Pilates (pi-LAH-teez) is a system of exercise focused on improving strength, flexibility, endurance, posture, and focus. It’s similar to yoga, but the emphasis is on your body’s core: primarily the abdomen, lower back, and upper thighs.

Pilates was invented by Joseph Pilates, a former gymnast who created the exercises for injured dancers. Many of the movements are based on yoga poses or animal movements.

Pilates exercises are often done using equipment. Some equipment is simple: mats, rings, and large stability balls, for example. Other equipment is more complex. A reformer has an adjustable foot bar, a carriage (the part where you put your body; your position depends on the exercise) and straps or rope to pull on. The carriage has springs and gears to provide resistance. You then do a series of exercises by pulling on the straps or pushing against the foot bar. Another common piece of equipment is the Cadillac, also called a trapeze tower. It looks intimidating, but it is used in a variety of exercises, some easy—working against the resistance of bars or straps—and some more challenging—using bars to lift your body and hold poses. The wunda chair is also a resistance machine. It has bars and pads for the user to do balance and strength exercises.

The Cadillac
The Cadillac

Pilates has six principles:

1. Centering: Bring focus to your body’s center, or the area between the lower ribs and pubic bone. Most exercises begin at the center

2. Concentration: Bring your attention to the exercise and commit to doing it fully.

3. Control: Perform exercises with complete control over your muscles.

4. Precision: Move each part of your body precisely, placing it appropriately and aligning it relative to the other parts of your body.

5. Breath: Use full breath for each exercise. Most exercises coordinate movement with breath.

6. Flow: Use flowing movements to perform exercises. Fluidity, grace, and ease of movement are the main goals of all exercises.

These principles are applied to each exercise, which are done using special apparatuses or on mats. Pilates movements can be difficult and require concentration. Often, the exercises require you to work to strengthen one muscle while stretching another. But one of the great things about Pilates is that people at a variety of fitness levels can participate. The method is adaptable.

So who should try Pilates? Pilates works for people who are still and achy, have injured muscles or weak joints, have back issues or balance issues, as long as the teacher knows what the issues are and how to deal with them. But Pilates can also be a great workout for people at any level.

One other note: Fitness clubs and most private studios require their instructors to be certified, though there’s no law requiring it. Certification typically requires 40–50 hours of training. Ask when you sign up to take your first class or session whether your instructors are certified.

Interested in trying out Pilates? Find a studio near you in our directory.

Erin is a Brooklyn-based writer.