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Principles of Pilates

Want to learn more about the philosophy of Pilates, as established by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century? Read on.

The origins of Pilates are in injury rehabilitation exercises for two surprisingly different groups: First World War veterans and dancers. Joseph Pilates’ methodology used a balance between physical and mental training, believing that to control your body, you should first control your mind. There are six fundamental principles of Pilates: breathing, concentration, control, centring, precision and flow.


In Pilates you can think of breathing as a movement pattern in its own right, as well as the fundamental movement which drives each exercise. There are different methods for breathing during exercise: I prefer lateral breathing for Pilates. Used consistently, lateral breathing can make Pilates exercises easier to complete with good technique, as it encourages you to engage your abdominal muscles as you move and can reduce muscle tension. It can be difficult to remember breathing patterns alongside movement, sometimes you may be so busy concentrating on the movement that you start holding your breath, but it’s worth persisting as it will make things much easier when you get the hang of it.

Control and Precision

Control is perhaps one of the simplest principles to understand and hardest to execute. Pilates exercises are designed to be precise: using the correct muscles at the right time to create a quality movement, not just going through the motions. Ideally, each of us learns to perform a basic exercise with great technique before progressing to the next level. This is the best way to create strong muscles and protect your joints. This is also why Pilates can be great for injury rehabilitation and managing long term musculoskeletal conditions.


Moving with precision, engaging the correct muscles for each exercise, and understanding how the body should be positioned (by feeling rather than looking), and keeping still the parts of the body which aren’t intended to move takes concentration. In many cases, concentrating on keeping the supporting areas of the body still can be more important and more challenging than achieving the basic movement of the exercise. Coordinating movements, for example an arm and leg working smoothly together, also takes concentration: I often include simple exercises to help develop coordination, or add small equipment to basic exercises to enhance concentration.


Centring is about using your core muscles to initiate movements in your limbs and maintaining a stable core throughout exercises. While we may think that we use only our leg muscles to lift a leg, in reality we initiate movement from the core muscles before any nerve signals reach the legs. Many Pilates exercises ask you to move arms and legs, while keeping your trunk, shoulders or pelvis stable: these are all developing centring. The more control we have over our core muscles the better we can control our limbs, whether for exercise, playing sports or day-to-day movements.


There are two ways in which flow can be incorporated in Pilates. The first is the idea that controlled and centred movements should naturally appear fluid and relaxed, whereas exercises that look or feel stiff are unlikely to be using the muscles and joints appropriately. The second is the idea of flow or connection between body and mind – a concept traditionally associated with yoga, but central to Joseph Pilates’ philosophy of movement. More recently, many Pilates instructors have started including elements of mindfulness in their classes, although simply taking time to do exercises slowly, thinking about each movement and the muscles which should be activating is a more traditional interpretation.

If you’ve read all of this then you’re probably already quite a fan of Pilates – and if you’ve been to my classes, hopefully you can see where my teaching comes from. If not, hopefully this has inspired you to have a go. But don’t worry, many people go to Pilates for years without knowing or caring about the ideas behind it: you don’t have to know any of the theory at all to get a great workout.


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