Peloton member doing a pilates class on the Peloton App

Peloton's Ultimate Guide to Pilates Workouts

Creating a Pilates habit can transform your fitness routine—find out what this form of exercise is all about.

By Team PelotonJune 28, 2023


If you’re familiar with that post-workout jolt of accomplishment and pride, you know exactly the feeling Pilates can give you on a regular basis. Imagine waking up feeling stronger, more confident, and healthier every morning. If Pilates can do that for so many people, why not you? By now, we’re sure you’ve heard of Pilates and maybe even considered trying it. After all, it has an excellent reputation for building sculpted bodies, strong cores, and of course, a boost in confidence. 

But, if you’re not familiar with Pilates, you may have a few questions before diving in and committing to your first class. Is it just endless crunches, squats, and leg lifts? Is it even an effective workout if there’s no cardio? 

We’ve got the answers to all those questions and more, but know this: If you’re looking to spice up your fitness practice with a fun workout that strengthens your body while improving your mind-body connection, look no further than Pilates. We sat down to discuss all this and more with Peloton Yoga and Pilates Instructor Kristin McGee

In this guide, we will demystify Pilates by digging into the workout itself and reviewing its many benefits (hint: there are some really compelling ones), plus, break down 5 of the most popular Pilates exercises so you can test-drive the workout for yourself. 

Hopefully, by the end, you’ll be inspired to throw down your mat for some leg circles and bicycle crunches and start experiencing why the hype about Pilates is well worth it and fully deserved.

What Is Pilates?

Before diving into its benefits, it’s important to understand what exactly Pilates is. Pilates is a popular form of exercise and conditioning that was developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s. Joseph Pilates opened a gym in New York City that become popular amongst dancers looking to improve their technique or recover from injury.

There are six Pilates principles meant to help you maximize the benefits of the workout: breath, concentration, centering, control, precision, and flow. Focusing on all six is paramount to a good Pilates practice, and you’ll find that most classes emphasize them pretty evenly.  

A typical Pilates flow can be performed on a mat, and will include a combination of strength and flexibility exercises using full-body resistance training. It’s a low-impact workout meant to strengthen your entire body with repetitive, fluid movements and poses. Pilates promotes mobility and strengthens all the major muscle groups, with a key focus being on the deep core muscles, including the transverse abdominals, obliques, rectus abdominis, back, and glutes. 

Benefits of Pilates

The benefits of Pilates are abundant and include increased flexibility, improved core engagement, and full-body strengthening. Pilates is meant to make your body strong and flexible, so you can move more efficiently and gracefully, even outside of Pilates class. Many of the movements performed throughout the class are controlled, but linked together they exhibit fluidity that may even remind you of a dance.

By focusing on your limbs and core, you’re opening your entire body up to a wealth of benefits that go far beyond physical appearance. One study revealed that after just 10 weeks of practicing Pilates once a week, participants exhibited significant improvements in muscle mass, flexibility, balance, core and abdominal muscle strength, and body awareness. In fact, the heavy focus on core strength has a positive cascading impact on the entire body, with additional studies demonstrating that the Pilates method also improves postural alignment. These types of improvement have a far-reaching and long-lasting effect on your overall health and quality of life.

When asked how the benefits of Pilates differ from other low-impact workouts, Kristin sums it up well, saying that “Pilates directly strengthens the deep core, which we call the powerhouse. When you learn to lead from your powerhouse (transverse abs, internal/external obliques, rectus abdominis, back, and glute muscles), you reduce the risk of injuring yourself in everything else you do. Pilates strengthens you from the inside out! It is such an incredible way to support your spine and work out your core and entire body.” 

In addition to improving your posture and flexibility, Pilates is a great alternative to traditional high-impact exercise, especially for anyone recovering from an injury or experiencing chronic back pain. One review of studies looking at the impact of Pilates on those with low-back pain found that Pilates offered greater improvement in functional ability compared to typical short-term care and physical activity and offers improvements similar to what might be achieved by massage therapy. So while it’s not a replacement for massage therapy or injury rehabilitation, your back might benefit from some of the more gentle Pilates exercises and core work if you’re experiencing any aches and pains. 

Despite being a low-impact workout method, Pilates helps develop the muscles in your abdominals, hips, and arms. So, not only will Pilates make you stronger, it can improve your posture in a major way.

And don’t forget that one of the core principles of Pilates is centering, so there is a beautiful internal focus on the mind-body connection as well. In order to execute all of the Pilates movements fluidly and with control, your mind must connect with your body to provide a deeper awareness of your form and your breathing. 

