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A beginner’s guide to getting started with Pilates

It's never too late to start a Pilates practice. This low-impact, full-body exercise program will strengthen your core, reduce the load on your back and improve your mobility. It basically makes you feel better!

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a series of low-impact exercises developed by German physical trainer Josef Pilates in the 1920s. His system was based on six principles: centring, concentration, control, breath, precision and fluidity. Pilates referred to the body’s core as its “powerhouse” and believed that learning to control breathing was the most important principle in his method.

The exercises themselves focus on balance, strength, flexibility and mobility while keeping the core activated. Core activation means you engage your torso muscles and consider your breath through every movement in order to stabilise your spine. So your body’s structure is supported throughout the exercises, which can help relieve lower back pain as well as decrease your risk of falling.

Benefits of Pilates

As well as relief for back pain and better stability, Pilates has been proven to have many other benefits. These include:

With a list like that to champion it, it’s little wonder that Pilates has been practised for over 100 years.

Mat versus Reformer Pilates

If you’re just starting out with Pilates, it’s important to know that there are many ways to practise it. The first distinction is between mat-based Pilates and Reformer Pilates.

Most beginners start out with mat Pilates classes as they are more accessible (and generally far cheaper) than Reformer classes. This style of Pilates uses your own body weight to create resistance to improve your strength and flexibility. Most local gyms will offer mat Pilates by specialist-trained instructors

Reformer Pilates uses a specialist machine to add both support and resistance to your workout via a series of heavy springs. Be warned, it looks like quite a confronting apparatus, but don’t be intimidated – it’s actually great fun to use. 

The Reformer was originally designed by Josef Pilates to help rehabilitate World War I soldiers. These days it’s often used by physiotherapists as part of an overall Clinical Pilates rehabilitation program.

Pilates versus Clinical Pilates

When Pilates is offered by a qualified physiotherapist, it’s referred to as Clinical Pilates. Clinical Pilates takes into account an individual’s specific needs and often focuses on treating a key issue (like back pain or injury recovery).

Even if you’re injury-free, it’s worth going to a couple of Clinical Pilates classes when you’re just starting out as the individual attention means you can learn how to correctly engage your core, control your breath and use the Reformer.

That said, while receiving expert individual instruction is beneficial, the cost can be prohibitive for some. The good news is, you can still do Reformer Pilates at specialist Pilates studios - ask around to see if there’s one local to you.

Getting started at home

If all that still sounds a bit intimidating, you can always start a gentle Pilates program at home. There are countless instructors on YouTube offering mat Pilates classes for free or a small subscription fee. Be sure to start at the beginning of their program, learning how to correctly engage your core and breathe before you progress to other Pilates exercises.

Here are some reputable channels to get you started:

  • Physio Éireann – this Irish physiotherapist has created an excellent series of beginner basics that is a good place to learn the key fundamentals of Pilates.
  • Lindywell – Robin Long offers a ‘back to basics’ program with 10-15 minute workouts that make consistent practise achievable.
  • The Girl with the Pilates Mat – Rachel has a ‘seniors’ series that takes into account the fact that the hardest part of Pilates when you’re older is often getting on and off the floor!
  • Lottie Murphy – Lottie’s soothing, calm approach is very motivating when you’re just getting started.
  • Kait Coates – Kait offers a seated Pilates program for absolute beginners who have joint sensitivity.