It promises to strengthen and lengthen your muscles – but is Pilates really effective for toning?

Here's EYNTK about the benefits of Pilates.

Is Pilates really effective for toning? Women in a Pilates class
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Wondering, is Pilates effective for toning? We hear you - and we want to know, too, tbh. Chances are, when you picture a Pilates workout, you imagine a studio with rows of toned, lean and lithe people most likely clad in a coordinating, butter-soft, neutral-toned aesthetic. And there is plenty about the celeb-favourite workout that lives up to this reputation – but that’s far from all it has to offer.

There’s no doubt that regular practice will improve flexibility, posture and alignment, which will lead to an illusion of toned limbs, which have become synonymous with the type of movement.

But to focus solely on the body-toning benefits of Pilates is to overlook the plethora of other mental and physical benefits Pilates brings – not to mention the fact that when it comes to body composition, we’re looking at a complex interplay of genetics, lifestyle, diet and more, and no amount of downward dog will ever negate the impact of all of these – and nor should we expect it to. After all, a toned body, albeit a nice side effect, isn't our only motivation for working out, right?

With this in mind, we’ve taken a deep dive into the benefits of Pilates according to top instructors and taken a look at their favourite workouts that (among other wonderful things) can help boost tone.

And, because we’d hate to leave you wanting more, why not take a look at our guides to Pilates for beginners and Pilates exercises for beginners, find out about the five simple Pilates moves one MC UK Health Writer and fitness trainer raves about, plus discover the best twenty minute Pilates workouts, for when you're pushed for time.

Is Pilates really effective for toning? The experts weigh in

What is Pilates?

For the uninitiated, Pilates is a low-impact, full-body workout focussing on slow, controlled movements aligned with breathwork, with a central tenet of core stability. Developed in the early 20th century by German boxer Joseph Pilates, it originally evolved as a form of rehabilitation for injured soldiers, before becoming popular with New York’s elite dancers and celebrities, spawning a worldwide movement that’s still going from strength to strength over 100 years later.

“Pilates is a practice that can take you through every season of your life,” explains instructor and founder of Shape Pilates, Gemma Folkard. “It’s a low impact workout designed to maintain a well-balanced body as a whole. Using precise movements, breathing and a high level of focus, Pilates not only strengthens the body uniformly but allows us to find a sense of body awareness through mindful movement. All of these elements make for a highly sustainable practice that
should last a lifetime.”


♬ walking on a dream by empire of the sun - sophie

What are the benefits of Pilates?

If you’re a fan of high-intensity cardio workouts like HIIT, you might be wondering why you should bother with a slower, more holistic practice. And it’s true that, for the most part, you’re not going to leave a Pilates class drenched in sweat – but that’s not to say you won’t feel the burn.

1. It’s an intense workout

“Pilates might be low impact but it’s high in efficiency,” says Folkard. “Every class will work the body in its entirety, improving both global strength and recruiting
smaller, deep muscles for a full-body burn.”

Finding bodyweight too easy? You can intensify the workout by using props such as a magic circle, a Pilates ball, and hand or ankle weights.

2. It’s mindful

Let’s face it, we all seem to be more stressed than ever right now – and it’s no secret that hardcore cardio workouts can further increase our cortisol levels, sending our stress responses sky high. But we also know that exercise is a known stress reliever. The solution? You guessed it – Pilates.

“A Pilates practice requires so much focus that it can completely take you away from the stresses and strains of daily life,” advises Folkard, “which gives it a
meditative quality.”

Plus, the focus on breathing is essentially breathwork, too – win, win.


♬ original sound - Danny

3. It strengthens the core

Pilates experts often refer to the core as our internal powerhouse and core strength is a vital component of an effective practice.

“We can’t ignore the ‘core’, the multi-muscle group widely associated with Pilates,” says Folkard. “All exercises start here, with what we would call the Powerhouse, comprising the deep abdominals, hips and lower back. Not only are most moves cued from the centre, but there are many flexion exercises, meaning that strengthening the abdominals is part and parcel of a regular practice.”

4. It improves posture and alignment

Tech neck, anyone? Yep – us too. Hours spent working on laptops and then evenings spent scrolling mindlessly on social media are wreaking havoc on our neck and back health, leading to postural issues such as neck humps and lower back pain.

But we have good news: studies – such as this one, published in the Journal of Physical Science and Rehabilitation – show that Pilates improves postural alignment.

