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How does Pilates work?

Despite the long history of Pilates since its birth in the 1920's there is not an extensive list of verifiable studies answering exactly how does Pilates work. When Joseph Pilates developed and tested these movement principles he, as did all those people who he taught, knew precisely how Pilates benefited their bodies. However, their experiences and much of those published since then have been largely anecdotal claims based on personal developments.

In our Physiotherapy clinic we talk about 'evidence-based practise' which is about taking into consideration scientific research evidence combined with the Physiotherapist's clinical experience. With Pilates however we don't have the same scope of scientifically proven evidence to draw upon to help us answer the question about how does Pilates work.

That said, interest in Pilates has exploded world-wide over the past decade and there are more than enough Chartered Physiotherapists as well as fitness instructors, sports coaches and movement specialists who are using various versions of the Pilates system with great effect, supporting the validity of the Pilates system.

What we do know for sure is that Pilates includes many principles of various accepted rehabilitation methods, including the value of core conditioning, which do have scientific support for treating such conditions as low back pain.

Here's what we can tell you about how does Pilates work

There are some underlying principles at the foundation of the Pilates system. Over the years these principles have been adapted by various specialists to suit their specific sport or need. So you may read or hear Pilates described on the basis of either 4, 5, 6 or even 9 core principles. I don't see a right or wrong answer here but in order to explain to you I am going to use 6.

You will notice how these principles could and maybe should apply to all exercise training programmes and is now clear to see why professional athletes include Pilates in their routines.

The 6 principles behind how does Pilates work


A greater focus on the movement increases your body awareness


Optimal technique is safer, will activate the right muscles and will produce more effective results


All movements begin within the core musculature and activating specific muscles in sequence improves effort efficiency

Conscious breathing

Bringing rhythm of your breath into each movement helps you maintain focus and activate deep stabilising muscles

Core alignment

Good posture is the backbone of health and is achieved through neutral alignment from head, neck, spine and pelvis through to your feet


Repetition allows your brain to learn the correct way to move. Pilates is about smooth and continuous movement creating synergy between mind and body


How does Pilates work for an athlete vs you or me?

Pilates performed on a mat - a floor based routine includes about 50 exercises that are relatively simple and will be repeated through varied sequences of movement. These 50 exercises can be adapted in the way they are performed to achieve different objectives, making a Pilates mat routine very flexible indeed. This is very important for those who have had a back injury, for example. The exercises can be ‘tailored’ to ensure best results in a way which will reduce the risk of re-aggravating the injury. Pilates exercises can be performed to provide more gentle strength training necessary in rehabilitation programmes or the pace can be faster, holds longer or limbs extended further, etc, for a far more challenging workout.

It is important to note that a Pilates mat routine uses your own body weight as the main resistance load and is not an exercise system meant for maximum exertion and muscle mass gain. Rather, the focus is on proper muscle activation sequence, energy efficiency and good technique as a safe means of developing a strong core, greater flexibility, improved posture and good balance. The end result, a body that feels better, is stronger, more resilient and less prone to injury.

Pilates is also claimed by many to be an excellent means for reducing stress thanks to the mind focus, centring and breathing rhythm aspects that share similar benefits as described in meditation practises. This can also play an important part in ongoing pain management.

Written by Robin

Follow-on reading:

Why Is Pilates Good For You?

What Are the Benefits Of Pilates With A Physio?

PhysioPilates ~ healthy moving since 2011
Mount Merrion Physiotherapy
105 Trees Rd, Mount Merrion, Co Dublin. Tel. 01 283 4303