Pilates history is a rich and vast subject that goes back to the 19th century. Regardless of whether you’re a fitness professional or a casual enthusiast, it will be of interest to discover where this practice traces its roots. 

If you want to study a particular aspect of fitness in greater depth, why not complete a vocational training course with OriGym? For example, OriGym’s Level 3 Diploma in Yoga Teacher Training will not only cover the history of the practice but will also provide students with knowledge and skills to help launch a career!

If you’d like to learn more about our vocational qualifications, be sure to download our FREE course prospectus here!

Pilates History: The Origin of Pilates

It would be rude to talk about Pilates history without starting with Joseph Pilates. They are named after him, after all…

In fact, before it’s more recent rise in popularity (when it was still an exercise for the elite), Pilates history is more or less fully central to Joseph Pilates and his self-made career instructing dancers and athletes in fitness.

To get to this point, we may as well jump right into Joseph Pilates childhood, and where Pilates history began.

As you can tell from this first section of Joseph Pilates life, he was no ordinary 14-year-old. Gaining work within the fitness industry at age 14 in the 19th century seems impressive enough; but what Pilates came to achieve later in his life is even more astonishing.

During his 20s, Pilates studied as many different types of exercises as he could, ranging from gymnastics to yoga and tai chi. This is perhaps why Pilates is regarded as a sort of hybrid of different exercise routines, and why it is so effective and popular, as it kills many birds with one stone.

In 1912 at age 29, he moved to England and got by with professional boxing, circus performing, and training the Scotland Yard (London police force) in self-defence.

He was somewhat of a strongman but original in his methods of building strength. Instead of using heavy weights and building bulk strength, he focused on conditioning the body as a whole.

However, it is thought that he admired Eugen Sandow, who was extremely popular during the Physical Culturist movement, and responsible for the start of the bodybuilding sport.

Pilates’ promising few years in England came to an end with the breakout of WW1, when he was interned by the British authorities due to his German nationality (he was deemed a ‘foreign alien’).

Despite being held as a prisoner of war, Joseph Pilates kept up the morale of his fellow internees by coaching them in self-defence and fitness. He taught them mat exercises, along with those that required minimal equipment but achieved great results.

The place where this all happened was actually Lancaster Castle! So, Pilates history isn’t as far away from us as we think…

After his stint coaching here, he was transferred to another internment camp situated on the Isle of Man and continued to train internees. Before the end of the war, he had time to study fitness and develop his own exercise regime, Contrology, which is now referred to as Pilates.

As the war ended in November 1918 and Joseph was released, he headed back to Germany. This is where he developed Contrology further, and started to put it into practise in the professional world.

Rudolph von Laban was one of the big names that he worked with, not to mention Hanya Holm.

Laban established his own dance theatre company and school in Germany and became part of the elite.

He is famous for creating the dance notation that is most commonly used by professional dancers today.

Holm has been branded as one of the ‘Big Four’ dancers who founded modern dance in America, to give an idea of how popular she was at the time. After working with Joseph, she included some of his Contrology movements in her own exercise classes.

Joseph also coached the Hamburg police force in self-defence during his time in Germany and was asked to coach the German army in Contrology. He turned down this offer, apparently due to his wish to move to America, and his conflicting political beliefs.

In 1923, he bit the bullet and left for America in the hopes of taking Contrology with him and spreading its popularity.

He met a nursery teacher named Clara on the boat to America, who also has a place in Pilates history. They became a couple shortly after meeting, and she was known as his wife until his death in 1967 (although he is rumoured to have been married before).

Clara was apparently known as the preferred teacher of Pilates by some, as she took an active role in delivering the classes herself.

1926 was the year that Joseph and Clara set up the first Contrology (Pilates) studio in New York. It was shared with the NYC Ballet, which helped the pair to gain business straight away. They became very popular within dance circles, and it wasn’t long before top ballet dancers were coming to them for training and rehabilitation.

