by Sofia Frasca
This Pilates glossary makes charting the unfamiliar terrain of a new wellness practice a bit less intimidating! We’ll cover types of Pilates as well as the most common exercises you’ll see, hear, and learn during your first few classes.
The practice of Pilates is a system of conditioning for both body and mind. Building physical strength, finding more flexibility and length, and developing greater balance and coordination are all attainable benefits when you practice consistently. The mental focus on breath and precise, functional form improves your alertness, mental clarity, and reduces stress. While there are many different approaches to the system that have evolved since Joseph Pilates originally created it, Pilates is still one of the most transformative practices for the body and mind.
In the more traditional Pilates system, the basics of the practice all stem from mat work. Mat Pilates offers the foundational elements of proper physical alignment, both in isometric or static work and in more dynamic movement. Common props used in Mat Pilates and beyond are the magic circle, resistance bands, and mini exercise balls. Other Pilates equipment includes the Reformer, Cadillac and Tower, and the Chair. Pilates is known for creating metamorphic changes and for being a great addition to or transition from Physical Therapy work.
Pilates is a sustainable practice you can continue with throughout your life, whether you are looking to create balance and flexibility, prevent or recover from injury, or as a low-impact movement practice for weight loss. As you’re getting started, use the Pilates glossary below to clarify a few key terms.
Pilates Glossary: Types of Pilates
The beauty of Mat Pilates is that all you need is your body and some ground space to practice. Since much of the practice can also be supine (on your back) and is low-resistance, it’s an accessible practice for many. The focus of mat work is primarily intended to strengthen the core and trunk of the body, while also training the arms and legs. Many Pilates poses stem from Mat Pilates.
New to Pilates?
Your core is often called your powerhouse in Pilates—the area from the bottom of the ribcage to the line across both hip points. There is a great emphasis placed on strengthening the powerhouse, as it’s considered the center of the physical body and the place that both your strength and the power of all exercises extend from. Exercising on the mat allows you tactile feedback from the ground as you develop core stability. Core stability is the ability to maintain a neutral position through the spine and pelvis while moving the limbs or the whole body in space. Having a strong sense of your own core stability can help you confidently explore the other Pilates apparatuses.
With the fundamentals of the Mat Pilates practice under your belt, it allows for a smooth transition to practicing on a Reformer and getting acquainted with the machine. The Reformer, which was also originally invented by Joseph Pilates, has a bed-like frame or platform that travels forward and back on wheels along the side railings. As a spring-loaded machine, you can change the springs to add assistance or resistance, customizing the practice to your body and allowing you to find strength, length, and proper postural alignment as you exercise. The Mat Pilates exercises are expanded upon on the Reformer and create the additional element of springs or weight into the practice. The Reformer also allows for a variety of standing postures.
The Reformer platform or carriage has two shoulder blocks to help keep you in place on your carriage. An adjustable foot bar, located at the front of the Reformer, acts as a placement for either your feet or hands in most exercises. Your carriage can be moved by pressing out from the foot bar or by the use of the two straps. The straps on the Reformer are also used for hand or foot placement.
“The Pilates reformer is best for individuals who are seeking to achieve core stability and good postural alignment,” says Julie O’Connell, PT, DPT at Athletico Physical Therapy. “The reformer assists the individual in achieving the goals of Pilates, which include the use of diaphragmatic breathing to organize the body’s posture through coordinated movements with an emphasis on postural control,” says O’Connell.
Cadillac and Tower
The Cadillac, given its name after the American Car for being the “best of everything” in the 50s and 60s, has both elements of Mat Pilates and the Reformer. Unlike the Reformer, the Cadillac does not have a moving carriage. More like a bed with four posts, the Cadillac still utilizes spring-loaded assistance and resistance. The springs attach to Towers on the front and back ends of the Cadillac table. The design of the Cadillac with the Towers allows you to change the height of the springs as well, and to adjust both intensity and range of motion.
Because of the stable platform, the Cadillac can be a great place for beginners, the elderly or those recovering from injury. As the platform is lifted higher away from the ground, it is a great alternative for those who have more difficulty coming down to the floor due to physical limitations. Most exercises performed on the Cadillac are done from a kneeling position or supine lying on one’s back with the face-up, but exercises can also be done standing. There is even an attachment called the “trapeze” to allow for supported, inverted shapes.
Another Pilates apparatus designed by Joseph Pilates himself is the Pilates Chair, also called the Wunda Chair. The Chair is a great tool to progress in your practice with spring-loaded standing postures that help you to maintain integration, alignment, and control. Because of this, it can be a great tool for those who may not be able to do supine work due to injury or pregnancy. The seat on the Chair also allows for seated positions that still target core stability and strength.
Like the Reformer and the Cadillac and Tower, the chair utilizes spring-based technology. The Chair has a padded seat and a padded, spring-loaded pedal. Some versions of the chair also have the ability to create a split pedal, which is a particularly great tool for focusing on and retraining balance.
Pilates Across the Apparatuses
Whether practicing Pilates on your mat or one of the other apparatuses discussed above, there is a synergistic quality to the system. By exploring the practice across the apparatuses, you will begin to feel their subtle differences. For example, when doing Leg Circles on the Reformer, the straps and their loops help teach you which muscles to engage. Whereas when you do Single Leg Circles on the mat, the springs are not there to help support your leg in air, and so it requires more control and concentration.
Pilates Glossary: Common Exercises
The Hundred focuses on core strength and respiratory muscles. From lying on your back with legs together, curl head and shoulders away from the mat. By contracting the core muscles and stabilizing the powerhouse, engage a controlled breath while pumping the arms at your sides for a five-count inhale and a five-count exhale.
An exercise for strength and length, the Roll-Up engages the abdominals and focuses on spinal articulation. Starting from a face-up lying position, extend arms overhead and as you exhale curl head and shoulders away from the mat. Continue and fold over, bringing your forehead to your knees and inhale to slowly roll the spine back down to its starting position. Take extra care not to use momentum or force to roll yourself up but rather use the breath and modify the shape as you build the strength and control to roll up.
Single Leg Stretch strengthens the abdominals and stabilizes the powerhouse as you move the limbs. Beginning on your back, draw one knee towards the chest and curl your head and shoulders away from the mat. The extended leg will hover off of the mat and you switch legs by extending one leg and drawing the opposite knee into the chest. Precise form and placement of the hands bring your mental focus into this posture.
Practicing Shoulder Bridge allows you to strengthen glutes and hamstrings while increasing the flexibility in the frontline of the legs. Different from your well-known yoga bridge, a Pilates Shoulder Bridge focuses more on the backline of the leg and support of the spine, rather than an extension of the spine (backbending). Finding stability in the spine and pelvis and exploring single leg bridge variations are common ways to up-level this common posture.
Spine Twist focuses on the abdominals and obliques while twisting through the ribcage and the torso, maintaining stability through the shoulders. From a seated position with legs together and extended, arms will reach out to a “T” position with hands and shoulders in line. Keeping your seat grounded and your shoulder blades integrated, you will twist through the mid to upper back to one side, through center, and in the opposite direction.
Ready to practice?
Join Nikki Beck to explore the basics of Pilates for beginners in this class. These poses are a great foundation to finding both strength, length, increased flexibility, and posture and can be explored across all apparatuses, from the mat and beyond.