Pilates is a popular workout method that involves a variety of exercises designed to develop functional strength and flexibility in tandem.
In modern fitness, Pilates as a methodology focuses heavily on improving core strength, flexibility, posture, and balance.
This article gives an overview of the benefits of Pilates for men, a few Pilates exercises that can benefit men, and some tips for getting started on Pilates training.
Pilates exercises include both bodyweight matwork and exercises involving the use of equipment.
Pilates matwork exercises are usually performed while lying on your back or stomach and drawing in your abdominals to create functional core support.
Gravity is the primary source of resistance, and the goal is to maintain mobility in your spine and joints while strengthening the intrinsic muscles that support alignment.
Pilates exercises can also be done with the support of spring-based equipment, including the reformer, stability chair, and Cadillac or tower, as well as a set of barrels.
While more research is needed, studies suggest Pilates may improve strength and flexibility, reduce nonspecific low back pain, help lower glucose levels, reduce arthritis pain, improve balance and gait, enhance sport performance, and even boost your mood (
Historically, men have tended to overtrain certain muscle groups in the weight room, such as the chest, biceps, and rectus abdominis (“six pack” muscles).
Either in conjunction with strength training or as a stand-alone fitness regimen, Pilates can be an effective way to counteract the imbalances that arise from overtraining certain muscle groups.
You can incorporate it into a general fitness plan that includes both aerobic and traditional strength training exercises alongside a nutritious diet.
Pilates builds deep core strength in men and can help reduce muscular imbalances and the associated aches and pains.
Pilates is a system of exercise designed to bring the muscles of the body into balance, promoting both mobility and strength in the spine and joints.
Pilates can help reduce pain and improve balance, strength, flexibility, and even mood.
Although current fitness marketing focuses heavily on Pilates for women’s fitness, men can reap substantial benefits from performing these exercises as well.
In fact, the Pilates method of training was originally developed by a German man named Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century.
As a child, Pilates was sickly and dealt with numerous health issues, including asthma and rickets. He was determined to strengthen his body through his lifelong pursuit of various physical disciplines, including martial arts, bodybuilding, gymnastics, and boxing.
During a stint in the circus during World War I, Pilates was detained as a foreign national on the Isle of Man. To help rehabilitate the injured soldiers interned with him, he fashioned the first version of the Pilates Cadillac machine using springs attached to hospital beds (7).
Allegedly, the soldiers who took part in Pilates training recovered more quickly than those who did not (
Pilates also took it upon himself to keep the 24,000 men in the camp healthy during the Spanish Flu pandemic, leading daily exercise routines and serving as an orderly in the camp hospital. Legend has it that none of the soldiers fell ill (9).
The Pilates method of exercise was originally designed by a man named Joseph Pilates who had experience as a boxer, soldier, bodybuilder, gymnast, and martial artist. It may have been used to rehabilitate soldiers during World War I.
Perhaps because of the way Pilates is marketed or the popular perception of Pilates, people often associate this exercise method with women.
But although Pilates is marketed toward a specific gender, its benefits are, for the most part, the same for men as for women.
The biggest difference in benefits of Pilates for men as compared with women lies in the tendency for men to train in a way that overemphasizes certain muscle groups in their workouts and neglects other muscle groups.
According to Matt McCulloch, Pilates educator and co-founder of Kinected and the Functional Anatomy for Movement and Injuries (FAMI) workshop, Pilates can help men learn to find balance in their workouts.
“Men tend to overtrain certain joints, regions, and muscles such as the rectus abdominis ‘six-pack muscle,’ the biceps and triceps, and the quads. Due to this overtraining and resultant muscular imbalance, men tend to incur certain frequent injuries.”
McCulloch says men often get stuck in the training routines they learned in high school and focus only on building bigger muscles rather than on bringing the body into balance and alignment by training the intrinsic muscles too.
“Pilates, as a system, remedies faulty patterns by balancing the body’s strength and flexibility and optimizing its efficiency,” he says. “When the body is symmetrically aligned and muscles function efficiently, injuries tend to occur less frequently.”
Despite popular marketing, Pilates can benefit men as much as women. Pilates routines for men should focus on counteracting common imbalances found in typical men’s training programs.
Pilates on the whole is becoming increasingly popular with men.
This includes athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and working professionals hoping to counteract the effect of static positions such as extended periods of sitting.
McCulloch says, “As Pilates originally grew in popularity, it was mostly marketed to the female population and associated with dancers only. Now, men are realizing this is far from the truth.
“As professional athletes across many sports add Pilates into their practice (Drew Brees and Antonio Brown, to name a couple), those stereotypes have fallen by the wayside and many individuals (not just men) have come to realize the versatility of Pilates.”