Their reputation only grew from here and actresses, actors, and athletes flocked to their door. Contrology became very popular with these groups as it was focused mainly on strength, flexibility, and stamina, rather than on using heavy equipment and bulking up excessively.

During his career, Joseph wrote and published books on the topic of Contrology, the most popular being ‘Return to Life Through Contrology’, and ‘Your Health’. We’ll talk more about Contrology books later in the article, so keep your eyes peeled!

Joseph and Clara taught Contrology classes together, and even had ‘disciples’ who carried on their work after each of their deaths.

They either taught slight variations of Contrology, or the original technique under the name of ‘Pilates’, made up of everything that they had learned directly from Joe and Clara in their classes.

Joseph Pilates died at age 83, in 1967 in New York. He was rumoured to have died in a fire, but the cause of death was emphysema, from smoking cigars.

If learning this information already has you gripped and excited to pursue this role, be sure to check out OriGym’s article on ‘How to Become a Pilates Instructor‘.

Pilates books

So, now you’ve had a brief look into Joe’s life, it’s time to jump into some other elements of Pilates history.

We said earlier that we were going to talk about Pilates books, so here’s some of the best to be released over the years.

Your Health

Author: Joseph Pilates

Amazon rating: 4.5 stars

  • First published in 1934
  • Is a theoretical based fitness book, and details Joe’s early findings on the topics of health and fitness
  • It focuses on his idea of a ‘balanced body and mind’, and how he was influenced by early Greek methods of fitness (possibly due to his Greek ancestry)

Return to Life Through Contrology

Author: Joseph Pilates

Amazon rating: 4.2 stars

  • First published in 1945
  • It has 16 pages from Pilates himself, and the rest are instructions for Pilates exercises (there are 34 in total)
  • It focuses on having a ‘balanced body and mind’ as ‘Your Health’ does, and this is extremely prevalent in each of the 34 exercises handpicked for the book
  • The 2012 revised edition includes some extra content about Pilates history, and how Pilates has changed since the first edition was published
  • It includes some extra Pilates exercises with the use of simple props such as weights, poles, and bands

Pilates for Life: How to improve strength, flexibility, and health over 40

Author: Lynne Robinson and Carmela Trappa

Amazon rating: 4.9 stars

  •  First published in 2014
  •  Written by the founder of Body Control Pilates, one of the most popular organisations in Pilates history
  •  Includes step-by-step instructions for Pilates workouts
  • Boasts exercises for those post-surgery, or who are reading Pilates books for rehabilitation; perfect for giving you ideas to try with clients like this!

Pilates for Runners

Author: Harri Angell

Amazon rating: 4.9 stars

  • First published in 2017
  • Very specific ideas for those who want to work on the power and strength behind their running
  • For runners of any level, which makes it ideal for PTs to use for their clients! (They will range in age and ability)
  • Gives example exercises for clients to practise in order to prevent injury whilst running

Pilates Anatomy

Author: Rael Isacowitz

Amazon rating: 4.7 stars

  • First published in 2011
  • Includes illustrations of each Pilates instruction within the book
  • Gives a great insight from a scientific and anatomical aspect
  • Can be used to show clients which muscles they are working in a visual way; they’ll be motivated to get on the mats now!
  • Gives info on breathing, posture, and alignment, reinforcing Joseph Pilates’ ideas

Pilates for Life: The most straightforward guide to Teaching Pilates for Postural Faults

Author: Jane Paterson

Amazon rating: 4.1 stars

  • First published in 2008
  • Works as a manual for those wanting to teach Pilates
  • Gives great advice for teaching those wanting to solve common medical conditions through Pilates
  • Expert advice from a Nurse, Pilates teacher, and Member of the Royal Academy of Dance; not many Pilates books can boast this!

