Pilates may sound intimidating, but it's an accessible way to build strength in your core muscles for better posture, balance and flexibility. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Pilates for beginners — is that an oxymoron? Not at all. Pilates isn't just for fitness fiends. Pilates is an accessible way to build strength in your core muscles for better posture, balance and flexibility. If you're considering a Pilates class for beginners, here's what you need to know before you head to the gym.

Pilates is a method of exercise that consists of low-impact flexibility and muscular strength and endurance movements. Pilates emphasizes use of the abdominals, lower back, hips and thighs. Pilates is named for its creator, Joseph Pilates, who developed the exercises in the early 1900s.

A Pilates routine typically includes 25 to 50 repetitive strength training exercises. Pilates is similar to calisthenics, such as situps and pushups. In fact, some people call Pilates the ultimate form of calisthenics.

It's a common misconception that Pilates is only for serious athletes or professional dancers. While these groups first adopted Pilates, they aren't the only ones who can benefit from this approach to strength training.

Another common misperception is that Pilates requires specialized equipment. Indeed, when you think of Pilates you probably picture the reformer, an apparatus that resembles a bed frame with a sliding carriage and adjustable springs, or the cadillac, a type of trapeze table. The reality is that many Pilates exercises can be done on the floor with just a mat.

By practicing Pilates regularly, you can achieve a number of health benefits, including:

  • Improved core strength and stability
  • Improved posture and balance
  • Improved flexibility
  • Prevention and treatment of back pain

If you are older than age 40, haven't exercised for some time or have health problems, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program. Pilates is no exception. Similarly, women who are pregnant should check with their health care providers before starting Pilates.

Pilates can be adapted to provide a gentle strength training and stability program or a challenging workout for seasoned athletes.

Pilates may not be recommended or may need to be modified for individuals who have the following:

  • Unstable (labile) blood pressure
  • A risk of blood clots
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • A herniated disk

Because it's essential to maintain the correct form to get the most benefit — and to avoid injuries — beginners should start out under the supervision of an experienced Pilates instructor.

The Pilates Guild offers referral services for certified instructors and provides Pilates instruction and certification. Its certification program includes classroom instruction and experiential training. Participants must complete a 600-hour apprenticeship, during which they observe and practice Pilates, assist a certified instructor, teach under direct supervision and pass a certifying examination.

To find a certified instructor in your area, check with local gyms or YMCAs. Ask the following questions of any Pilates instructor you're considering:

  • Did the instructor complete a comprehensive training program that included a training apprenticeship?
  • How long has the instructor been teaching Pilates?
  • Is the instructor able to adapt exercise for special needs, such as injuries and rehabilitation?

If you're a healthy adult, your weekly exercise routine should include:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity — or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity
  • Strength training exercises at least twice a week

Pilates can be a good strength training workout, but it isn't aerobic exercise. You'll need to supplement it with aerobic exercises, such as brisk walking, running, biking or swimming.

Feb. 05, 2014