I know so much more than Joseph Pilates did…

March 5, 2015 — 9 Comments

Occasionally, when something causes me to reflect on how little I’ve achieved over the course of my life, I console myself with the thought that Joseph Pilates was 50 years old when he published his first book (1934), and arguably did his best work between then and his death in 1967. It’s not that I imagine I will ever achieve as much as he did, rather that I still have plenty of time to learn and develop, physically and mentally (yes, emotionally too, but that’s a whole other can of worms).

It seems that it is broadly accepted doctrine within the Pilates teaching world that science has significantly advanced our understanding of human movement, beyond that of Joseph Pilates. Therefore (the doctrine would seem to go), it is safe to assume that we know more about movement than Pilates did, we understand muscles, mechanics and stabilisation better than he did. In some cases it leads to the notion that many of his exercises, perhaps many of the ‘Return to Life’ repertoire, are unsuitable for normal people. Therefore, we are able to adapt Pilates exercises to be safer and better. Here are a few samples of this manifestation to be easily discovered on the web:

“Unfortunately we only have material from his later days of practice and many of those exercises are very unsuitable for the general public!!! Modern Pilates combines the best principles of Pilates with sports science and research from the 21st Century. Simply that! Modern Pilates is a modern contemporary approach to an old exercise discipline.” (http://www.thepilatesstudioglossop.co.uk/introduction-to-modern-pilates/)

“Having been taken from the dance community by medical professionals it has emerged within physiotherapy, sports training facilities and in more recent history in general fitness circles. With influence from physiotherapists, dancers, doctors, movement therapists and scientists Pilates continues to change and advance.”(http://www.marylebonephysio.com/pilates.htm)

“But the advances of exercise science have enabled teachers to adapt the technique into a safe effective form of exercise, that can be practiced by almost everyone.” (http://www.reigatepilates.com/joseph-pilates/)

“You will also learn variations and modifications that were developed in response to scientific advances and the needs of todays student for work that is safe, effective and fun.” (http://www.purely-pilates.co.uk/instructor.html)

“STOTT PILATES® is a contemporary approach to the original exercise method pioneered by the late Joseph Pilates. Co-founders Moira and Lindsay G. Merrithew, along with a team of physical therapists, sports medicine and fitness professionals, have spent over two decades refining the STOTT PILATES method of exercise and equipment. This resulted in the inclusion of modern principles of exercise science and spinal rehabilitation, making it one of the safest and effective methods available.” (http://www.ymcafit.org.uk/courses/stott-pilates-mat-plus)

I was about to write “at the other extreme”, but since the above ideas seem to be distinctly mainstream then ‘extreme’ is inaccurate – instead, let’s say that the opposite view of this might be considered the school of ‘everything about Pilates is perfect and nothing should be changed in any way’. Or perhaps – Don’t ask questions, just trust the method.

I would have to agree that we cannot practice or teach Pilates with total disregard for the world outside – as a species we are more captive (see Katy Bowman), more ‘zoo-human’ (see Erwan LeCorre) than we were in the 40s, 50s and 60s, so we have changed ourselves, and probably not for the better. (This is quite different from ‘very unsuitable for the general public!’ – if anything, the general public have become unsuitable, not the exercises.) It is also true that some of Pilates assertions are problematic: “In a newly-born infant the back is flat because the spine is straight. Of course, we all know that this is exactly as intended by nature, not only at birth but also throughout life.” I’m inclined to see this as excessive zeal in an argument for maintaining spinal elongation. Perhaps he did get it wrong – I certainly always thought so until, after years of lying on a Stott reformer, lay on a Gratz reformer with distinctly more cushioning and had a different sense of what he may have meant by ‘flat’. Again, maybe he was wrong about this, but should this be cause for us to think that he didn’t understand human bodies and movement well.

To return to my self-consoling thoughts, even if we only start counting from the publishing of ‘Your Health’, Joseph Pilates had 33 years of watching people move, designing, experimenting and refining. As Andrea Maida puts it:

“Joe Pilates toiled his entire lifetime of 80+ years indefatigably tinkering with and perfecting his method. Jay Grimes insists no detail was left to chance or done by accident in the entire body of Pilates’ work.” (http://www.pilatesandrea.com/on-the-order-of-the-pilates-mat-exercises/)

I’ll be the first to agree that understanding how our bodies work in greater detail is wonderful, and that there are all sorts of technologies that allow us to ‘see’ how our bodies behave that weren’t available to Pilates. It’s also easy to believe, perhaps fuelled by the wonder of our advancing technology, that we know more than we do. Do EMGs, for example, tell us exactly which muscles work during a specific movement, and in what sequence etc? Perhaps they do, but EMGs have also recorded muscular activity in cadavers….

