Joseph Pilates – The Man Who Changed the Way we Work Out

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Joseph Pilates – The Man Who Changed the Way we Work Out

Pilates involves a series of controlled movements performed on specially designed exercise apparatus, or on the floor. It is a resistance exercise, not aerobic exercise. Although, the heart rate will certainly rise for any individual


Born Joseph Hubertus Pilates, he was a German physical trainer, credit with inventing and promoting Pilates as a method of physical fitness. Nowadays, Pilates is one of the more popular workout methods. But that wasn’t the case in the early 1900s when Joseph was inventing the training method.

Quick Bio

Joseph was born on December 9, 1883 in Germany. His father was born in Greece and was a metal worker and enthusiastic gymnast. His German-born mother was a housewife.
As a young child, Joseph was a sickly one. He suffered from conditions like rheumatic fever, asthma, rickets, and more. That is why probably he dedicated his life to improving his physical strength.
Joseph’s father introduced the young kid to gymnastics and body-built, as well as to martial arts and boxing.
By the age of 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. But he believed that the modern life-style, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health.


Originally, he was a gymnast and bodybuilder. When he moved from Germany to England in 1912, Joseph started earning money as a professional boxer, circus-performer, and self-defense trainer at police schools.
During World War I, British authorities interned Pilates and other German citizens in Lancaster Castle. There, he taught wrestling and self-defense.
During that period, he studied yoga and movements of animals. Later on, he said that the intuitive movements of cats inspired many aspects of his fitness regime.
During this period, he began refining and teaching his minimal-equipment system of mat exercises that later became known as “Contrology”.
Following the end of WWI, he moved back to Germany and collaborated with experts in dance and physical exercise. Around 1925, he immigrated to the United States.
This is where he met his future wife, Clara. In fact, the two met on the ship to America. They founded a studio in New York City, where they taught and supervised students.
Their concept, called Contrology, related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles, focusing attention on core postural muscles, and provide support for the spine.
He taught exercises that teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine.
They soon established a devoted following in the local community of New York. Dancers were particularly fond of his moves, including famous ones like George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and more.
His exercise regimen built flexibility, stamina, and strength. Soon, ballerinas began coming to the studio, one of which, was Roman Kryzanowska.


He continued to advocate for and teach his method well into his old age. Joseph Pilates died in New York City in 1967 of advanced emphysema at the age of 83.

What is the origin of Pilates?

Now let’s talk a bit about the training method he envisioned and helped promote. As we know, the history of many ancient fitness activities is sketchy. Some of them started thousands of years ago. While there is some documentation, the precise beginnings are unknown.
But for pilates, the beginning is clear. We know it was started in the 1920s thanks to the efforts of physical trainer Joseph Pilates.
He started it for the purpose of rehabilitation. Some of his first clients were soldiers returning from war and dancers like Martha Graham and George Balanchine.


Joseph wanted a method that would help clients strengthen their body, heal their aches and pain.
Joseph taught the first pilates instructors who went on to found their own schools. The eventual rise and popularity of the method can be attributed to the passing on of the method from teacher to student.
One of the famous early teachers was Ron Fletcher. He worked with Joseph to help rehabilitate his chronic knee injuries. Ron then went on to open a studio in Las Angeles where he spread the popularity of the exercise to the West Coast.

What is pilates?

Simply put, the pilates method is an exercise system focused on improving flexibility, strength, and body awareness, without building bulk in the process.
It involves a series of controlled movements performed on specially designed exercise apparatus, or on the floor. It is a resistance exercise, not aerobic exercise. Although, the heart rate will certainly rise for any individual.
At first glance, it is closer to weight lifting than it is to jogging, biking, or any other aerobic activity. The best way to describe it is resistance exercise.
Two of the key elements of the method include core muscle strength and spinal alignment. The core musculature is the spine, abdomen, pelvis, hips, and muscles that support these structures.
During a pilates session, you have to concentrate deeply on your core muscles, your breathing, contraction of the muscles, and quality of your movement.

How many exercises did Joseph develop?

Nowadays, there are countless of pilates exercises. Joseph developed 34 original exercises, many of which are still used today. As we said before, he studied movements of animals and dancers for his exercises.
The objective of pilates is coordination of mind, body, and spirit. He called it contrology, but in his tribute, it is now known as Pilates.
He published the original 34 exercises in his first published book in 1945, called Return to Life Through Contrology.

What equipment did he invent?

As we said before, you can do pilates workout on mat. But there were some equipment machines. Joseph invented the Pilates Reformer, an original type of equipment.


He came up with the idea when he was working at a hospital during First World War. He made the reformer from a bed frame and springs. The ideas to help patients strengthen their muscles.

Fun Facts

Let’s share some lesser known and fun facts about Joseph Pilates, the inventor of one of the modern workouts.
- He lost the sight of his left eye due to bullies at the age of 5
- Joseph spent a lot of his free time observing animals and how they stretched and moved about to stay limber
- Joseph came up with the idea of pilates after watching how men at the camp could lose strength easily if they had nothing to keep them active
- His wife Clara was a school teacher suffering from arthritis in her hands. During their cruise to the US, Joseph gave her a few exercises to help her hands and she was instantly sold on his technique
- In his studio, he wore only tiny black or white shorts


- Part of his marketing was drinking beer and smoking cigars while teaching his technique. He told his students, “Look at me, smoking and drinking and loving, while in perfect health”
- Joseph told his clients that the brain is a muscle that must be trained and developed. To take a class with him, it meant pressing the button in their head to active the brain muscle
- After working out, he would tell his clients to take a cold shower
- Joseph was passionate about how exactly everything should be done, sometimes even getting into the shower with people to teach them proper washing and scrubbing techniques

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