Would Joseph Pilates do CrossFit?

October 11, 2012 — 8 Comments

Many different people have tried to find their own niche in the world of Pilates, fusing with, or adding elements of other disciplines; or perhaps trying to make their classes specific preparation for another sport, or activity. (Yes, I have seen ‘bikinilates’ advertised). I think this may be missing the point, but more of that later.
There are also signs that some teachers feel that Pilates is not enough in itself – that it needs to lead to something more – and I’d number myself amongst them. One of my teachers and trainers early in my Pilates career, James d’Silva, has created the Garuda Method, which was advertised at one stage along the lines of “where Pilates ends Garuda begins”. (One might debate the idea of Pilates ‘ending’ somewhere, I can imagine some sticklers for tradition and the original work rejecting the idea wholesale.) For me, CrossFit begins, not where Pilates ends, but overlapping, and happily coexisting. Perhaps this is the time to answer the ‘What is Crossfit?’ question.

The answer is: “Constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement.” (…”Functional movements are universal motor recruitment patterns; they are performed in a wave of contraction from core to extremity; and they are compound movements -i.e. they are multi-joint.”), from ‘Understanding CrossFit’ by Greg Glassman.

Greg Glassman is the creator of CrossFit and, like Joseph Pilates, a maverick figure with a solid conviction that what he is doing is valuable and should be disseminated as widely as possible. The strongest link that appears to me between the two disciplines is in the intended outcome. My understanding has always been (though I can’t find it in either of Pilates’ books, I’ve heard it from first generation teachers) that Pilates’ intention, after years of practicing a variety of different disciplines, was to create an exercise program that was non-specific. In other words, his exercises were for overall fitness, in readiness for whatever challenges life may bring. More recently the concept of GPP – general physical preparedness – has emerged, and this is central to CrossFit methodology. One trains a wide variety of activities in order to be prepared for as wide a variety of potential challenges as possible. Glassman seems to be fond of the idea of preparation, in as much as one can, for the “unknown and unknowable”.

I cannot think of a single Pilates exercise that works a joint or muscle in isolation, and the idea of a “wave of contraction from core to extremity” sounds exactly like Pilates. Joseph’s own principles for his method were: breathing; whole body movement; and whole body commitment. I haven’t come across anything in writings about CrossFit specifically related to breathing, but it is very much to do with whole body movement, and total commitment. In a divergence of the two methods, Pilates prescribed his exercises lying or sitting to “relieve your heart from undue strain” (from ‘Return to Life‘). This is one of the areas that leaves some of us feeling that Pilates alone is not enough, and CrossFit workouts certainly put significant strain on the cardiovascular system. (Whilst I think the tired “no pain, no gain” slogan is a crass one, I believe it’s true to say that you can’t have adaptation without stress.) In this context CrossFit also profoundly effects breathing, and full use of lung capacity. Anyone who has tried high intensity exercise will most likely be aware that breathing to full capacity doesn’t require cueing…

The video is self-explanatory, if you jump straight to 3:20 you’ll see how well her lungs are functioning. (In case anyone is concerned, the video above is of an elite athlete performing at an advanced level. This does not represent the kind of work that beginners would be asked to do.)

Many Pilates exercises involve maintaining a stable trunk (spine) whilst moving arms and/or legs. Typically the weight of the limbs and their movement act as a challenge to that stable trunk position. Similarly, one of the fundamentals of many CrossFit movements is ‘midline stabilisation’ – the idea that, particularly under load, you keep your trunk stiff, and move from your hip and shoulder joints. The only difference between the two is that Pilates doesn’t add load to the same degree. Had he been faced with current levels of osteoporosis, for instance, who’s to say that Joseph wouldn’t have favoured picking some weight up?