The following Pilates routine involves five exercises that will hit the major areas of the body where men tend to be imbalanced. Perform this routine 2–3 times per week on nonconsecutive days.
The Hundred is a classic Pilates mat exercise that’s great for warming up the body and stimulating the heart and circulatory system.
McCulloch says it’s great for men because “it can and should replace the crunches that men have been doing since high school.
“Crunches have mainly only served to increased neck tightness and overtraining of the six-pack muscle (which, at the end of the day, does not help with much other than getting a date and getting out of bed).”
To perform the Hundred:
- Start lying on your back on a mat.
- Lift head and shoulders off the mat and bend your knees into your chest.
- Extend legs to a high diagonal position and extend arms along your sides, with palms down.
- Pump your arms vigorously, lifting no higher than the top of your hips.
- While pumping, inhale for a 5-second count and exhale for a 5-second count.
- Repeat the 5-count inhale and exhale 10 times, for a total of 100 counts.
Adjust the intensity of the exercise by keeping your legs bent or lying down, or extended further to make it easier or harder, respectively.
Be careful to keep the work in your abdominals, without straining your neck or arching your back.
The Shoulder Bridge
The Pilates Shoulder Bridge strengthens your glutes and core to bring them into balance with your quads and hip flexors, which tend to be tight in men.
McCulloch says, “Men tend to overtrain their quadriceps, which ultimately leads to knee-tracking issues. The key lies in balance. Shoulder Bridge strengthens the glutes, increases the flexibility of the hip flexors, and builds core strength.”
To perform the Shoulder Bridge:
- Start lying on your back with legs bent and feet hip-width apart. Keep arms at your sides with palms down.
- Lift your pelvis and hips as you exhale, which should result in a diagonal line from knee to shoulder. For more core work, lift by articulating through your spine, from tailbone to ribs.
- Extend one leg straight up while maintaining a level pelvis.
- Lift and lower the leg in the air 3 times.
- Bend your extended knee and return to the starting position.
- Repeat the exercise on both sides, alternating for each repetition.
- Perform 5 reps on each side.
You can make the exercise easier by removing the lift and lower of the leg, or by keeping both feet on the floor.
The Swan is another staple of Pilates matwork that extends and opens up your spine, counteracting the rounded-back tendency common in people who sit for long periods.
Says McCulloch, “Most men do not add spinal extension into their workout. So, if overall muscle balance is a goal, then this exercise is a must.
“It increases overall back strength and spinal mobility, thereby elevating physical activities, preventing injury, and addressing the common T. rex-like postures seen today.”
To perform the Swan:
- Start lying on your stomach on your mat.
- Keep elbows bent and close to your sides with palms resting on the floor near your shoulders. Keep legs hip-distance apart, or wider for more stability.
- Press into your hands gently as you use your upper back muscles to lift head, shoulders, and chest off the mat. Keep abdominals engaged to lengthen your spine and avoid excess strain on your low back. Engage glutes and hamstrings to keep feet on the floor.
- Slowly lower back down, one vertebra at a time.
- Perform 5 reps.
You can make this exercise easier by widening your legs and turning out from the hips so your knees and toes face the sides, allowing for more glute engagement.
To make it harder, bring your legs together or try to maintain the extended shape in your body as you lift your hands and rock forward.
The Side Bend works your spine in lateral flexion — a manner not commonly encountered in traditional training. The spine is designed to bend in all directions, including laterally, and avoiding this range of motion can lead to complications down the line.
McCulloch says, “This exercise allows the spine to move through multiple planes (instead of just one, as is common with typical male workouts). Additionally, it increases shoulder mobility and stability as well as trunk rotation. One clear benefit? A better golf game!”
The Side Bend is a great way to train this underutilized spinal movement.
To perform the Side Bend:
- Start seated on your mat, with your weight on one hip. For this example, we’ll start with your left hip on the mat. Place your left hand flat on the floor next to you, with your arm straight.
- Bend your knees. Rotate right knee up toward the ceiling and place right foot flat on the floor. Keep left leg bent, resting on the mat, with shin in front of you and knee open to the side. Right ankle will be crossed over left ankle, with right heel touching left ankle.
- Rest your right arm by your side and inhale.
- As you exhale, press into your feet and your left hand at the same time to lift your bottom hip off the mat. Straighten your legs to bring left shoulder over left hand and bend your body toward the ceiling to make an arch or rainbow shape in your spine.
- Keep your head, shoulders, ribs, pelvis, knees, and feet all aligned in the same lateral plane.
- Inhale to return to the starting position.
- Complete 6–8 reps, and then repeat on the other side.
