Why Pilates is so popular now and how COVID fuelled a boom
Celebrities such as the Kardashians, Hailey Bieber, Lara Worthington and Phoebe Tonkin are switching out high-intensity sweat sessions for the once-humble practice of Pilates. So what’s behind the sudden surge in popularity? We speak to three of Australia’s most popular Pilates purveyors to find out…
Pilates is hardly a new form of exercise, having been invented by Joseph Pilates more than a century ago. But just like Fleetwood Mac’s classic Dreams on TikTok, it seems social media has been the driving force behind the recent resurgence of the low-impact workout. Well that, and the global pandemic that closed gyms and confined us all to our homes.
“Being shut inside for most of 2020 meant we had to find new ways to work out that involved minimal equipment, coupled with styles of fitness that were generally accessible and easy to follow with just a mat and a screen,” explains Cat Webb, founder of Good Times Pilates in Melbourne’s Fitzroy and at-home offering Good Times Online.
But even as parts of the world leave lockdown, Instagram remains awash with artfully-framed images of stylish reformer studios in a style not unlike the cycle and bootcamp booms we saw in previous years. If social media really is the barometer for our collective exercise obsessions, it seems we’ll all be swapping our Shimano cleats for Pilates circles in the near future.
So why is this already well-established workout now winning fans at such a rate?
Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.
Behind the Pilates boom
The COVID-19 pandemic might have renewed our interest in simple exercises that we can do from home, but accessibility is arguably not what attracted some of the owners of the world’s most famous physiques (-like Kim, Kourtney and Khloé Kardashian who love equipment sessions, while sister Kendall Jenner attends private reformer classes with Hailey Bieber at appointment-only Los Angeles studio Forma Pilates).
“Over recent months the Pilates culture has definitely grown, becoming prominent in the workout routines of so many and offered in most gyms and studios,” says Kirsten King, founder of Sydney’s Fluidform Studios and online platform Fluidform At Home, and whose programs are responsible for the toned figures of the likes of Lara Worthington. “Pilates offers movement that is both functional and challenging, and the results are life-changing! Once you’ve experienced how it changes both your body and mind you won’t look back.”
As our views on fitness evolve, we’re also experiencing a collective mindset shift that reframes the way we look at certain types of exercise. What now constitutes a ‘worthy workout’ to us has changed, according to Jacqui Kingswell, founder of The Pilates Class.
“Now more than ever a lot of people are changing the way they look at working out. My program isn’t about getting the ‘perfect body’ it’s about enjoying your time on the mat, keeping the body connection, discovering how your body works and being mindful throughout the day about how your body is positioned.”
Will Pilates replace HIIT as the most popular training style?
Pilates as we once knew it has evolved, with many trainers now incorporating more modern training styles into the practice, such as barre, yoga and yes, cardio. While high intensity interval training (HIIT) styles, such as F45 and Barry’s Bootcamp, were once favoured for their strong cardio components, we’re now starting to discover that it’s possible to get a great workout in a lower impact setting such as Pilates.
“One of the most common misconceptions with exercise is that the higher the intensity, the better the results,” explains King.
“For many people, exercise only counts when you’re dripping with sweat, muscles aching from fatigue and reaching the point of feeling faint. I cannot stress enough that this is not the key to success. Pilates exercises will challenge you in a different way to cardio or HIIT – following unique sequences, activating multiple elements of the body at once and fatiguing muscles you didn’t even know existed.”
That’s not to say that you can’t still get a serious sweat going in a single session of Pilates, whether it’s on the reformer or at home on the mat.
“The original mat Pilates sequence of 34 moves – where you do a few repetitions of each before moving on to the next move – was maybe the first high intensity body weight exercise,” says Webb, who offers a Sweat class in studio and online that focuses on a mix of Pilates and more traditional fitness moves at a fast pace to up the intensity.
Kingswell, who quickly accumulated a devoted following, including Shanina Shaik and Tash Oakley, after her online platform launched last year, also offers cardio-based classes on her program. “HIIT training works for some people and is a great cardio option if that’s the type of exercise you enjoy. Cardio classes [allow] our members to experience HIIT training with Pilates principles applied to the workout.”
Having tried a few, I can confirm I was absolutely dripping in mere minutes in classes on every single one of these programs.
Can Pilates really offer the same physical benefits as other activities like HIIT?
Absolutely, according to experts and their many satisfied clients.
In fact, Webb says that HIIT’s effectiveness can be attributed to its efficiency, rather than the nature of the exercises. “It’s basically just more bang for your buck – you can work out in less time and get the same results, getting you to the end goal faster,” she explains.
“All resistance and aerobic exercise is perceived the same by the body. Pilates can act as both a moderate-vigorous intensity aerobic activity and a muscle strengthening activity, and the exercises can be modified to suit the fitness level and ability of the human on the day, which is a huge factor in its success.”
Getting the most out of your Pilates practice comes down to nailing your form, says King, who focuses on the science behind the movements to transform her clients’ bodies.
“Once we correct posture and movement, Pilates aims to fatigue the muscles, building strength and tone and developing long, lean muscles. Alongside these physical changes comes the mental strength and confidence from within. From years of teaching, the best results come through this commitment to repetition and consistency,” she explains.
Kingswell agrees that consistency is key, which is why she devised separate schedules to offer options based on members’ goals. If lengthening and toning is what they’re after, she recommends the Satisfying-Intense program which comprises five to six classes each week.
“Everybody’s body is different and everyone responds to workouts individually, but you really start to notice an internal change after a week of taking classes, and the physical changes then follow.”
So, is it all just another trend?
Pilates’ enduring popularity is only set to increase as studios and online programs continue to offer diverse classes that can suit any preferred style of training. It’s hardly the old school, one-size-fits-all approach anymore, which is in turn attracting a wider audience.
“Most people that have never tried a Pilates class before have an idea that pilates is slow and boring, but once they get on the mat, this mindset quickly changes!” laughs Kingswell.
Besides the external benefits, Webb points to a sense of empowerment and community that comes with the practice. Good Times, which is grounded in an ethos of inclusivity and a view that Pilates should be for everybody, focuses on making movement fun.
“Regular exercise also has a butt load of other benefits, but the whole ‘living longer’ thing just really does it for me,” she adds.
If you’re considering starting your Pilates journey, King stresses the importance of committing and trusting the process to see results.
“Find yourself a program that works for you and a teacher you trust. They will be your mentor and guide you through your physical changes and mental growth,” she advises. “Focusing the mind on fully understanding and performing each movement will see physical results, that in turn will improve your confidence, motivation and transform your life.”