When asked to share what she loves the most about Pilates, Kristin says, “I love the deep connection. I feel so centered and alive every time I practice. I also love what it has done for my posture, breathing, and proper utilization of my core.” 

It truly is a full-body workout that strengthens people from the inside out. What’s not to love? 

What Are the Types of Pilates Classes?

If you’re considering trying a Pilates class, you might notice that there are different types of classes. Finding the style of Pilates right for your objectives and goals will be key for your practice to thrive. You might go all-in on one type of Pilates flow, or find that a combination is what’s best for you. Below, we review the 4 most common types of Pilates classes, so you can familiarize yourself with the different styles and choose what’s best for you.  

Classical Pilates

This is, by definition, the original and purest form of Pilates. It is Pilates as Joseph Pilates intended it to be. You can expect a classical Pilates class to be a strong full-body and mind workout. In classical Pilates, the workout sequence is executed in order and includes transitions in between the exercises. The entire sequence is designed to move your body through a full range of movements to gain strength and control. It’s considered classical Pilates if it includes the same exercises in exactly the same order every time. Typically, this type of Pilates will combine both a mat and gear and in its purest form would be practiced in a fully-equipped studio that incorporates all of the necessary apparatuses Joseph's sequence requires. These include machines like the Pilates Reformer, Pilates Cadillac Reformer, Pilates Chair, and more.

Mat Pilates

This is the most accessible form of Pilates, and can be practiced at home with a mat, without the use of machines or gear. This is the perfect type of Pilates for beginners, with a focus on learning and perfecting fundamental movement techniques, using your body weight for resistance. It draws from classical Pilates moves, focusing on the floor exercises to strengthen the core (also referred to as the "powerhouse"), as well as the arms and legs. While the standard Pilates routine involves equipment, mat Pilates only involves the postures that don't require any gear, and can safely be performed at home and without a hands-on instructor. There is an emphasis on form in mat Pilates—which is important because there is no machine to correct your alignment for you. That in itself can add an extra challenge to the mat flow (in the very best way!).

Contemporary Pilates

This is essentially classical Pilates, but with a modern twist. It allows for modifications to the original Pilates flow, based on more modern knowledge of the body and biomechanics. Considered a more hybrid approach to the rigid original routine, contemporary Pilates combines parts of the classical Pilates formula with new safety-focused exercises and sometimes even props like bands or balls. A contemporary Pilates flow might even include a few postures or movements derived from different types of exercise, like yoga or strength training.

This allows instructors to make in-the-moment modifications based on different workout goals, fitness levels, and physical limits. Contemporary Pilates is ideal for prenatal and postpartum practice, as well as for anyone recovering from an injury. 

Reformer Pilates 

This mode of Pilates utilizes the famed reformer machine, which was designed with springs, levers, ropes, and a sliding carriage to add resistance to each of the traditional Pilates exercises. While the inclusion of the machine makes the workout more intense, it is designed to be easy to use. The machine is meant to increase flexibility, stamina, and balance. While the reformer machine can be purchased for use at home, it is typically only found in studios and done under the supervision of a certified instructor.

How Often Should You Do Pilates?

Broadly, the CDC advises that most adults get at least 150 minutes a week (for example, 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity. 

As a target goal, Kristin recommends practicing Pilates 2-3 days a week. However, she says that even just once a week, you’ll see and feel a difference.

You should aim to create a weekly fitness routine that’s right for your body and your unique goals. For example, you could add Pilates into the mix as a way to complement your strength training or to balance out high-impact cardio and its impact on your muscles. Or, should you become a Pilates enthusiast, you could make a 5-day Pilates routine your end goal. (Remember, you can always schedule your workouts in the Peloton App.)

Can You Do Pilates Every Day?

Since it’s low-impact, Pilates is safe enough to do every day, although you shouldn’t push yourself too hard. Additionally, you may want to take 1 or 2 days for a recovery day between workout sessions for your body to rest and rebuild, especially if you’re pushing yourself with more high-intensity flows. Perhaps, on your rest days, you can do a few gentle moves and stretches to help your muscles loosen up so that your dedicated Pilates days can have more of an impact. 

Remember that you don’t have to practice Pilates every day, or even every other day, in order to experience its positive benefits. In the study referenced above, even once-a-week Pilates training is enough to trigger detectable benefits. 

So, just how quickly can Pilates change both your body and your mindset? 

As Kristin says of Pilates’ founder, “Joseph has a fun quote, ‘In 10 sessions, you'll feel the difference; in 20 sessions, you'll see the difference; and in 30 sessions, you'll have a whole new body.’” 