Another element that CrossFit and Pilates share is an emphasis on precision. Sadly, if you make only a cursory search of the internet, you will find plenty of alarm expressed over the dangerous nature of some CrossFit workouts – and, indeed, plenty of YouTube video clips of people doing very demanding movements with eye-wateringly poor form. Just like so many articles about Pilates being bad for you, I don’t believe that this is a reflection of CrossFit, but one of either poor coaching, or simply poor performance. Just as Pilates insisted on his exercises being done with precision, both videos of training seminars, and conversations with Crossfit luminaries make it clear that ‘Form is everything’. In fact, one of the particularly interesting challenges for me is that CrossFit workouts ask questions along the lines of: ‘We know that you can lift that heavy barbell off the floor with good form, now can you do that multiple times, quickly, with good form? And how about keeping your form and doing that when you’re gasping for breath because you’ve just been doing another challenging movement at speed?’

Rich Froning – ‘Fittest Man on Earth’

Joseph Pilates – tattooed health visionary

What else is there to lead me to the conclusion that Joseph Pilates would have embraced CrossFit? Followers of both methods will attest to the remarkable transformations in body composition, energy levels and overall well-being that are there for the taking. He didn’t seem to be interested in  great analysis of his method: one of my favourite Pilates quotes (as recounted by Ron Fletcher) is, in response to a question about the purpose of an exercise, “It’s for the body!”. CrossFit celebrates becoming faster, stronger, more agile – and does not dwell on the exact mix of muscles required. Perhaps most significantly Joseph, tattooed as he was, would have fit right in with a great number of CrossFitters, for whom ‘ink’ seems de rigeur.

I’m convinced that Joseph would have been involved in a movement like CrossFit, had he the chance. The truth is, while I couldn’t bring myself to give the post this heading, I believe (with apologies) that ‘CrossFit is the new Pilates’.

8 responses to Would Joseph Pilates do CrossFit?

    anoushkapilates October 11, 2012 at 6:28 am

    Great article. I think every Pilates teacher should read it.


    From my iPad


    Great great post. I’ve been teaching Pilates, GYROTONIC for the past 16 years and a bodybuilder and trainer for 9 years before that. I was introduced to CF by my amazing sister in Denver December 2011… and haven’t looked back since.

    I think Joseph would be a massive fan of CrossFit and I see no conflict between the two. In fact I have a great relationship with the owners at my box and we regularly share clients.

    Thank you.


    I understand the desire to do crossfit. It’s intense, uplifting, and can get you some degree of fitness. I trained for 4 years with a power lifter and for 8 years as an oly style lifter. Crossfit does not teach technique. It’s reps for speed, not for weight and not with good form. Crossfitters I knew were constantly using their injuries as excuses to not show up for lifting. Very few Pilates teachers get injured doing Pilates. And it’s not a competition! Pilates is about you, yourself, and your body. Being strong, flexible, and dynamically fit is a good thing. Pilates allows you to get strong without bulking up or burning out. Works for me.


      Thanks for reading, Tracy. I agree with what you say about Pilates, however my CrossFit coaching friends would disagree with you about technique/form. Just like Pilates, in CrossFit there are bound to be good, and not so good coaches. I could introduce you to a good few Pilates teachers who are neither very strong nor injury free.


    So how will you explain the number of CrossFitters who in 20 years will be turning to Pilates because they’ve injured themselves so greatly they can no longer continue CrossFit after wrecking their hips, knees, and shoulders? Have you actually been to a CrossFit gym? Precision is not one of the principles of the WOD. I know some CrossFitters and they are riddled with injury after injury. I dare say Mr. Pilates would NOT endorse CrossFit.


      Hi Sharon, I’m delighted to have provided a forum for you to express your views.

      Yes, I’ve been to a CrossFit gym. And I’ve done the CrossFit level 1 certification. I’m not blind to the shortcomings of the business, or some of the coaches that they certify, but I guarantee you that TEACHING during a WOD is a lot harder than teaching a Pilates class. So please don’t declare what is or is not a part of CrossFit, because you manifestly don’t know – in just the same way that someone who tries one or two classes probably wouldn’t have much insight into Pilates.

      I will probably explain the people turning to Pilates after injuring themselves in CF in much the same way I’d explain the people, teachers and otherwise, that I know who have been doing Pilates for years and STILL get injured. And are too weak to manage their own body weight, too.

      PS Do you know any runners? Do they have injuries, by any chance?

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