Types of Pilates

Where do I start?

There are several different ways to differentiate one pilates class from another. As an instructor my immediate thought is to differentiate Pilates by schools, or broadly, by classical vs. contemporary. However my clients usually have little interest in this and instead want to know the differences based on what equipment is used or what the latest fad classes are (have you tried piloxing?), or by how much the class costs! My physio brain on the other hand demands Pilates be differentiated based on how many people are in a ‘class’, or more accurately, whether it is a recipe based repetitive programme, a group class that varies week to week but is identically performed by all, or individually prescribed programme unique to that client and that session. In an effort to be thorough I have tried to use all ways to divide up the types of Pilates (although there are undoubtedly others).

Who cares anyway?

I think understanding the differences (and the commonalities) between the types and styles of Pilates are important in being able to get the most out of your Pilates practice. Different types are more suited to different goals and some may achieve your goals faster than others. Understanding the differences can also help you to appreciate the cost involved in certain classes. While I have my own personal preferences I have tried to be unbiased and present the pros and cons of each.

Of course regardless of the type of class each individual instructor also brings their own flavour to Pilates with their own individual experiences and personality.

Classical Pilates

Classical Pilates has many names including traditional Pilates, Romana Pilates, New York Pilates, authentic Pilates, real or true pilates (and I`m sure there are others). Classical Pilates aims to preserve the original teachings of Joseph and Clara Pilates and continues to perform them as described traditionally. The equipment used is built to the same specifications as those created by Joseph Pilates. Whilst it does vary a little depending on the exact school of training, classical Pilates is probably actually a lot less varied than many other types of Pilates owing to their common goal of continuing with the original work. Compared with other types it tends to be very flexion biased (great if you have a spondylolisthesis or a lordotic lumbar spine, not so great if you have a disc protrusion). It is more prescriptive than other styles with exercises being performed in an unvarying order. Some schools/teachers aligned with this style include Romana`s pilates and Cynthia Lochard amongst many others.

Contemporary Pilates

Also known as modern Pilates. While contemporary Pilates is still based on the original work of Joseph and Clara Pilates, as the name suggests it recognises that many advances have been made since this time and incorporates contemporary knowledge and research into its teachings. By nature Contemporary Pilates is in continual development and thus may be extremely varied. It may use a wide variety of equipment including matwork, small props such as the foam roller or chi ball, all the traditional studio equipment and many other more recent designs such as Rael IsacowitzAvalon system. Contemporary Pilates schools usually teach (a selection of) the repertoire but then encourage students to create unique individual programs based on the needs and goals of the Pilates client. There are obviously great advantages to updating the original work of Pilates based on current medicine and anatomical and physiological knowledge. It makes Pilates safer, more effective and more applicable to a wider audience just to name a few. However this does lead Pilates to being prone to inappropriate changes and watering down to the extent that it no longer recognisable.

There are many, many Pilates schools that would be considered ‘contemporary’ with new ones popping up all the time. Some the larger and more established ones include Polestar Pilates, BASI and Stott Pilates.

Clinical Pilates

I would consider clinical Pilates to be a subset of Contemporary Pilates. In Australia at least, clinical Pilates usually refers to physio taught Pilates for rehabilitation. It can include matwork, small props especially theraband or studio equipment work. Clinical Pilates has a strong focus on the current research on stabiliser muscles and low back pain and includes training in using real time ultrasound to assess transverse abdominus and pelvic floor muscle activation. It also uses dynamic physiotherapy assessment to establish directional preferences and functional diagnoses. However a disadvantage is that it contains far less self mastery than other styles of Pilates. Clinical pilates in practice is usually taught as a 4 on 1 studio session where each client has their own individual programme which is followed each session with little variation.

The main school aligned with clinical Pilates is the DMA which is led by Craig Phillips however the term clinical Pilates is often used (?misappropriated) to describe any Pilates that is conducted by a physiotherapist or rehabilitative in nature.

Mat work

Mat work is performed on the floor using nothing but a yoga mat. This is Pilates as it was originally designed by the man himself (the studio equipment was created to help those poor buggers who couldn’t do the mat work properly). Mat work uses gravity and your own body weight as resistance. Advantages are that it is cheaper and easily can be performed at home (or online on your TV/computer via Pilates Anytime!). Mat work is usually taught as a group class but is often also incorporated into studio programmes.

