Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Next time you’re scrolling through Instagram stories and see a celebrity posting a selfie in a fitness studio, you might notice the telltale signs that it was taken in a Pilates studio. And there are plenty of good reasons why so many A-listers have fallen for this exercise method: It’s a quick and effective full-body workout that can sculpt and strengthen your muscles.
“The thing that draws people to Pilates is that it’s a really healthy, symmetrical, alignment-based way of performing resistance training,” says owner of New York City–based Real Pilates Alycea Ungaro, PT, who’s worked with a long list of stars, including Madonna, Christy Turlington, Uma Thurman, Kyra Sedgwick, Miley Cyrus, Claire Danes and Molly Sims. “Because the Pilates apparatus and system are so targeted on alignment and symmetry, there’s this high focus on correct form. And so you can work out as hard as you like or as gentle as you need, without risk or fear of injury.
Ungaro explains that so many A-listers are drawn to Pilates not only because it’s enjoyable but also because it’s basically workout multitasking — you’re getting your strength training, resistance and stretching all done in one session.
“If you’re a celebrity working on a movie set, there’s just not a lot of time,” Ungaro explains. “So if you can do an exercise that multitasks for you, that you can do a couple times a week and check all the boxes, then it’s a really efficient use of fitness.
Pilates offers more dynamic movement because of what the springs require of your muscles, Ungaro says.
“You lift up a dumbbell and then you lower it. The resistance is on the up. But when you’re pushing a spring and then you release it, you can’t just let go. You have to let it go really slowly,” she explains. “So you’re getting that concentric and eccentric movement with every single rep. I feel like you’re always getting double the workout in each and every exercise as opposed to just one-way training.
Another reason it’s so effective is because in a classical Pilates class, you literally never stop moving.
“The setup is choreographed and you just flow all the way through,” Ungaro says.
In a classical class, you’ll likely perform the same exercises in each class over and over again, with adjustments to the spring load or more reps for progressive resistance training.
The same is true of a contemporary Pilates class, where teachers tend to work in a modern exercise vibe. The difference is that you might just perform all the exercises on the reformer (as opposed to using additional pieces of equipment) and that the workout may be different each time you visit the studio.
As with many things in life, a blended approach to Pilates often yields the most comprehensive results.
Take WundaBar Pilates, for instance. This studio’s blend of contemporary and classical work came as a result of CEO and founder Amy Jordan’s own complaint that most Pilates classes were either too cerebral and quiet or far too intense for her liking. So she invented WundaBar Pilates to be a healthy medium between those two extremes.
“Every movement we do is using your entire body,” says Jordan, who describes her classes as being extremely efficient and cardio-intense because clients use the chair, the reformer, the jump board and the ballet bar.
Her celebrity clients include Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Colin Farrell, Kristin Cavallari and Emma Roberts, but her non-celeb clients keep coming back for more, too.
“It speaks to the results of how quickly you can make a change when you’ve got this crazy busy life and schedule,” she says. “It’s also a place where when you’re coming, you feel better. You don’t feel beat up. When you leave, you feel stronger. You feel empowered.
If you’re thinking of adding Pilates to your routine, Jordan says to give yourself grace when you first begin. It might be harder than you think. You also should expect to use smaller muscles. She has seen a cyclist improve his speed after he learned how to use his abs to power his legs. For lifters, it can help you build stability and prevent injury by zeroing in on smaller muscles.
Regardless of which studio you go to, instructors should offer progressions so students can adjust the exercise based on what they feel they can handle. For instance, you might be lying on the reformer and have the option of extending one leg out and keeping one leg close to your body, the easier choice, or extending both of your legs out at an angle for more of a challenge.
And if you’re looking into Pilates because you’re recovering from an injury, you’re in luck.
“Pilates is so deeply steeped in anatomy and breath and alignment,” Jordan says. “No matter what it is that you are recovering from, if you’re in proper alignment with breath support, you’re going to be safe and effective with your movement.
Besides the numerous physical benefits, Pilates also offers a welcome mental health boost.
“I legitimately believe movement heals,” says Jordan, who credits Pilates with helping her get through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. “It really is a transformative experience. You’re going to feel better after one session.