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Pilates - how did it all begin?

September 30, 2021 3 min read

Pilates - how did it all begin? - AeroPilates

People everywhere are intrigued by the genius of the Pilates movement. This is how it all began:

The Pilates method of body conditioning is a unique, proven system of exercises developed over ninety years ago by the late Joseph H. Pilates. The basis of all Pilates inspired methods comes from his teachings and his work. He was born in 1880 and grew up in England where he was interned during the war and became a nurse. As a frail and sickly child, he was inspired to pursue a lifelong commitment to health and fitness. He became a bodybuilder, a boxer, a gymnast, an avid skier and diver. During his incarceration during the war, he devised a fitness program for his fellow internees to maintain their health and fitness levels. Years in traditional strength training gyms, filled with barbells, variable resistance and friction resistance machines, gave him the opportunity to study the anatomy of movement and strength training through load bearing, and as a nurse he ingeniously improvised using the bed springs to create the resistance he needed to strengthen his patients who were weak.


His program of over 500 exercises, consisting of twisting, stretching, pushing, pulling and rolling movements both on the floor and five other pieces of equipment was probably largely inspired by the famous Russian body builder Eugen Sandow, who in his book, "Sandow and the Golden Age of Iron Men", written in late 1890's, said, "the task of the physical culturist is to perfect his body by exercise and subjection of the will”.  

Sandow believed that without the power of the will/mind, muscles did not develop fully, and he toured the world promoting physical culture as a means to improving the quality of life.

And thus the first true mind-body method of fitness was born. Like Sandow, Pilates recognised the importance of involving the mind when you move. In 1920 when he moved to New York, he opened his first formal studio and attracted the likes of George Balanchine and Martha Graham. The gymnastic quality of his teachings and the understanding of control and coordination made him well recognised in the dance and drama community. He trained young dancers to carry on his teachings, which he called "The Art of Contrology" or muscle control to define his approach of using the mind to master the muscles.

Other machines that Joseph Pilates built were also inspired by his years training as a gymnast and include The High and Low Chairs which are like a modified gymnastics stacking pommels, the Reformer which is like a rowing machine with pulleys, the Pedi Pull, another pulley machine, the Cadillac, much like a parallel and horizontal gymnastics bar, and he added various accessories to work the extremities like the Magic Circle and the Spine Corrector Barrels. All of which may be seen in any Pilates studio around the world.

His work, then called Contrology, now referred to as authentic Pilates, focused on the "conscious control of all muscular movements of the body. It is the correct utilization and application of the leverage principles afforded by the bones, comprising the skeletal framework of the body; a complete knowledge of the mechanism of the body and a full understanding of the principles of equilibrium and gravity as applied to the movement of the body in motion, at rest and in sleep".

While Sandow's method focused largely on building strength through heavy weights, many repetitions, excess overload and isolated muscle fatigue, it was Pilates who recognised that the tearing of muscle tissue was not necessary to develop strength. Instead he focused on simple, qualitative movements, initiated from the core, using many muscles at once to create controlled, balanced, interdependent movements.

It was Sandow, however, who began philosophising about the benefits of physical exercise in the early 1900's and Pilates followed in the 1920's. Since then, 50 years later, Dr. Kenneth Cooper began to down play the role of strength training to enhance health and began to extol instead the virtues of aerobic fitness. Now 50 years later we all better understand that both are essential for total well being which is why we, at lighterliving, developed AeroPilates which successfully targets the muscular and aerobic improvements of the body all on one machine, in a safe and gentle way.

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