Leg Pull Front
The Leg Pull Front is a core strength exercise that engages every area of the body.
This Pilates move begins in a typical plank position but takes it a step further by adding a foot, ankle, and leg raise while balancing on the other leg.
“Most men need to focus on shoulder stability before they increase reps for exercises like pushups that strengthen their shoulders and chest,” says McCulloch.
“Leg Pull Front increases shoulder stability, core strength, hip strength, as well as (believe it or not) ankle strength and flexibility. This will help those long runs when the weather gets warmer and prevent lower back, foot, and ankle issues.”
To perform the Leg Pull Front:
- Start in a high plank position. Your abdominals should be lifted and your feet together with some weight on the balls of your feet. Hips, shoulders, and ears should all be in the same line.
- Inhale and extend one leg from the hip to lift your foot a few inches off the mat. As you raise your leg, work to keep your hips stable and minimize any shift. This engages your core stabilizers as well as your shoulders and back.
- Exhale and point your foot and ankle as you shift your weight back in space. The ankle of the supporting leg will flex.
- Inhale and shift forward again on the supporting foot. Meanwhile, flex the lifted foot.
- Exhale as you return your foot to the floor and come back to the starting position.
- Repeat on both sides, alternating each repetition, for a total of 10 reps on each side.
As you perform this exercise, avoid sagging in your lower back. Additionally, ensure that you place enough weight in your feet to evenly distribute your body weight.
If you cannot maintain alignment in your spine while performing the full exercise, just hold plank instead of lifting your legs.
Pilates equipment exercises
Pilates traditionally includes 50 matwork exercises, from which the above 5 exercises were chosen.
Additional Pilates work with equipment like the reformer, chair, Cadillac, and barrels can help enhance your Pilates routine and offers many benefits, but you should attempt it only under the supervision of a trained and certified instructor.
While the full use of Pilates equipment is beyond the scope of this article, understand that Pilates is far more than just bodyweight exercises, although matwork is still foundational to all Pilates training.
These five Pilates matwork exercises form an excellent routine for men looking to get started with Pilates training. Use of equipment should be supervised directly by a Pilates instructor.
Numerous studies have found that the unique neuromuscular full-body functional training approach in Pilates leads to many benefits in both exercise performance measures and mental well-being.
Given the “mind-body” connection that Pilates emphasizes, practitioners can improve their executive function through consistent training (10).
Older adults who practice Pilates can improve their balance, coordination, and mobility, which significantly reduces the risk of falls as they age (11).
Research also suggests that performing Pilates reduces the symptoms of chronic nonspecific back pain, which affects upwards of 80 percent of the general population (
Additionally, Pilates training improves scores on functional movement screen (FMS) assessments when compared with yoga training.
FMS screens include seven tests, including deep squat, lunges, hurdle steps, shoulder mobility, and straight leg raises. Improvements on these tests reflect overall benefits for everyday movements and athletic performance (
One particularly interesting study in young men found improvements in psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and fatigue, after a single 30-minute Pilates matwork session (3).
In terms of cardiovascular fitness, research has found that Pilates training improves performance on submaximal aerobic tests in people who don’t otherwise engage in aerobic exercise (13).
Finally, a 2020 study found that people with elevated blood pressure showed an acute reduction in blood pressure after a single Pilates session, suggesting that Pilates training could be useful in addressing hypertension (14).
Overall, the proven benefits of Pilates include the following:
- improved cognition and executive functioning
- improved balance and coordination, leading to decreased fall risk in older adults
- reduced nonspecific low back pain
- improved scores on a variety of functional movement assessments
- acute reductions in blood pressure
- improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms
While Pilates training will activate a variety of muscles throughout your body, the primary muscles strengthened are the muscles of your core that work to stabilize your spine (
Some of these are:
- transverse abdominis
- internal and external obliques
Still, because the exercises are designed to bring muscular balance and alignment to the body as a whole, you’ll find that a well-rounded Pilates workout targets multiple regions of your body, including your legs, shoulders, chest, back, and arms, in addition to your core.
Pilates strengthens many of the muscles in the body, with a pronounced focus on the muscles that stabilize the spine.
While Pilates is commonly associated with women’s fitness, men can greatly benefit from this form of exercise as well.
In fact, Pilates was developed by a man and was originally used to help men recovering from war wounds in the early 20th century.
The overall benefits of Pilates include both cognitive and physical improvements such as reduced pain and improved mobility.
For men specifically, Pilates can help counteract the common overuse tendencies associated with men’s fitness routines, as well as the general issues that arise from sedentary desk work in both men and women.
Pilates can be incorporated alongside other strength and aerobic training but can also be used as a stand-alone fitness training method.