Pilates for weight loss—why it works and how it can help you shape up

Is Pilates for weight loss effective? Here, experts explain why it's a great fat burning exercise

Woman doing Pilates for weight loss on roof terrace on pink yoga mat
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Pilates for weight loss may be just the thing if you're looking to get a leaner figure, as the exercise works to improve core strength, balance, and flexibility, three underrated components of muscle building. 

As a famously mindful movement, it's natural not to immediately make the connection between Pilates and weight loss. When it comes to losing fat, we often think of cardio-intensive exercises like running to be the winner as it elevates heart rate and so burns calories at a faster rate. 

While running for weight loss and strength training will no doubt help you if want to lose weight, Pilates can also be a hugely effective exercise to add to your regime. Here, a personal trainer and Pilates instructor lay out everything you need to know about Pilates for beginners and how to get started.

Is Pilates good for weight loss? 

Yes, Pilates can help you get into a calorie deficit to lose weight. “Often, people think Pilates is used only for rehabilitation work and I’ve even heard it described as a form of gentle stretching,” says Pilates instructor Paola Langella (opens in new tab). The truth is, this mind-body fitness technique focuses on lengthening, strengthening, and toning the whole body and is a great fat-burning exercise when practiced regularly.

“The techniques used in Pilates target both the big and the small stabilizer muscles that help to elongate the body and correct posture,” says Paola. “Your waist will get smaller, your stomach flatter if you combine it with a good diet."

A meta-analysis study from Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine (opens in new tab) found practicing Pilates, even when compared to other exercises, leads to significant decreases in body weight, body mass index (BMI), and body fat percentage of obese and overweight people. 

This loss only continues to grow when students advance in the exercise. “The class becomes more intense and cardiovascular,” explains Paola. “Your heart rate increases and that’s when you start to notice how challenging Pilates is and how it can be a great fitness activity that negates the need to supplement your fitness regime with running or high-intensity cardio.”

However, when it comes to weight loss, it's not so much the exercise that you do but rather your calorie balance. Known as an energy or calorie deficit, the key to weight loss is consuming fewer calories than you burn every day. 

"It's important to set realistic goals and use healthy, thought-out plans to achieve your weight aim," explains Core Balance personal trainer Jessica Stevens (opens in new tab). "To achieve healthy weight loss, there are two main areas to focus on that complement each other. One, individuals should eat a balanced diet and ensure it's maintainable." If you want to learn more about what a balanced diet looks like, the 80/20 diet rule could be for you, as it incorporates many elements of it into an eating plan. 

Then secondly, Jessica adds, if you are looking to lose weight, certain exercise regimes burn more calories than others. "High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very effective method for reducing your weight and it doesn't take a lot of time. There are endless workouts you can do which can be easily adjusted to support any level of fitness, all you need is 30 minutes." Try a HIIT treadmill workout, for instance.

The most effective form of exercise, however, will always be the one that you enjoy as you're more likely to do it. So if you want to lose weight, focus on eating healthily in a calorie deficit and doing the exercise that feels good for you, whether that's Pilates for weight loss or interval training.

Woman chopping up banana on wooden chopping board to prepare healthy smoothie

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How many calories does Pilates burn? 

Depending on your current weight and fitness levels, you could expect to burn around 170-200 calories in an hour’s session of Pilates. You can monitor this by wearing one of the best fitness trackers while you work out.

When doing Pilates for weight loss, movements will be dynamic. This means each exercise transitions from one to another with minimal rest, so you burn calories. It’s important to notice how you feel after a class too as this can make a real difference to other lifestyle choices that you make throughout the day.

“The main focus in Pilates is to keep the breathing flowing, and you’ll soon see that you feel calmer and more at peace,” says Paola. While many factors control what food we eat, everything from stress to the menstrual cycle, Pilates instructor Paola says that post-class, she tends to make better food choices. 

"I feel happier and more connected to my body, and this leads to a ripple effect of eating more nutritious food with fewer calories," she says. 

How often should you practice Pilates?

Practice regularly. Founder of the practice, Joseph Pilates recommended practicing his method at least four times a week to get the best results. “If you’re pressed for time though, even just 10 minutes every day from Monday to Friday can be very beneficial,” says Paola. 

Many online Pilates studios have workout plans divided per body part, with a different length of class for each. This makes it possible for you to choose a Pilates for weight loss workout according to how much time you have available. All you need is a pair of workout leggings, a mat, and your best sports bra, and you’re good to go.

Woman practising Pilates for weight loss in front room on a blue yoga mat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How does Pilates change your body shape? 

Not long after starting to practice Pilates for weight loss, you’ll notice that the oblique muscles - which are the outer abdominal muscles - become more visible. 

When comparing yoga vs Pilates, Pilates stands out as one of the best workouts you can do to gain waist definition. “Then the shape of your legs will change as the quad muscles on the front of your thighs will get longer and more defined. You’ll also notice how you stand with better posture and that your glutes are stronger and more toned,” says Paola. 

“Get ready for your clothes to fit better too. In fact, I recommend trying on a pair of tight jeans or a skirt and then try them again after ten Pilates sessions to see a real difference,” she says.

What type of Pilates is best for weight loss?

Traditional or Classical Pilates is the term used for Joseph Pilates' original sequence of 34 functional exercises that are performed on a mat. It might be a good idea to invest in one of the best thick yoga mats so that you are comfortable when practicing mat work Pilates. A specific sequence of exercises can also be performed on the Pilates reformer bed, which is a piece of apparatus originally designed by Joseph Pilates. 

When the Traditional Pilates method is blended with adapted movements and an instructor has the flexibility to switch up sequences and the apparatus used in a class, it is known as Contemporary Pilates.

For weight loss, the perfect combination is all the full-body, functional exercises with a mix of mat work and standing with light, resistance training with weights, says Paola. 

“The technique combined with the correct breathing is essential to see results,” she says. “The moment you engage the deep abdominal layers - known as the transverse abdominals, the whole body will work on a different level. Ten repetitions for each of the exercises will be enough to feel the magic Pilates burn.”

5 of the best Pilates for weight loss workouts

1. Cardio Pilates full-body workout

Paola Langella’s 30 minute full-body workout combines Traditional Pilates exercises with cardio blasts to boost your metabolism and tone your body from head to toe.

2. 10 minute lower belly flattener

If you're looking to target tummy fat, challenge yourself with this short but effective sequence from Cassey Ho. Do it daily and you'll feel the burn—and see results, in your lower abdominal muscles. 

3. 15 minute lower body workout 

With these toning and sculpting Pilates exercises from Juliana Spicoluk, you’ll effectively target your core while working your inner and outer thighs, glutes, and hamstrings–all in just 15 minutes.

4. 30 minute fat melt

Ready to burn some calories? Hannah from Moving Mango turns up the heat in this 30-minute Pilates sequence that blends fast and slow movements to get your heart racing. 

5. 45 minute calorie burn

This Pilates for weight loss workout by former ballet dancer Desiree Errico engages your whole body to burn fat and sculpt muscles. Prepare to sweat in her challenging 45 minute class.

Senior Health Writer Ali Horsfall has almost 15 years experience as a journalist and has written for national print titles and women’s lifestyle brands including woman&home, Woman, Woman's Own, BBC magazines, Mothercare, Grazia and The Independent. She currently specialises in health and fitness content and loves sharing the best expert advice on staying well.