From the Studio
Pilates is dead. Long live Pilates!
by Nora St. John
A recent New York Post article “The Pilatespocalypse: How the Method that Started the Boutique-Fitness Trend is Going Bust”proclaimed the death of Pilates due to competition from other boutique fitness trends including Barre, CrossFit, cycle studios, personal training studios and yoga. My experience over the last 25 years in the Pilates industry and in my role as Education Program Director for Balanced Body has given me a very different perspective about the past, present and future of Pilates in America and overseas.
The Pilates method of exercise has undergone many transformations since it came to America almost 90 years ago with founder Joseph H. Pilates. What began as one man’s vision, taught in one studio in New York is now taught all over the world and mentioned in popular songs, on television and in movies. In short, Pilates has matured. It is no longer the hottest fitness format around but is instead, one of many unique and valuable offerings for people wishing to develop their mind and body to the fullest. And based on several key indicators, it continues to have a valuable role to play in the current boutique fitness boom in the United States and is in the early stages of growth in many overseas markets including Korea, Turkey and eastern Europe.
Pilates began in one studio on 8th Avenue in New York and it took 50 years for the method to spread beyond Manhattan. By the 1980s Pilates was practiced by a very small and dedicated group of teachers, mostly current and former dancers who recognized the sophistication and potential of the system to train the whole body in an efficient and meaningful way. By the 1990s Pilates had earned a place in sports medicine as a valuable modality for rehabilitation of dancers and other athletes. Small independent studios were opening up across the United States, in the UK and in Australia. There was very little public awareness of Pilates until late in the decade and most clients found their way to these studios through word of mouth or referral from health care professionals. There was no popular wave to ride and Pilates was not particularly trendy. A few magazine articles and endorsements from stars like Madonna started to generate public awareness toward the turn of the millennium.
Before continuing, it is important to define what is generally meant by the term “Pilates.” The Pilates method of exercise includes two different kinds of workouts, Pilates mat classes and Pilates equipment classes. These two workouts have very different participation rates, training requirements, accessibility, and provide very different exercise environments and options. Pilates mat classes are offered at health clubs, fitness centers and anywhere group exercise is taught. Joseph Pilates designed his 34 mat exercises to be a useful home workout for maintaining core strength, spinal mobility and balance for everyday life. They were never intended to be a complete, stand-alone workout to accomplish all of one’s fitness goals. Training to be a Pilates Mat teacher takes from 6 hours to 200 hours, depending on the depth of the course. Many instructors who teach Pilates mat classes have not taken a formal teacher training program at all, but instead learned from videos or from their colleagues. Mat classes are by far the most common and most accessible form of Pilates available to the average person. They are generally included free with health club memberships or are taught for a relatively low cost at independent studios.
Pilates equipment-based classes are a completely different story. Training is generally longer, requiring 300 to 1000 hours to complete. The equipment requires a dedicated space and a significant investment, and the Pilates equipment studio offers several hundred exercises to address client’s fitness goals. Because of the extensive training and expense associated with Pilates equipment classes, they generally occur in independent studios and select, generally higher end health clubs. Based on the markets Balanced Body serves, 80-85% of equipment classes are provided by small, boutique studios, while 15 – 20% occur in gyms and health clubs. Because of the large initial investment in both time and money, Pilates equipment classes tend to be small, expensive and exclusive. Costing between $50 and $120 for a private session and $25 – $50 for semi private sessions, these individualized classes are financially out of reach for all but the wealthiest clients.
Pilates Participation by the Numbers
Because the Pilates industry is composed primarily of small, independent studios, gathering accurate information on business trends is a difficult task. At Balanced Body we can point to steady growth in the sales of Pilates equipment to domestic markets over the last 6 years as a basic sign of health in the industry. For example, US Reformer sales in 2015 are up 20% over 2014. In most businesses, that would be considered excellent growth.
The primary tool used to survey client participation in Pilates and other fitness activities in the US is the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA) survey. In 2000, Pilates was practiced by a little over 1.5 million participants in the United States according to the SGMA. This was the time of the greatest growth in Pilates, with participation doubling every year until reaching its peak of 10 million participants by 2005. According to this survey, Pilates participation has approximately been hovering between 8 and 9 million for the last 10 years. This survey primarily targets participants at health clubs where the primary form of Pilates is group mat classes. Equipment-based Pilates classes, which are a much fuller expression of the Pilates method of exercise, are likely to be underrepresented in this survey, because a minority of health clubs offer equipment-based Pilates classes. Based on the numbers in the IBISWorld report, I assume they came from the SGMA survey and are subject to the same limitations expressed above. Pilates, since the beginning, has played a very particular role in the fitness world. It is where clients who want detailed information on how their body works and how to make it work better for a lifetime come to be educated. It is not an adrenaline driven workout. It is a thoughtful, intelligent approach to developing a balanced, functional body in an effective and non-damaging way. Pilates has helped millions of people recover from injuries, improve their performance and improve their mind-body connection.
Over the last 10 years, several trends have come along to change the face of Pilates, ushering in a new phase of Pilates’ evolution. These trends include the development of Pilates group equipment class franchises, the expanding role of Pilates in rehabilitation, and the general trends in fitness towards harder, sweatier workouts as defined by Cross Fit, P90X, Barre and the like.
Pilates group equipment franchises are a big area of growth. Companies like Club Pilates and Strengthen Lengthen Tone (SLT) have 8 to 10 Reformers or Reformer Tower combinations in free-standing studios. They offer fast paced classes at reasonable rates, making Pilates equipment classes accessible for the first time to younger and less affluent clients. The combination of a large number of Pilates studios in an area and the advent of Groupon and ClassPass have made it easy for clients to search the internet for the cheapest, most convenient Pilates class. This has led to the commoditization of Pilates where the market is no longer driven by referral and word of mouth, but is instead driven by convenience and cost.
Franchises like SLT have taken Pilates equipment and modified it to provide a version of circuit or high intensity interval training in a workout loosely based on Pilates exercises. These classes provide an intense experience with little of the structure or intention of the original work.
Pilates has been included as a physical therapy modality since the early 1980s, but its growth has accelerated as the role of therapeutic movement is being recognized by the profession. Pilates is now taught in some physical therapy training programs and a solid body of research has developed to support its role in helping clients regain full function after injuries.
Contrary to the thesis of the article that Pilates studios are losing market share to other boutique fitness studios, every major fitness publication suggests just the opposite. Boutique studios of all kinds are reshaping the fitness landscape by taking market share away from big box health clubs. The consumer is asking for a more personal, intimate fitness experience and Pilates has been offering that all along. By doing what we do well, Pilates studios are perfectly positioned to continue to grow well into the future.
This is a brave new world for Pilates teachers and studios that grew up in the era of small, personal studios where marketing was done by the clients. For established studios offering high quality instruction, there will always be a place for personalized Pilates designed to meet the specific needs of the client. What has changed is that younger people can now get a taste of Pilates as they work their way through the many fitness options available to them.
Pilates is not dead, it is simply changing as everything does in time. Competition can be seen as a threat or as an opportunity to more clearly define who we are and what we have to offer that is different from the studio down the street. Pilates has a role to play within fitness that is unique and valuable. Pilates is not CrossFit. It is not intended to work the entire body to fatigue. It is designed to provide physical training and education on how the body works and how best to work with the body you are given to be able to “perform your daily and varied tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.’