Pilates for Life: The most straightforward guide to achieving the body you want

Author: Darcey Bussell

Amazon rating: 4.4 stars

  • First published in 2005
  • Written by a former Principal of the Royal Ballet (she was given this title when she was only 19), who practised Pilates throughout and alongside her career
  • Promotes the health benefits of Pilates in a realistic, easy-to-follow way
  • Introduces beginners to Joseph Pilates’ core regime and bodyweight exercises
  • One of the best Pilates books for personal trainers to use when encouraging clients to take up the exercise

Check out OriGym’s expert guide on the best Pilates Books to read, for further shopping advice!

Best Pilates Equipment in Pilates History

How could we write a Pilates history article and leave out the best Pilates equipment?

After all, most of it was invented by Joseph himself, and it’s interesting to see where the ideas behind the most commonly used and best Pilates equipment came from.

Pilates mat

  •  In terms of the best Pilates equipment, it is the most inexpensive but still a great start (and fundamental to ‘mat Pilates’)
  • It acts as a cushion for the body whilst the trainer performs floor-based Pilates exercises
  • A must for most Pilates exercises to prevent injury
  • The simplest form of Pilates exercise, and also the most important one to grasp before using apparatus

The arc

  • Inexpensive, effective, and simple to use
  • Very versatile despite its simplest shape; can be used with or without attachment for a variety of exercises
  • Seen often in group training sessions

The Ring (Not Gollum’s)

  •  Perhaps the most inexpensive piece of equipment
  •  Invented by Pilates to increase the resistance of some movements. It makes it easier to build muscle whilst doing Pilates, instead of just building flexibility – a great investment for those who want to use Pilates to tone up

He apparently saw potential in the metal rings that held the barrel together, and so the Pilates ring was born!

The ladder barrel

  • It started out as an empty beer barrel (this is where Joseph Pilates first got the idea from!)
  • It is now made from wood and leather, making it much more practical and comfier than its earlier model…
  • It is used for movements that correct the spine
  • The exercises that make use of this are some of the most challenging in comparison to others, earning the ladder barrel its place on the best pilates equipment list

Wunda Chair

  • Almost always found in Pilates studios
  • Looks like a box, but has one side attached to springs that trainers can press down on to work their muscles
  • The original version of the wunda chair doubles as furniture (this is how Joseph designed it)
  • Now, they are beginning to hit mainstream use, due to the commercialisation of exercise equipment companies (this could be a good thing if your clients want to start Pilates at your gym!)

Pilates reformer

  • It may look like a medieval torture device at a first glance, but it is an advanced piece of Pilates equipment (we promise!)
  • It boasts a good amount of springs and pulley systems, which seem intimidating but aren’t too complicated
  • One of the most effective ways for working against resistance in Pilates exercises

If you’re looking for the finest products on the market to date, be sure to check out OriGym’s guide on 21 essential pieces of Pilates equipment here.

Benefits of Pilates

There’s no use in going through Pilates history without having a quick recap on the benefits of Pilates. You’ve probably picked some of these up along the way, but here are the benefits of Pilates that have become well-known throughout Pilates history.

Benefits of Pilates VS Yoga

The idea of various stretches and poses that work as a rehabilitation for your entire body may remind you of another exercise discipline…

That’s right, we’re going to look at the benefits of Pilates vs yoga.

Yoga is commonly known as a wellbeing activity as it is very mind, body, and spirit focused. It increases the flexibility of the body, as well as having instant calming effects and boosting mental health.

We’re definitely not here to slate yoga, as we believe it can be essential to people looking to boost their overall health. It’s certainly something that will do no one any harm!

However, we DO think that comparing the benefits of Pilates vs yoga will prove helpful to our readers, especially if they’re stuck for time and they’re trying to choose between the two.

One of the main and most obvious benefits of Pilates vs yoga would be that Pilates makes use of exercise machines, rather than just bodyweight for resistance during exercises. As you can see from our section on the best Pilates equipment, there is a huge range that targets very different parts of the body.

When it comes to the benefits of Pilates vs yoga, it all boils down to what you want. If you’re looking to build strength and muscle alongside strengthening your mind, then Pilates is the one for you.

