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Pilates has been having a bit of time off. Once hailed the core strengthening, body conditioning exercise of the masses, in recent years, it’s been somewhat pushed aside while we all have a love affair with yoga.
But those in the fitness world will know that times are a-changing with Pilates having a Sleeping Beauty moment as our interest in the method wakes back up.
The principles that Joseph Pilates created in the 20s are still there as, too, are the pieces of equipment he created to deepen their benefits (think the Reformer machine enjoyed by Meghan Markle).
So, how can you enjoy the Pilates gains, too? What does Pilates for beginners look like and, essentially what do you need to know before getting started?
We quizzed those in the know to find out everything – from what you should wear to how to pick a class to what on Earth it means to perform the ‘scoop’.
Keep reading for your ultimate guide to Pilates for beginners.
What is Pilates?
In its truest (ie classical sense), Pilates is a system of exercises, carried out in a prescribed order, that improve physical strength, flexibility and posture. You only need carry out a few repetitions of each movement because the focus is on the quality of every single movement.
And no, Pilates is not the same as yoga. Read this to find out the differences between yoga vs Pilates.
Who is Pilates Good For?
Everyone – whether you’re new to exercise, are training for an Iron Man, are overcoming an injury or simply want to enhance your posture or undo a day spent chained to your desk.
‘Pilates is a low-impact exercise discipline that is fantastic for strengthening muscles, promoting movement control and building endurance,’ says Restore & Reform director, Lucy Nifontova. ‘The main focus is on improving spinal strength and mobility, thereby reducing the risk of injury and enhancing athletic performance, but it is also wonderful for targeting hard-to-find but important muscle groups such as the glute meds and transversus abdominus.’
Which Type of Pilates is Right for Me?
Like yoga, Pilates comes in many different forms so finding the class that sits best with you can take time and patience.
‘If you want a genuine experience of Pilates then I’d avoid blended classes labelled “Yogalates”, or classes billed as being “in the style of Pilates”,’ says Karen Ingram, Master Instructor for Peak Pilates and founder of the Barefoot Studio. ‘Classical Pilates classes are the most authentic, as they truly measure up to the original work of Joseph Pilates, who created this method. Many Pilates classes have been broken down into easier movements using the principals of Pilates and these are a great place to start if you are injured or really unfit.’
But what’s the difference between Body Control, Classical, Polestar and Stott? And what the hell is a reformer?
‘In the UK, there are a few big schools of Pilates,’ says Ingram. ‘Sometimes these are divided into contemporary Pilates and classical Pilates. Schools, including APPI, train physiotherapists to be Pilates teachers and are perfect for people with injuries. Body Control and Stott are types of contemporary Pilates, which have built on the classical exercises based on developments in sports science. For classical, check out Peak Pilates, which teaches lesson formats across mat, reformer and all the apparatus, as Joseph Pilates intended.’
What Should I Look for when Choosing a Pilates Class?
Picking a pair of leggings is a minefield in itself and the same is true for finding a Pilates for beginners class that’s right for you.
Obviously, the class you go for depends largely on what you’re hoping to get out of it. For example, if you are trying Pilates out for rehab purposes, Nifontova recommends getting sign off from your doctor first and then attending a few 1:1 sessions (designed around your injury) before joining a class.
And if rehab isn’t your goal?
‘A well-programmed Pilates class should work on improving spinal posture and mobility, core and gluteal strength, scapular stabilisation and breathing techniques,’ says Nifontova. ‘We like to steer clients away from “skinny bitch” Pilates, which is often high impact and high intensity and may be taught by people who have a PT qualification but nothing specific to Pilates.’
Here are some top questions you should consider before selecting your beginner Pilates class:
1. What are the qualifications of the instructor?
Look for names such as Peak Pilates, Stott and Body Control.
If they’ve trained with multiple schools – that’s okay (‘We believe that the really good instructors build on their initial training and will take their favourite exercises from each different school, continuously building on their repertoire,’ Nifontova says); if they’ve only done a one- or two-day course: ‘Walk away,’ says Ingram. ‘A quality Pilates education takes months if not years and will include practice teaching, observation, anatomy and other theory, plus face to face learning.’
2. How many people will be in the class?
‘Most reputable Pilates mat classes should be for 12 or less people,’ Ingram says.
3. Where is the class being taught?
‘The gold standard is to learn Pilates in a studio environment, where you can experience the apparatus such as the reformer, as well as mat classes.’ says Ingram. ‘However, there are some fantastic local mat classes to be found in village halls throughout the UK. For me, it’s all about the what, rather than the where.’
What Should I Wear for Pilates?
The all-important question. Follow Nifontova’s five Golden Rules for your beginner Pilates wardrobe.
1. Wear fairly snug fitting comfortable clothing.
2. Sports bras can be more comfortable than normal bras but aren’t necessary because of the low-impact nature of Pilates workouts.
3. Opt for leggings that don’t have a zip pocket on the back as many Pilates exercises are performed lying down and the zip can dig into your lower back – especially during imprint work.
4. If you’re going to a class then ensure you have some socks with you that have grip on the bottom – many gyms will insist that you have a pair and the prices can be eye watering if you have to buy them on the spot.
5. For Reformer Pilates (Pilates performed on a purpose-built resistance machine), make sure you don’t have too much flesh on show. The main part of the machine is upholstered in leather and this can be an unpleasant sweaty experience if you have too much uncovered skin.
How do You ‘Scoop’ in Pilates?
Go to any decent beginner Pilates class and you’ll hear the term ‘scoop’. This is a key element to Pilates – but WTF is it?
‘This is a nickname or shorthand for pulling your tummy in and up, so you activate the deep postural or stabilising muscles such as the transversus abdominus and pelvic floor. Imagine you’re wearing pair of button-fly jeans: button one is low, just above pubic bone; button two is halfway between that and your belly button; button three is your belly button. Place your thumbs onto your belly button and reach your fingertips towards your pubic bone. Now, picture lifting button one towards button two, towards button three and tucking them up and under your ribs. That’s your scoop.’
Still not sure you’ve got it? The below exercises will naturally engage – so help you locate – your transversus abdominus:
Suck your thumb really hard
In a standing position, shift your weight forward so it is 60% over your toes and 40% over your heels
Find a partner and push down on their upturned palms. No one to hand? Press down on a worktop
Breathe out fully
Can I do Pilates at home?
Yes, but with Pilates for beginners, it’s best to attend a class or 1:1 first to nail down the basics. Skip that, and you’ll be missing out on a whole host of benefits.
‘So much of Pilates is about what’s going on, on the inside,’ says Ingram. ‘A teacher will be able to guide you to engage the correct muscles and get the most form your Pilates workout. Once you understand how to perform the exercises for the best results then you could try YouTube videos for a home workout – but do keep going to group class, too.’
Read – 8 of the Best Pilates YouTube Pilates Workouts
Nifontova also rates the Pilates Anytime app for beginners Pilates training at home: ‘The app is affordable (about £10 per month) and has world-class instructors.’
Keep reading: 12 Pilates exercises to try at home.