Perhaps as an extension of the belief that we know better, it seems to be another common view that an adherence to a set sequence of exercises is short-sighted, perhaps like literally interpreting the Bible (the ‘Don’t ask questions, just trust the Method’ view). I can’t pretend to teach according to a specific sequence on the Reformer, for example, but I do  follow one when I am working out myself, and it definitely asks more questions of me then not following the sequence does. To paraphrase Andrea Maida again, I tend to shy away from the exercises that I don’t like and, surprise surprise, those are the ones that I know I really need. Following an order makes me do the things I need, and makes me think too “perhaps JP was really on to something here”. Why not? He spent a lot of time working on this. Here’s a suggestion – follow the original order (if you don’t already) 2/3/4 times per week, for a month or two, and then see if you think it doesn’t have validity. I love learning about biomechanics, about movement, about anatomy, and very often the things that I learn I then find are already there within the Pilates system – I just didn’t know to look for them.

In short, if I’ve heard about some studies on TVA activation during lumbar perturbation, or about the effects of repeated lumbar flexion on pig spines (yes, dead pig spines…), or I’ve simply been told that we know more than they did back then, does that really make me smarter about human movement than Joseph Pilates was?



9 responses to I know so much more than Joseph Pilates did…


    I hope I’m not the only one who feels the exact same way as you.

    Also, is it out of concern for the client’s well-being or just trying to sell something new and different in order to get more clients? We can’t be sure, but we can’t help but question it either.

    In my experience, the original repertoire in the original sequence that I had been taught and practised for months during my training WORKS. And any client I’ve given it to loves it, because it does make you realize why the order is what it is: each exercise makes you stronger for the next one, the transitions take way less effort. I’ve seen clients who have been doing “contemporary”pilates for years have a revelation when they start doing the original work.

    My ONLY issue has been the flat back vs neutral issue. I have a naturally flat lower back, so did the man himself (and no butt), and for years I have been working in imprint as I had been taught 15 years ago. Maybe I should have known not to force it more, and maybe all that curving and rolling is not the best idea. But seriously, 90% of the repertoire should be eliminated if we decide to go with modern biomechanics etc that advice against any curving of the spine.

    Lesley McPherson March 6, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    I couldn’t agree more Mike and having followed a varied path to where I am now I “bought” some of the very programmes that made claims above. May I say that some do have Pilates Programmes of integrity but their marketing and claims of science and “improving” the method is where the issues lie. You said “….. things that I learn I then find are already there within the Pilates system – I just didn’t know to look for them”. This is what appears to missed when there is a lack of “traditional” apprenticeship or when someone just teaches “the exercise order” and not the integration of body to apparatus as necessary for the individual. I don’t believe anyone now follows ” the bible” of Pilates aka Contrology. All are educated on the body, all know the system and all are sceptical of others who comment without having ever experienced a more “traditional ” training. So far as the flat back is concerned, I personally take that with a pinch of salt. The language of the day was different, Joe Pilates talks about many things which we wouldn’t use today for fear of the PC brigade . He shows examples of poor posture, he shows a “straight” plumb line on the body. On the picture of The 100 you can see a slight gap in Lumbar. Lets not analyse – just move and educate on patterns of movement which are better than slumping and when someone wants to pay for a full research project on the traditional work we may have “evidence”. In the meantime trust the method and what we know about a breathing skeleton.


    Mmm but the order has changed many times,if you get the chance to look at old photos so many things are taught differently.the biggest thing I noticed is that there was far more extension and then flexion than there is now.If you get hung up or trying to be the most authentic then you better be sure you have truly studied the archives to make sure you are doing as Joe did


    Thank you for your reflection, I appreciate you thoughts and willingness to put this into the community. Do you mind elaborating on your EMG comment? Is it your opinion that EMG’s are not providing us valid information or insight? What are your thoughts on research being conducted on biomechanics (force plates, force transducers, EMGs etc)?


      Thanks for your feedback Krista.
      I’m by no means an expert so I don’t think you should set too much store by my views on the kind of research you mention. All I would say is that it’s easy to think that ‘science’ is God, or is indisputable; or to want to believe that technology can tell us everything . In the case of the EMG, if the muscle friction of a cadaver can trigger a reading, is it simply reflecting movement occurring, rather than allowing us to say unequivocally ‘muscle X fires during movement Y’?
      I’m all for research, but maybe we need to reset our expectations of what it can tell us with certainty.


        Here’s a quote about it from something I was reading today which made it clearer to me: “Also, the research doesn’t help us, sometimes, research quite often sticks one or two electrodes here and there. It never sticks electrodes in all the muscles, so very quickly we get the image that only certain muscles are important in certain movements, while others are not. It’s something about the whole education that’s the problem.”

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