“Pilates emphasises alignment and awareness, which can lead to improved posture,” agrees trainer and founder of Barre Series, Catie Miller.  “This is
particularly beneficial for those who spend long hours sitting at a desk. A
strong body promotes better posture, and Pilates enhances strength and
stability overall, leading to greater flexibility, reduced risk of injury, and
increased stamina and resilience.”

5. It's accessible

Don’t be put off by it’s cool aesthetic. One of the things we love most about Pilates is that, while it is super on trend, right now, there’s a practice for everyone.

“With diverse forms and undeniable benefits, Pilates is a versatile exercise system catering to a broad audience,” says Miller. “Whether you are a seasoned
athlete, pregnant or postnatal, or rehabilitating from an injury, the principles remain rooted in promoting a healthy mind-body connection. Like any
exercise routine, remember to listen to your body so you can build sustainable,
lasting change.”

Is Pilates really effective for toning? The experts weigh in

So, myriad of benefits banked, can we expect a more toned body to boot? Well, it’s a little more complicated than we’d like, tbh.

‘Tone’ as a concept is fairly subjective, but for the purposes of this, we’re talking about feeling stronger, with more defined muscles - something which, again, is also down to genetics, diet, lifestyle, age and many other factors – not simply how much time you spend doing Pilates.

But yes – it’s true that a dedicated and consistent practice of Pilates alongside a healthy and balanced lifestyle will likely make you feel stronger and more toned, perhaps even with leaner limbs.

“The more you practice Pilates the more flexible you should get,” explains Folkard, “which consequently can give the appearance of longer, more toned limbs. You might notice muscles you didn’t know existed becoming more visible, which can build confidence and motivation to continue your practice.”

Since Pilates builds muscle slowly with a focus on lengthening and stretching the body, it’s become synonymous with a more toned and defined physique.

“Pilates works the body as a whole,” agrees Folkard. “Rather than isolating one or two muscle groups, it encourages two-way stretch and strengthening moves that engage many different muscles, creating a balanced workout and increasing muscle mass.”

However, if definition of these muscles is your goal, it’s important to
note that this comes not only from regular practice, but also diet, genetics
and other lifestyle factors – plus, not having visible muscles doesn’t mean
you’re not strong.

6 Pilates workouts that promise to boost tone, according to top coaches

1. Bird dog

What? Basically, like a dead bug, but on all fours.

Why? "This move improves core stability by strengthening your abs, back and hips," explains Matt Kendrick, Founder and CEO of MK Reformed.

How long for? Hold for five seconds, and repeat for six to eight reps on each side.

2. Criss Cross

What? A criss cross is essentially a Pilates version of bicycles.

Why? "This move is great for strengthening the obliques and lower abdominals," says Folkard, "plus, it really gets the heartrate up!"

How long for? Repeat 12 times - six each way.

3. Side kicks and circles

What? Lying on your side with hips stacked, raise and lower the upper leg, slowly and with control, then circle in each direction. It looks simple, but you'll feel it.

Why? "This move really targets and tones the hips, obliques and legs," says Folkard.

How long for? Eight to 10 side kicks, and six circles in each direction.

4. Shoulder bridge

What? Lie on your back with the legs bent and parallel, about fist distance apart, and your arms down by your sides, palms down. Start to spin the tailbone up to the sky and peel each vertebra off the mat until the hips are lifted in line with the lower ribs. Articulate the spine back down to the mat.

Why? A classic Pilates move that's part of most classes, this move is great for improving mobility, and strengthening the back of the body, including the glutes.

How long for? Try six to eight reps.

5. Swimming

What? Mimicing the movement of swimming, but no water required. "Lying on your front, extend the legs straight and take the weight to pubic bone whilst lifting the abs, to lengthen the lower back, rather than collapse into it," explains Folkard. "Extend the arms. Lift the opposite arm and leg whilst the chest lifts a little too. Quicken up the pace when you’re ready."

Why? Strengthens and tones the back, glutes and upper body.

How long for? Try six slow, 12 fast reps.

6. Pilates push up

What? "From standing, roll down and walk out to high plank," says Folkard. "Do three press ups, either modified with knees down or full, and then walk the hands back and roll up."

Why? A classic full body and arm sculpting move.

How long for? Repeat five times.

Shop MC UK's essential Pilates kit here

Anna Bartter
Health Writer

Anna Bartter is a freelance journalist who writes about health, fitness and women's lifestyle for publications including Stylist, Metro and Psychologies, among others. 

She's always on a quest to find a variety of fun and functional workouts that give you the most bang for your workout buck and she's passionate about championing movement for everyone's mental and physical wellbeing.