Seen Pilates trending but not sure what the workout actually is? A top instructor explains

Because if Harry Styles is a fan - we're a fan.

What is Pialtes? Two women sit on a Reformer Pilates machine
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We don't need to tell you that Pilates is having a moment. Search for the workout is skyrocketing, with stars including Harry Styles, Hailey Bieber and Miley Cyrus all spotted at Reformer Pilates studios near their houses. That said, if you've seen the hype and been left wondering, what is Pilates? You're not alone.

Given that some of the highest search terms around the workout questions what it is  plus how it's any different to yoga (read our explainer on Pilates vs yoga, here), it's fair to say a few of you don't know what the sweat session actually entails.

That's why we've enlisted the help of Louise Buttler, a Pilates instructor and founder of leading Pilates studio LIVE BRAVE, who shares that it's not just celebrities trying the workout, but top athletes, too. "The amazing thing about Pilates is that it can be harnessed to support individual goals," she shares. "That's why you see so many pro athletes like Andy Murray and Cristiano Ronaldo utilise its deep muscle activation and rehab benefits."

What's so great about Pilates, then? What isn't, according to the pro. "I believe it really proves that intense, stress-inducing HIIT classes aren’t necessary for getting toned and strong - instead, it focuses on intelligent movement which engages your slow-twitch fibres, aka the muscles which create the real definition and muscle tone."

Below, she shares her expert insight on what Pilates actually is, plus her go-to session for targeting often forgotten about muscle groups. 

Keep scrolling. Keen to get stuck in before reading up on the sessions? This Pilates for beginners session is great if you're less advanced and this Pilates wall workout is an ideal at-home option.

What is Pilates? Your guide

What is Pilates?

According to Buttler, Pilates is essentially a system of exercises performed repetitively to build strength, balance and flexibility in the body. "Pilates is all about harnessing your powerhouse muscles - notably the core, glutes and pelvic floor - to develop muscle tone and full body awareness," she explains.

First founded in World War I by Joseph Pilates, he once said: “You will feel better in ten sessions, look better in twenty sessions, and have a completely new body in thirty sessions" - and Buttler echoes this. "Pilates moves your body in all planes of movement, including twisting, rotating, flexing. This is incredible because it really targets all of our core muscles, both the aesthetic ones such as our abdominals, to our obliques and transverse abdominal muscles (the deep ones that aren’t visible but are useful for daily life."

There are two different types of Pilates - mat and Reformer. The first can be done any time, any place, whereas the latter needs to take place on a Reformer machine. This usually requires heading in-studio, but adds more resistance to the session.

Kit wise, somethings ankle weights and resistance bands might be utilised but mat Pilates is by and large a bodyweight workout that can be done for free. 

Sound good? We thought so, too.

8 benefits of Pilates

1. It supports your other training

Buckle up because yep, you guessed it - there are a whole host of benefits of the workout, from improved mental to physical health. 

But first up - Buttler shares that Pilates is the ideal cross training for any other type physical activity, whether that's running or unpacking your groceries "Pilates is focussed on alignment, posture and moving with precision, meaning that it ensures your body is always in the correct position," she explains. 

While heading to the gym or doing cardio workouts, like cycling or running, will target bigger global muscles, Pilates works the smaller, intrinsic muscles which will in turn supports those larger global muscles. 

2. It corrects muscle imbalances

This will lead to injury prevention and a stronger body for life in the long run. 

3. It improves posture

Did you know? On average people spend nine hours a day sitting at their desks or in the car, shares Buttler. "Your body reflects your lifestyle - we're seeing more and more forward leaning heads, tech neck and the rounding of the shoulders."

This is where Pilates can come in handy, helping to realign and rebalance the muscles which are shortened over time. 

4. It improves core strength

You know by now that Pilates targets all of your core muscles, which is obviously a great way of improving your core strength.

So, how does it do so? "Through the combination of breathwork and correct positioning," shares the pro. 

5. It improves flexibility

If you've ever had tight calves, hamstrings or hip flexors, you'll know that flexibility is one of the core tenants of overall wellbeing. 

"Pilates includes a lot of active and dynamic stretching, which in time will improve your flexibility," shares the instructor. "Every movement is centred around elongation and the lengthening of the muscles."

6. It improves overall body strength

One of the main benefits of Pilates that Buttler loves is the fact that it builds a stronger body for life.

"It's designed to develop muscles to help support your body even when mobility and strength might be less accessible," she explains. 

7. It boosts mental health and mindfulness

Because the mental benefits of exercise are just as important as the physical. "While you focus a lot on what can be gained aesthetically, Pilates can work wonders for your mental health as it is primarily a mindful form of movement," the expert explains. 

How so? Since it was originally founded, the workout has incorporated elements of mental focus and breath awareness in order to deeply connect the body and mind.

Not only that, but it's a great form of mindful movement. "Rather than rushing through the movements and raising cortisol levels, Pilates is about moving slowly with intention and body awareness," Buttler goes on. "The practice requires a significant amount of focus and precision as you tune into the smaller muscles. It forces you to move with intention and brings added awareness to how your body is moving and feeling."

8. It reconnects you with your breath

Did you know? Every Pilates class begins with connecting to your centre and finding your breath before you start moving, giving you a prime opportunity to reconnect with your breathing and slow down.

"As you are constantly guided to connect to your centre when on the mat, it offers an easy reminder to come back to your breathing when out in the world, too," she goes on. 

Why is this useful? Well, breathwork training has been scientifically found to both stress levels in high pressure situations.

Try this Pilates session tonight

If you're feeling inspired and fancy giving Pilates a go at home, we've got loads of instructor-recomended workouts for you.

What? The below session is a short but sweet at-home Pilates flow that focuses on leg alignment and core strength. You won't require any kit other than a workout mat and a good sports bra.

How long? 20 minutes.

Our top three clothing picks to support your pilates workouts

What kind of workout is Pilates?

A low impact workout that boosts your strength, Pilates can be done on a mat or Reformer machine. Both will boost your muscle tone, strength, endurance and flexibility without putting stress or impact through your joints. 

One 2016 study found that doing one Pilates workout a week improved muscle mass, flexibility, balance, and core and abdominal muscle strength. 

Worried about gym costs rackign up? Mat Pilates totally free and can be done from home. Our advice is streaming a YouTube workout and getting set up in your garden or living room. 

Ally Head
Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.