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History and Apparatus

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Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Monchengladbach, Germany, on December 8, 1881. His mother was a naturopath and his father was a gymnast. However, he was a sickly child with asthma. To combat his ill health, he participated in all kinds of sports; as a child he was determined to will himself to good health by physical activity despite his limitations. He understood limitations and was a living testimony of willpower. By the age of 14 he even modeled for muscle charts.

Following the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Joseph was interned as a German national in a camp where he taught wrestling and began his system of exercise, creating exercise apparatus that used bedsprings for resistance training for soldiers who were bedridden.

In 1925 Joseph immigrated to America either due to his dislike of the political development in Germany or because of an opportunity to work with boxers. He worked in a boxing studio at 939 8th Avenue in New York, where he worked with business professionals, doctors, New York high society, tradesmen, gymnasts, circus performers, dancers, actors and musicians. Early movie stars such as Vivien Lee, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn are mentioned in the Pilates Method Alliance study guide as students of Joseph Pilates.

In 1967 Joseph died of complications of emphysema, primarily due to his habit of smoking cigars, and his early childhood lung problems. "He had taken up smoking cigars when he became disillusioned with the lack of acceptance (and respect) of what he had to offer in the United States medical and health circles."*

*This information is contributed by Mary Bowen.

The biography of Joseph Pilates is compiled from the History of Joseph Pilates in the PMA study guide, pages 14-17, from Your Health and Return to Life by Joseph Pilates, from verbal history stated by Master teachers between 1988-2006 and by Jennifer M. Stacey in her book, Movement Perspectives.


Part scientist, mechanical genius and anatomist, Joseph Pilates created a movement system he coined "Contrology," accompanied by a variety of equipment he referred to as "Apparatus." The Apparatus was designed to help accelerate the process of stretching, strengthening, body alignment and increased core strength started by the Mat work. The best-known and most popular piece today, the Reformer, was originally called the Universal Reformer, aptly named for "universally reforming the body." Eventually a full complement of equipment and accessories was designed by Pilates, including the Cadillac, Wunda Chair, High "Electric Chair," Spine Corrector, Ladder Barrel and Ped-o-Pul.

Click on thumbnail images to view large picture.

Most equipment designs utilize a spring mechanism that the exerciser works to control while moving in various planes. The idea to use springs was conceived while Joseph Pilates was interned during WWI. He attached bed and machinery springs to the bedposts of infirmed prisoners. WIth the arrangement, he facilitated circulation and healing by moving injured limbs in ranges patients could not otherwise perform, thereby restoring joint function and muscular strength and re-educating the body.

Mat Pilates

Mat work is the entry into Pilates for many gyms and health clubs. Ironically, Joseph invented the equipment for participants to build strength and develop precision needed to perfect the matwork. Ideally, matwork is learned by using the equipment as building blocks, where the body is supported safely against the pull of gravity.

Tree Reformer
Reformer Jumpboard

Joseph Pilates believed beginning exercise in the horizontal plane was important to relieve the stress and strain on the joints, and to align the body before adding additional gravitational forces through the central axis while standing, sitting or kneeling. Classically, there are more than 100 movements created for the Reformer, each dependent and built upon the other.


This is the therapeutic table other wise known as the Trap Table or Cadillac. Concentration is a must to work your arms, legs, trunk and the entire body against the various spring tensions and positions this equipment affords.

Wunda Chair
The Wunda chair is often used for individual needs to challenge balance and strength as a student progresses from the introductory Pilates work.

Ladder Barrel

Ladder Barrel
Joseph Pilates was highly concerned with the flexibility of the spine and the corresponding strength of the center. Consequently, this equipment offers challenging abdominal exercises as well as flexibility movements that stretch and strengthen the entire body.

"In Pilates, nothing is haphazard." - Joseph H. Pilates

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