“Now, it obviously depends on your level of commitment,” she continues, “and by a whole new body, I think it's more about how you feel in your body. It's less about the outer results and more about the deep connection you've built with your body and moving in a way that supports your spine and entire posture. You'll gain flexibility and strength as well as a new way of concentrating when you move.”

Is Pilates Similar to Yoga?

Yoga and Pilates are often put into the same category. While both workouts are low-impact and involve breath work and poses, they are not interchangeable. 

In yoga, you’ll hold more static positions, moving through flows in a way meant to strengthen the mind-body connection and challenge your stability. The benefits of yoga include improved mobility, flexibility, inner focus, and balance. There is a heavy focus on breathing and mindfulness during yoga flows. 

With Pilates, on the other hand, you’ll hold a position and then challenge your core while moving your limbs with fewer, more precise movements meant to build strength and stability in your core and around your spine. While there is a focus on centering and internal connection, there is also heavy focus on control of the anatomy, structured movement, and integrity that originates from the core. 

Both workouts are highly effective and highly recommended but for distinct reasons. They have very different goals, and your body can benefit from incorporating both forms of exercise into your regimen. 

Pilates for Beginners

If you’re brand new to Pilates, don’t fret. There are plenty of beginner classes that will let you ease yourself in. (The one-week Beginner Pilates with Kristin program on the Peloton App is a great place to start.)

“Beginners will be shocked at how you can work your core in a new way that is functional,” says Kristin. “I think we often think of abdominal workouts as crunches, but in Pilates we work smarter, not harder. We concentrate on using the right muscles in a way that is efficient and supports the rest of the body. You may be surprised at how difficult the mat work can be. But be patient and stay committed. The benefits are so amazing.”

Even if you’re not sure whether Pilates is for you, it’s built for beginners, making it incredibly approachable and easy to try. What’s more, there are gentle options and modifications available for beginners, and your instructor will guide you to ensure you are maintaining the integrity of your movements (for maximum benefit).  

So, why should you choose Pilates? “For many so many reasons,” Kristin says. “Another quote from Joseph Pilates that I love is ‘You're only as young as your spine is flexible’...or something to that effect. Our posture is so important, as is our breath. Our deep transverse abs are connected to our diaphragm. When we learn to breathe properly and use our core to support our spine we have more power and purpose! We walk better, sit taller and move more efficiently. We reduce the risk of injury and can use Pilates to support any other activity or exercise we do.”

What to Expect From a Pilates Workout

If you’re planning to take your first Pilates class, you can expect an incredible workout that is highly accessible, with your instructor walking you through each stance in a step-by-step fashion. You may notice a certain lingo or particular words being repeated during Pilates classes, such as powerhouse, scooping or zipping your abs, Pilates stance (heels together, toes apart), and much more. You’ll catch onto those quite quickly! The purpose of this terminology is to help reinforce your form and recenter your purpose. You will be instructed on which muscles you’re supposed to feel working in each posture, which will help you make adjustments as needed.

You can expect to start feeling your muscles burn during class, and they may even start to shake. 

“I call it the ‘tremor of truth,’” says Kristin. “I've been practicing for over 25 years and I still shake in certain exercises. I think if you are really engaged and working the right muscles, you will feel a shake. Oftentimes, people shake when they start using their core instead of their arms or legs. We get so used to muscling from our limbs that when we let them relax and deepen our core, we let go of a lot of pent-up energy. But always listen to your body. If you feel like it's too much or if you're tensing, you can vary the movement to fit your needs as you gain strength.”

Make sure to pay attention to your form so you don’t strain your lower back. Don’t overdo it or push yourself too hard. Try not to lead with your neck for any of the abdominal exercises. 

“I often see people strain their necks,” Kristin says. Instead, she advises: “Learn how to lift your head up from your core. If it's hard in the beginning, prop your head on a block or ball as you develop strength. I also see people over-tucking their lower backs or sometimes overarching. It's important to try and find a neutral pelvis and engage the core while maintaining neutral. We purposely round our spines or extend our spines in certain exercises, but when you're doing core work on your back, try and keep your pelvis level. And always imagine lengthening your spine.”

As with all new forms of exercise, start slow and work your way up to a higher-intensity flow once your body is ready. 

Pilates at Home

An advantage of Pilates is that you can do a full-body or isolated workout even from anywhere. As you begin your exciting journey into Pilates, you can start with simple, easy positions and then build on that foundation with challenging movements and holds. Over time, you’ll probably invest in comfy mats, socks, towels, and water bottles. So don’t be shocked if you have a fully-inspired home gym six months from now. Luckily, there are many ways to enjoy Pilates that don’t involve leaving the house.

