Crush Your First Pilates Class with Our Expert Tips
Arm yourself with everything you need to know—from what to wear to what will happen—so even if you’re a beginner, you’ll arrive feeling like a pro in your first Pilates class.
Everyone has a preferred sweat style. Maybe you’re the kind of person who thrives off of burpees and box jumps at CrossFit. Or maybe you’re more about the morning miles. Whatever your go-to fitness pick, there’s one activity you need to add into your regular routine, STAT: Pilates.
Created by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century, the method was originally targeted at dancers aiming to strengthen muscle groups to prevent injury. “Today, we think of Pilates as a modality that elongates and strengthens the body by emphasizing balance, alignment, proper breathing, core stability and strength,” says Portia Page, a certified Pilates instructor for Balanced Body.
It might not be the same kind of sweat-dripping workout that you’d get tackling a series of treadmill sprints, but in its own way, it’s equally effective, which is why tons of pro athletes swear by it. Eight weeks of Pilates classes can improve flexibility, abdominal strength and balance, according to a study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.
Generally focused around strengthening the core, Pilates can be done with just a simple exercise mat or if you are heading to a studio, on a piece of equipment known as a reformer. Whether or not you’ve actually been to a Pilates class, you’d probably recognize the machine—a sort of medieval torture device-looking thing with springs, straps, bars and a sliding carriage. And in recent years, the “megaformer,” a riff on traditional Pilates equipment, has become popular at fitness chains like SLT, Solidcore, and Sculpthouse.
If you’re down for the challenge, a Pilates class can be a really rewarding workout on its own or a great way to supplement the ones you already do. Here’s what you need to know before you show up.
Prepping for Class
Unlike more generic fitness classes, Pilates is a very specific technique that requires hundreds of hours of training to fully master. You want to find an instructor who has reached the highest level of certification requirements. A great baseline for you to judge a teacher’s credentials is to see if they are NCPT or PMA-CPT-certified, says instructor Lesley Logan, founder of OnlinePilatesClasses.com. “This means they not only did a comprehensive training that was 400 to 1000 hours long, but they also took a third party exam to get certified.”
Once you’ve found a class you’re comfortable with, don’t be shy about owning your amateur status. Just like with any new activity, it’s important to be upfront with the instructor. This way, they can keep an eye out for you as things progress, making sure your positions are correct and that you’re not doing anything that will leave you waking up crazy-sore tomorrow.
A big part of the class will be about breath. Obviously, you breathe all day long. But Pilates breath is a little like yoga breathing: Intentional and timed to movement. “In Pilates, you use your breath to enhance and energize your body while creating a flow and rhythm of the movements,” says Page. “It’s challenging to think so much about breathing in the beginning, but remembering to breathe in this way will help relax the mind so ultimately you can focus on the exercises.”
Following the Three C’s
In every class, Logan tells her students to remember concentration, control and centering. “It’s about harnessing the connection between the mind and body by paying attention to what you are doing, which can allow efficiency to enter into the movement,” she says.
Along with that concentration, controlling your movements is important to ensure correct body alignment as you move through the exercises. Don’t be surprised if you wake you sore the next morning: When done correctly, Pilate taps into a lot of muscles you don’t normally use. “Pilates is compounding—you’ll really start to feel the difference after you’ve been doing it regularly for a month or so,” says Logan.
And lastly, since everything in Pilates is initiated from the core, the center of the body is your most important focal point during these exercises. Think about engaging your abdominal muscles during every exercise to ensure correct alignment and movement throughout.
Dressing the Part
Working out is always more fun when you feel comfortable. Look for leggings that are breathable since you will be working up a sweat, suggests Jacqueline Hinton, a Los Angeles-based Pilates Instructor at Good Body Pilates Studio. Tights with flatlock seams feel good against the skin and flatter your shape, too. Also important: Make sure clothing isn’t too loose so it won’t get in the way of any machinery and will also allow your instructor to keep an eye on your form.
If you’re usually a shorts person, you might want to reconsider for Pilates, since a lot of moves involve legs-in-the-air positions. “Make sure that whatever you wear on your bottom half does not flash your instructor if you are lying on your back and need to spread your legs,” says Hinton. Try compression-style, mid-calf-length tights for a little extra coverage.
On top, you’ll want a slim-fitting shirt and moderate support. If you like to marry a little fashion with function, look for sports bras with feminine detailing like cutouts in the back, narrow straps and removable pads to customize comfort.
And finally, one of the most important pieces of Pilates gear is… socks. You don’t wear shoes in class, so your socks serve a duel purpose. “You need socks that have grip to keep you from slipping off the machines and make you more stable when moving,” says Hinton.
Getting to Know Your Movements
You can better prep for your first class by studying up on some of the basic movements. “It may feel weird the first several times you practice, but over time you will learn the different concepts and the exercises will become more familiar,” says Hinton. Here, five foundational moves you should know.
The Hundred: Lie on your back, knees bent. Lift feet off the floor to create a tabletop position, shins parallel to the floor. Raise your head and shoulders off the mat and extend your legs so your body forms a modified V-shape. Extend your arms in front of you, palms facing down. Pull your belly button in toward your spine as you pump arms up and down for 100 counts.
Mermaid: Sit on the floor, weight on your left hip, legs bent and folded to your right side. Swing your top right leg behind your body, and let your left leg rest, bent, in front of your body such that your left foot touches the inside of your right thigh. Raise your left arm and reach over your head to your right side for a deep stretch. Repeat on the other side.
*Double Straight Leg Kicks: Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet off the floor in a tabletop position. Raise your head and shoulders off the mat and extend your legs so your body forms a modified V-shape. Pull your belly button into your spine. Raise both legs up to the sky so your feet are over your hips, then lower to start position. Repeat 5-8 times.
Push-Up: Stand with feet together, arms by sides. Begin to roll down your spine, bending forward until your hands touch the floor. Keeping your legs straight, walk hands forward in three giant steps until your body is in an extended push-up position. Keeping your fingers facing forward and elbows by your sides, bend arms and perform 5 to 10 push-ups. Straighten arms and walk your hands back toward your feet. Reverse roll up your spine to the start.
Double Leg Stretch: Lie on your back and bend your knees into your chest, feet off the floor. Place your hands on your ankles. Raise your head and shoulders off the floor. Engaging your core, straighten your legs and extend arms behind your head so that your body forms an elongated V-shape. Bend your knees and circle your arms around out to sides, then grab your ankles. Repeat 5-8 times.
Now that you’ve got the gear, tips and moves you’ll need for your first class, it’s time to get your head in the game, too. Doing something new can be intimidating, but big rewards are in store if you’re brave enough to give it a try.