So What Exactly is Pilates?

Photographic portrait of Joseph PilatesThe German immigrant Joseph Pilates first developed Pilates as a form of exercise in England when he was interned on The Isle of Mann around 1914. As a child growing up in Germany he had rickets disease, asthma and rheumatic fever and was told he would never be able to play sport or be very active. Joseph Pilates defied this prediction, studied the rigorous exercise regimens of the ancient Greeks and Romans as well as yoga and by his teens became adept at gymnastics, skiing and diving.

When Joseph first arrived in England in 1912 he found work as a boxer and he trained detectives from Scotland Yard in self-defence. While interned on The Isle of Mann Joseph Pilates was trained as an orderly in the local hospital.

In an effort to rehabilitate those in his care he devised a system of exercise using springs from old beds and other easily made props that could be used to provide progressive resistance exercise and allow partial weight bearing in a confined space. The doctors quickly noticed that those in Joe’s care recovered faster and were much stronger than other hospital inpatients.

After the war Pilates returned to Germany where he further developed his program of exercise but when his help was sought to train the German army he immigrated to America and adapted his mat program of 34 exercises to dancers and gymnasts.

He developed his powerhouse theory of strength emanating from centre of the body including the abdomen, back and gluteal muscles and called his program ‘Contrology’ meaning mind-body control of movement. His principals of Contrology incorporated breathing, concentration, control, centering, precision and flow.

Joseph Pilates was well ahead of his time in many ways but if you ever get a chance to view some of the videos of him doing a one to one Pilates session you will be a little surprised at some of the dangerous movements he expected his clients to perform often with his helping hand to force movement.

Traditional Pilates is still taught by many fundamentalists.

What is Clinical Pilates?

With back pain being so prevalent in our modern society there has been a great deal of research over the past 20 years in an effort to understand the mechanism of this pain and how it can be prevented. It has been through this research, largely by well-respected physiotherapists such as Julie Hides, Gwen Jull, Carolyn Richardson, Paul Hodges etc, that physiotherapists have developed a deeper and evidence based knowledge and understanding of ‘core stabilisation’.

It has been the fusion of this knowledge with many of the principals and movements developed by Joseph Pilates that ‘Clinical Pilates’ developed.

Clinical Pilates is a modified form of Pilates developed through evidenced based research on core stabilisation and correct muscle activation and recruitment of the deep stabilising muscles of the spine such as the pelvic floor, transversus abdominus and internal obliques. It also focuses on correct recruitment of muscles involved in stabilisation of the hip, shoulder and neck and delivered by physiotherapists who are musculo-skeletal specialists with training in anatomy, biomechanics and pathology that can alter normal movement patterns and create movement dysfunction.

Each individual needs to be assessed over an hour to allow your physiotherapist time to identify strengths and potential weaknesses in your musculo-skeletal system. This may also involve diagnostic ultrasound assessment of your pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles. Being able to visualise these muscles also helps in their reeducation and training towards core stabilisation. If you are recovering from a back injury, difficult delivery, chronic neck pain or postural headaches or other musculo-skeletal injury you may benefit from several one to one clinical Pilate’s sessions.

The Pilates technique is taught in two categories, matwork and equipment based. Matwork is a combination of the original 34 strength, mobility, and stretching exercises taught by Joseph Pilates (many modified and broken down into levels of difficulty) completed on a mat.

The primary focus in matwork is developing lumbo-pelvic stability. Equipment based Pilates may involve apparatus known as a ‘Reformer’ (sounds scary but it isn’t!) or trapeze table and takes the concepts of matwork into a spring loaded environment.

Some Quotes From Joseph Pilates

In ten sessions, you will feel the difference, in twenty you will see the difference, and in thirty you’ll have a whole new body.

Joseph Pilates

Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.

Joseph Pilates

Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit.

Joseph Pilates

The attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure – Everything should be smooth, like a cat.

Joseph Pilates

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About the Author



Jennifer Kellett established Hawker Place Physiotherapy in 1991 and is the principal practitioner of the family run practice. Jenny has served the local communities of Belconnen and North Canberra with commitment and pride for over 26 years. She is a strong advocate for maintaining fitness, health and well being across all age groups and has a keen professional interest in combining Pilates with weight training for treating postmenopausal women at risk of osteoporosis.


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