Joe Pilates: A Man’s Man

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Childhood

Joseph (Joe) Pilates was born in Germany in 1883. His childhood was plagued with illness as he battled asthma, rickets, rheumatic fever, and a weak respiratory system. As he grew older he became enthralled by the “ideal man” image, characterized by a strong physique and an equally strong intellect. He threw himself into boxing, fencing, wrestling, martial arts, and gymnastics to improve his health and physique, and to strengthen his mind.

World War I and developing “Contrology”

Joe was in England touring with a boxer when World War I broke out. He was held as a resident alien at an internment camp on Isle of Man for the rest of the war. During his time there, he began training his fellow internees, leading daily exercise programs. In 1918 when influenza broke out in the camp, none of the inmates who participated in his program fell ill.

When guards realized the health benefits of Joe’s program, they transferred him to a soldier hospital as an orderly to help with wounded veterans. He helped them stave off atrophy by maintaining muscle health and improved their immune systems. The physical toll of this work was great as he struggled to lift soldiers’ limbs on his own all day.

This impediment led to the creation of Joe’s first known invention, the Cadillac. Based on a hospital bed, Joe added a system of springs and pulleys to assist in the exhausting work of manually exercising weakened and injured patients.

After the war, Joe returned to Germany, only to be approached by the “brown shirts” to train the police force. To avoid this unwanted position, Joe moved to the United States. On his journey across the Atlantic, Joe met a nurse named Clara, who would later become his wife.

Contrology and Ballet

In 1926, Joe and Clara opened a studio in the same building as the New York City Ballet, marking the beginning of a long relationship. Joe trained people in what he called “contrology,” the art of control.

His new neighbors soon took notice, and ballet greats like George Balanchine and Ruth St. Denis began sending their injured dancers to train with Joe. Later, the relationship developed from rehabilitation only to include general strength training to enhance the dancers’ abilities and longevity.

Ballet and Pilates remain strongly connected today, though Pilates is beneficial to any form of physical activity.

Joe the Inventor

Joe invented more than 20 individual exercise machines, and obtained patents on many of them. He built most of his inventions himself originally, and many were even developed to specifically fit and benefit a particular client.

Today

Joe envisioned introducing mind-body fitness at all points in life from elementary school to military training. While his vision of universal pilates popularity ultimately went unfulfilled, there are instances of development into broader populations – see this video of Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers in his Pilates reformer workoutthis article about Pilates for military fitness on deployment; and this video demonstrating and explaining the benefits of  youth Pilates. His legacy lives on in modern Pilates — carried forward by several of his former students — and in his books, Your Health (1934) and Return to Life Through Contrology (1945).

Today, Pilates is commonly associated with physical therapy practices. Many studios offer both services as an integrated rehabilitation and strength training that not only brings clients out of pain, but into life. For many, Pilates provides a bridge from physical therapy rehabilitation back to their desired activities, often exceeding the level they functioned at prior to injury.

Non-athletes and athletes of all levels now rely on Pilates to improve body mechanics; strengthen bodies; sharpen minds; and, ultimately, to improve their lives. Read more about what Pilates is. A growing number of athletes, including in the following fields, use Pilates:

  • CrossFit
  • Baseball
  • Football
  • Golf
  • Running
  • Tri-athletes
  • Cycling
  • Acting
  • Horseback Riding

Balanced Body

Several forms of Pilates have developed as interpreted by each of the seven students who carried on his work. All follow Joe’s vision of mind-body integration. Balanced Body has gone one step further by continuing Joe’s commitment to scientific study, integrating modern medical knowledge of anatomy and the collaborative workings of muscles into its training.