A Few Fun Facts About Joseph Pilates!

A few lesser known and fun facts about Joseph Pilates to celebrate 9th December, the anniversary of his birth – Happy Birthday, Joe!

  • At five years of age, Joseph lost the sight of his left eye, apparently due to bullies wielding stones at him.
  • As a young adult in during World War I, Joseph Pilates was living in England and making a living as a professional boxer, personal trainer, and even as a human statue in the circus. In 1914, the British authorities eventually brought him to an internment camp, along with other German citizens, for the remainder of the war.
  • During his time at the camp, Joe spent time observing animals, such as cats, and how they stretched and moved about to stay limber. He saw how men at the camp could lose strength easily if they had nothing to keep them active. He began to teach floor exercises (what would later become known as “the Mat Work”) to these men in an effort to keep up their strength and morale. The exercises included abdominal work, leg and arm work, balancing exercises, and spinal movements in all planes: flexion, extension, side bending, and rotation, as they were based on the German gymnastics Joseph learned as a child.
  • While Joe did develop his matwork in the internment camp, it is not likely that he developed ideas for any of his apparatus there. Some people like to speculate that he was inspired by the beds in the camp and the springs under the mattress, and that he took the springs from under the beds and attached them above to create exercise apparatus. However, this is untrue. The beds in the camp did not have springs under the mattresses, especially since it was wartime and metal was not being used for bed springs in internment camps. Not to mention if he took the springs off the beds, the mattresses would have fallen to the floor!
  • After WWI and he was released, he returned to Germany and continued training people with the exercises he developed in the camp at his boxing gym. It is at this point in Germany when we first see signs of his apparatus ideas, such as advertisements for The Universal Reformer, as well as his first patent filed- The Foot Corrector.
  • At age 42, Jo decided to emigrate to America, where he planned to further his career in physical fitness, open a gym, and apply for more patents.
  • On the ship to America Joe met his future life partner, Clara. Clara was a school teacher suffering from arthritis in her hands. It is said that Joe gave her a few exercises to help her hands and she soon became pain free.
  • Clara was so sold on his technique, she joined him in New York City where they patented his pieces of exercise equipment, starting with what Jo called, “The Universal Reformer”. They opened up a gym together at 939 8th Avenue. The focus of the gym was boxing and “Contrology”- the name Joe gave to his exercise technique. He continued to teach the mat work he had developed in the camp, and created additional, similar exercises on the Universal Reformer and the other apparatus he invented.
  • The equipment was invented by Joe, but built by his brother, Fred Pilates. Many pieces doubled as exercise equipment and functional furniture. Over the years, he built and designed hundreds of pieces of equipment, different types of furniture, as well as a game and a toy. However, only about a dozen of the apparatus are still widely used in Pilates studios today.
  • In the studio, Joe was known to wear only tiny black or white shorts, he would smoke cigars and drink beer while teaching his technique. This was part of Joe’s marketing for his method. He would say, “Look at me- smoking and drinking and loving!”, while in perfect health, which he attributed to his method. Clara would wear a nurse’s dress and heavy white clogs.
  • When a new client would knock on the downstairs door of the building to come in, Joe would have them come all the way up the stairs, where he would greet them with one of his inventions- a small device he called “The Breath-a-cizer”. He would have them blow into it and give them the assessment that they were obviously terribly out of shape and needed to come in and get fit with Contrology.
  • Once they were in the gym, he or Clara would give them a personalised workout, which they were expected to memorise and do on their own each time they visited the gym. If they weren’t able to memorise it, they could follow all with the photos of the exercises that Joseph had hanging all over the gym. Each apparatus had a corresponding chart of small, black and white photos of Joe demonstrating exercises on all his equipment, in a particular order and in perfect form.
  • He used to tell his clients that the brain is a muscle which must be trained and developed and to take a class with him they must ‘press the button in their head’ to activate it.
  • His original reformers are slightly different than what we use today, with the main difference being that the mat was actually a wooden board, with no mat on it at all. He was very serious about correcting poor posture and spinal health, which meant no comfortable, soft mats.
  • When clients were done working out, Joseph Pilates would say, “After an hour, get in the shower!”. He insisted that all clients take a cold shower after exercising and- like most other things in his life- he felt very passionate about how exactly it should be done. He was even known to get into the shower with people to teach them proper washing and scrubbing techniques! Before a student walked out the door, they would take an apple with them.



  • Pérez Pont, Javier; Aparicio Romero, Esperanza. Joseph Hubertus Pilates. The Biography. Hakabooks.
  • Rhinebeck Pilates, History of Pilates (Elaine Ewing)