Small props

There are a myriad of small props such as the magic circle, foam roller, swiss ball, chi ball, theraband etc etc that can be used as part of Pilates. Small props add variety to the matwork and can also be used in combination with much of the equipment. Most props are designed to either add resistance eg. theraband, magic circle, or challenge stability eg. foam roller, swiss ball. Some can also be used as a self massage eg foam roller, franklin ball. Small props are usually cheap enough that the client can purchase them for home use.

Studio work

The main traditional pieces of studio equipment are the reformer, trapeze table (aka cadillac), chair, spine corrector and ladder barrel. There are many other variations including baby arcs, ped-o-pul, reformer/trap combos, wall units and Rael Isacowitz`s Avalon system. While most people assume that using the studio equipment equates with increased complexity or difficulty, originally Joseph Pilates designed it to teach people to do exercises that they were currently unable to perform on the mat. Most of the equipment uses springs as resistance. This can either make the movement easier by assisting it or increase the challenge by resisting it. Changing the amount of spring resistance may also be used to change which muscles are recruited. Studio equipment is usually used as part of a studio session, commonly as a private or semi private session (1 instructor per 1-6 clients depending on the studio). Other variations include group reformer classes, group chair classes and circuit classes. These classes usually have smaller numbers of participants than mat classes.

Group Classes

Group Pilates classes can have anywhere from 2 to 50+ participants (I would say most studios would have 6-15 while gyms frequently have 30+) in each class. Group classes are usually mat classes but reformer group classes (sometimes called allegro classes) are also common. The defining feature of a group class is that all the participants perform the same (or similar) exercises, usually in time with one another (or in sequence as is the case of circuit classes). There is one instructor demonstrating/cueing/correcting the exercises. The limitations of group classes are that the exercises are generic (although still wonderful) and the instructor has a limited ability to correct individuals (the more participants the harder this is). On the plus side group classes are cheaper and more social.

Private/semi private sessions

Private or semi private sessions are like the personal training of Pilates. Sessions have 1-6 people (usually 3 or less) and thus the client has a lot more attention and guidance from the instructor. Depending on the style of Pilates, private/semi private Pilates sessions are often composed of a unique programme of exercises created specifically for the client and varied from session to session. The advantages for rehabilitation and special populations here are huge. Unfortunately the extra attention will also come with extra cost (but I think it`s worth it!).


Exercise forms that take inspiration from Pilates

While many of these classes use Pilates in their name or description I would not consider them to be Pilates in their own right. They do however take inspiration from Pilates and may have some Pilates style exercises in them, or apply the principles of Pilates to other forms of exercise.

  • Barre Pilates – eg. Booty Barre, Xtend barre etc Classes are a combination of ballet barre work, Pilates exercises and cardio.
  • Piloxing – the name says it all, the unlikely combination of Pilates and boxing
  • Body Balance – a Les Mills class that is a combination of tai chi, yoga and pilates choreographed to music.
  • Yogalates – Again as the name suggests, a mixture of yoga and pilates

These classes typically vary hugely in their quality and semblance to Pilates.


Part of my desire to complete my daily Pilates practice resolution next year is to broaden my experience amongst these varied forms of Pilates.

What is your favourite type of Pilates?

About Laura

I am a practising physiotherapist and Pilates Instructor living in Newcastle, Australia. My interests include chronic pain, Pilates for rehabilitation, gymnastics and the brain/mind body connection. I love shopping, skiing and travelling and hate watermelon.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Types of Pilates

  1. Pingback: What is Pilates? | emlhealth

  2. pilates evolution now says:

    Great concise post on the types of Pilates. I am Polestar trained and loved training with them. Am looking at doing a few basi short courses

  3. Laura says:

    Thanks! I`m Polestar trained as well and am a massive fan of their education programs and instructors. If you`re thinking of doing some BASI courses have a look at Rael Isacowitz’s back care essentials workshop, http://www.pilatesanytime.com/workshop-view/447/video/Workshop-Back-Care-Essentials-Rael-Isacowitz you can watch it online for free.

  4. Pingback: Day 28 – What defines Pilates? Kristi Cooper mini mat class on Pilates Anytime | My Pilates Life 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s