At Peloton, we offer a wide range of Pilates classes on-demand and live. In 20-30 minutes, you can feel stronger and energized for the day, or revitalized after a long day at work with an 80’s themed class. Whatever mood you’re in, an at-home Pilates session can recenter you and help you reach your goals.

Moreover, on-demand Pilates classes have experienced instructors to guide you through your routine. Our instructors are motivating, helpful and bring out the best in you so you can make the most of the time you have. Don’t worry, you’ll have lots of help along the way as you advance from beginner to rockstar Pilates enthusiast. 

Pilates Exercises

Now that you understand what Pilates is and why it’s so amazing, let’s walk through a quick Pilates crash course. We’ve gathered five of the most popular mat Pilates exercises to take your at-home routine to the next level. Consider these exercises your introduction to the fundamentals of a thriving Pilates practice. If you decide to take a class, you will likely be doing at least one of these exercises. 

Pilates One Hundred

Kristin McGee doing the one hundreds, a pilates exercise

A. Begin by lying flat on your back. Keeping your lower back pressed firmly on the ground, lift both legs up toward the ceiling, then lower them halfway so they are at a 45° angle.

B. Slowly curl your head and shoulders up, keeping your arms long next to your body and your palms facing down. 

C. Begin pumping your arms up and down, while inhaling for 5 counts and exhaling for 5 counts.

D. Keep repeating this breathing pattern while vigorously pumping your arms until you’ve reached the 100 count. 

Pilates Roll-Up

Kristin McGee doing a pilates roll up

A. Lie flat on your back with your arms extended overhead, stretched flat on the floor with palms facing up. 

B. Lift your arms until your wrists are directly in line with your shoulders, then slowly begin to curl up, tucking your chin to your chest as you lift your spine, shoulders, upper back, then lower back up off the floor and into a seated position. 

C. Continue to fold your torso forward over your legs, keeping your core engaged until you’ve tapped your ankles. 

D. Slowly reverse the crunch, rolling back down to the floor with control, beginning with your lower back and ending with your arms back over your head. Repeat 10-15 times. 

Leg Circle 

Kristin McGee doing leg circles, a pilates exercise

A. Begin by lying on your back with your palms facing down and your arms long by your sides. Keep your lower back pressed firmly against the ground. 

B. Bend your right knee, placing your right foot flat on the floor. Extend your left leg straight up, toward the ceiling. 

C. Begin circling your left leg out to the side with control as you slowly move it down to the floor, then circle it back up until it’s pointing toward the ceiling again. 

D. Reverse the circle and repeat the same motion. Repeat 15 times on both legs.

Bicycle Crunch 

Kristin McGee doing bicycles crunches

A. Lie on the floor with your back flat against the ground, taking extra care to keep your lower back pressed down. 

B. Put your elbows out and your hands behind your head. Without straining your neck, lift your head, neck, and shoulders up off the mat. 

C. Bend your knees and bring your legs to a tabletop position. Pull your left knee toward your chest while straightening your right leg. 

D. Twist your body so that your right elbow touches the outside of your left knee, then repeat on the other side, keeping your legs moving in a “bicycle” motion. Take extra care to keep your core engaged and your shoulders lifted off the ground. Repeat 15 times on each side. 

Double Leg Stretch

Kristin McGee doing double leg stretches

A. Lie face up with your lower back pressed firmly into the ground. Pull both knees in toward your chest while curling your head, neck, and shoulders up. 

B. Gently hold on to the outsides of both of your knees. Extend both legs out to a 45° angle, keeping them straight, while simultaneously reaching both arms out overhead.

C. Then circle both arms out and around while bending your knees until you return to your starting position. Repeat 10-15 times. 

Choose Pilates for a Stronger, More Sculpted You

Have we convinced you to try a Pilates workout for yourself? Whether you start slowly by incorporating a few mat Pilates classes into your current routine, or you go all-in and start making Pilates the base workout you look forward to most days of the week, you’ll feel stronger and more energized in no time. And because Pilates doesn’t require days upon days of practice to experience its benefits, it is the perfect complement to your usual workout routine. 

If you’re already devoted to a different sport or fitness modality but you’re looking for a better way to cross-train, Pilates is a great option. The ultimate bonus? Better posture and a stronger core. Any exercise that places such a heavy emphasis on core strength and posture will only benefit your body in the long run, and Pilates has a way of making that emphasis a fun and exciting challenge. 

The benefits of regularly practicing Pilates are simply incredible. It has helped so many of its devotees to move better and feel better, and it truly is worth the hype that the fitness world gives it. If you want to find a community to help motivate you as you start your Pilates journey, check out some of Peloton’s top classes for extra inspiration.