If you have time for both though, then you should definitely take the opportunity!

Pilates History: Modern Pilates

Modern Pilates differ somewhat from early Contrology. The exercises themselves haven’t changed too much, but the way that they are sometimes taught and received is a different story.

One modern Pilates torch carrier is Mari Winsor, who has been credited on many occasions for making

Pilates famous, and making it available to the everyday public.

Winsor opened a Pilates studio in L.A., 1990. She took Joseph Pilates techniques, and created a modern Pilates routine of her own, called ‘dynamic sequencing’. This was a success with celebrities in the U.S., and Winsor wanted to progress her influence.

She began to study with Romana Kryzanowska, one of Joseph Pilates’ students, in 1992. Kryzanowska was the one who took the reins of his Contrology studio after his death, so she was definitely a useful source of information when it came to perfecting the Pilates technique.

Mari gained a certification in the Joseph Pilates technique after studying with Kryzanowska for a year and felt ready to share what she had learned with the general public.

It’s hard to tell whether Windsor was solely responsible for the modern Pilates movement, but it’s clear that she at least made an impact. Studying with Kryzanowska certainly gave her the right to spread the Pilates technique, anyway!

What we do know is that Windsor’s infomercial on Pilates in 2003 was a huge success, and did seem to get the ball rolling even further. She sold over 50 million programs, and we can’t argue that that’s impressive.

You will have heard of Pilates retreats. They are almost a definition of modern Pilates, apart from the group Pilates classes that are now available at most gyms (things have come a long way since the New York studio in 1926!)

Here’s a list of popular Pilates retreats in the UK, incase you want to give one a try:

Pilates History FAQs

#1 How did Pilates originate?

Joseph Pilates created Contrology in the 1920s, which became known worldwide as ‘Pilates’ in its rise in popularity

#2 Can you lose weight by doing Pilates?

Pilates focuses on strength conditioning and building muscle. The more muscle you build, the more fat you burn, even when you’re not training.

Pilates isn’t an intense cardio workout, but it can still aid weightloss if done consistently alongside a nutritious diet.

#3 What did Joseph Pilates die of?

Joseph Pilates died of emphysema, due to smoking too many cigars during his lifetime. He died in 1967 at the age of 83. He was the most prevalent figure in Pilates history.

#4 How many times a week should I do Pilates?

Like jogging or going to the gym, Pilates should be done at a minimum of around 3-4 times a week in order to see a real difference. If you can do it daily, then go for it!

#5 What are the 6 principles of Pilates?

  •       Centering
  •       Concentration
  •       Control
  •       Flow
  •       Precision
  •       Breath

Joseph Pilates stated that these were the main principles behind his regime. He famously said:

‘Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it. Since we cannot live without breathing, it is tragically deplorable to contemplate the millions and millions who have never mastered the art of correct breathing.’

This isn’t to say that one is more important than another, but he took the 6 main principles seriously!

Before you go!

Armed with your knowledge regarding the history of Pilates, you can deepen your own practice and even help to enrich the experience of others. 

Speaking of which, if helping others is something you’re passionate about then you should consider pursuing vocational training. For example, after completing OriGym’s Level 3 Yoga Teacher Training, you will be able to plan and deliver classes to students of varying skill sets, deepening their appreciation for fitness. 

Alternatively, you can download our FREE course prospectus to discover a qualification you’re passionate about!

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About the Author: Chloe Twist

Chloe OriGym Author
Chloe graduated with a BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing from Liverpool John Moores University and prior to OriGym worked at J&R Digital Marketing Agency on the Liverpool 'Female Founders' series. Since joining the company, she has become a qualified Personal Trainer and advanced Sports Nutrition Specialist. Chloe's professional interests intersect content-development and the world of online fitness, especially across social media and YouTube, and Chloe has herself contributed pieces on fitness and weight loss to sites including the Daily Star and The Express. Outside her day-to-day role, Chloe enjoys playing the guitar, gaming and kettlebell training.

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