic—and it’s not something just reserved for dancers. Here’s what you need to know.

What Exactly Is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of low-impact exercise that aims to build strength, develop endurance, and improve flexibility. “It was created by [physical trainer] Joseph Pilates, a bodybuilder and boxer, in the 1920s as a way to rehab bedridden World War I soldiers using mattress springs as exercise resistance,” says Stefanie DiLibero, a certified Pilates instructor and owner of Gotham Wellness in New York City. Pilates (the man) originally presented his method as the art of controlled movement and called it “contrology” in his book Return to Life through Contrology.

Now, Pilates (the exercise modality) is seen as a total-body workout—with a strong focus on the core—guided by a few key principles, including breath, concentration, control, precision, and flow. And you don’t need bed springs to do it. Most modern Pilates sessions take place on a mat or a reformer—a spring-loaded machine inspired by Pilates’ work with those veterans. The main difference is how resistance is used (but more on that later). 

Either way, “Pilates is an excellent method for cross-training your body and rehabilitating and preventing injuries,” says Jennifer McCamish, founder of Shape Method, a Pilates, barre, and athletic conditioning studio in Austin, TX. “There are a large number of modifications that allow it to be applicable to all genders and ages, and it can be amped up for professional athletes and dialed back for post-surgical and senior clients.”

The benefits of Pilates have been well-documented, from improving posture and preventing injury to strengthening bones and reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue, and even boosting energy. And there aren’t many drawbacks. Yes, reformers and reformer-based classes can be expensive (and novices would need supervision), but mat Pilates is super accessible and can be done anywhere. You also won’t get cardio benefits from Pilates, so it’s important to incorporate aerobic exercise elsewhere in your fitness routine.

How Does Pilates Differ From Yoga and HIIT? 

Pilates, yoga, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are all workouts with long histories and numerous health benefits—including physical and mental payoffs—and lots of different interpretations. But they’re certainly not interchangeable. 

Yoga and Pilates do have a focus on breath in common, but “yoga, traditionally, is a meditative and mind-focusing practice to calm and soothe the body and mind,” says McCamish. “In Pilates, the mind-body-breath connection is important because if we can learn more about our bodies—what muscles we’re actually engaging when we feel a sensation—we can better reach our goals.” And while yoga’s end goals (in general) are to connect to the breath and quiet the mind, the goals of Pilates are primarily physical (balance, stability, flexibility, etc.).

HIIT, on the other hand, is very different from Pilates. HIIT is all about high intensity and often includes high-impact, cardio-based exercises and toggling between periods of work and rest or recovery, says McCamish. Pilates, on the other hand, is a low-impact form of exercise that aims to build a healthy body through precise, controlled movements, and breathing, adds DiLibero. In Pilates, the more intentional you are, the more benefits you’ll see.

Is Pilates Strength Training?

The short answer: Yes. Strength training is also known as resistance training—a.k.a. any type of exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance, which can lead to gains in strength and power. 

“Mat Pilates exercises use gravity to build muscles while Pilates machine exercises mainly use the resistance of springs as a way to build muscles,” says DiLibero. On the floor, your body weight is your resistance, while a machine allows you to amp up or dial back the amount of resistance, adds McCamish.

While traditional lifting may target certain larger muscles, Pilates works as strength training by “training the small stabilizing muscles to work in conjunction with the larger muscle groups, making your body more efficient overall,” says McCamish.

Plus, it works. People who did one hour of Pilates twice a week for 12 weeks reported significant increases in abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility, and upper-body muscular endurance, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found. Those who did one hour of Pilates three times a week for eight weeks improved their scores on a functional movement screening (which measures balance, stability, mobility, and more) more than those who practiced yoga instead, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation.

How Do You Work Pilates Into Your Training Routine? 

If you’re not already a regular practitioner, Pilates can help you improve key performance areas—even if you don’t do it that often. “Pilates builds both muscle and body awareness, making it a great complement to more cardio-intensive and high-impact activities such as running and HIIT,” says DiLibero. The floor-based exercises, she adds, are also a great way to train your core and can easily be added to any fitness routine. 

It can be tough to incorporate new types of exercise if you’re already following a training plan (there are only so many days in the week), but even once a week can enhance the quality of your other workouts. Otherwise, “use Pilates every few days as a supplement to keep your body balanced or use it daily as your primary workouts,” says McCamish. Tonal offers a wide range of Pilates options from bite-sized sessions that help you learn basic moves to workouts that span between 10 to 40 minutes so you can fit one into any schedule.

Remember, like all forms of exercise, consistency is key. The more time you spend doing Pilates, the better you’ll get at nailing those key principles like control and precision—and the more benefits you’ll see down the road.