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Men Suddenly Feel the Pull of Pilates

Kevin Durant, Harry Styles are among fans of workout traditionally beloved mostly by women

Scott Streeb works his core on a Pilates reformer machine at a studio in Denver.

By Jen MurphyFollow | Video and photographs by Matt Nager for The Wall Street Journal March 25, 2023 at 6:00 am ET

Pilates was touted for decades as the workout that could help you achieve the long, lean muscles of a ballet dancer. As a result, women often flocked to Pilates studios while men largely stayed away.

But the rise of male celebrities and athletes taking up—and talking up—Pilates is helping debunk the myth that the workout is mainly for women.

NBA superstar Kevin Durant has credited Pilates with helping him rehab an Achilles tendon injury. New York Giants defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence was heard on mic touting the benefits of Pilates during a game last football season. And Exhale Pilates London recently posted an Instagram clip of boxers, soccer players and pop star Harry Styles tagged #mendopilatestoo.

Beyond celebrities, gyms are reporting a change in the male-female ratio at their Pilates classes

Pilates is often associated with stretching, says Jeffrey Morris, a Pilates manager at Equinox in New York. Improved flexibility is one benefit. The method, centered around exercises on spring-assisted machines or a mat, also builds overall muscular balance, strength and mobility, he says. It shifts focus away from overworked muscles including the chest, shoulders, hip flexors and quads toward often ignored muscles such as the lats, glutes and abdominals. This helps avoid overuse injuries, he says.

Scott Streeb, a Denver-based director of a New York landscape-architecture firm, assumed Pilates would be easy. He was shocked to find himself struggling through his first classes. “It works all of the micromuscles in your body that you never knew existed,” he says.

An avid climber and skier, he’d tried CrossFit, high-intensity interval training and traditional weightlifting but felt they put too much strain on his joints. Two years ago, he tried a Pilates class. The 39-year-old says he liked the physical challenge and how his body felt after.

When friends tease him for doing the same workout as their wives and sisters, he shrugs it off. “I’m fitter than them all,” he says.

World War I roots

Joseph Pilates, the discipline’s German founder, was a barrel-chested pro boxer, self-defense instructor, gymnast and circus performer. He based his practice on precise movements and breathing techniques that strengthen the muscles while improving postural alignment and flexibility.

As a German national living in England, Mr. Pilates was sent to an internment camp during World War I. While there, he rigged springs to hospital beds so injured soldiers could exercise against resistance. These contraptions led to his development of classic Pilates machines.

He immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s and opened a body-conditioning studio in New York City that quickly earned a following in the dance community. In Europe, he had worked with athletes, police and Army officers interested in strengthening their bodies through exercises that would build balance top to bottom and right to left, says Rachel Segel, co-founder of the Pilates Center in Boulder, Colo.

In New York, he found himself helping ballet dancers rehab their injuries,” she says. His method became associated with dancing and earned a predominantly female following outside the dance world.

In New York, he found himself helping ballet dancers rehab their injuries,” she says. His method became associated with dancing and earned a predominantly female following outside the dance world.

More men catching on

With its more-complicated equipment and often higher price tag, Pilates might not eclipse yoga, but its popularity is growing. Overall participation in Pilates increased 10% between 2019 and 2022, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Nearly 34 million Americans practice yoga, versus 10 million who do Pilates, the SFIA says.

Dan DeBaun, a spokesman for athletic club chain Life Time Inc., says 25% of Pilates participants are now men, compared with 16% in 2017. Equinox clubs have seen a 47% increase in male members attending its mat-based Pilates classes at its 100-plus global locations since 2019, Mr. Morris says.

Jen Renfroe, senior vice president of group fitness for the Crunch Fitness gym chain, says that over the past two years, more men have taken Pilates-based classes as a complement to their traditional strength-based or high-intensity interval workouts.

She says the introduction of 30-minute, hybrid classes that blend traditional Pilates techniques with other fitness elements such as resistance bands are accessible for beginners. One mat-based Crunch class that incorporates hand weights, Iron Mat, has a name meant to appeal to guys, Ms. Renfroe says.

Small movements, big benefits

Staple Pilates mat exercises such as the roll-up, where you lie on your back and curl the spine up to a C-shape with your fingers stretching toward your toes, look simple. But they are core burners.

Tom Cook recalls his muscles shaking when he had to lie on his back and hold his knees above his chest during his first class in 2016. “I felt more challenged than discouraged,” says Mr. Cook, 59, an Episcopal priest in Edina, Minn. “It underscored how important core strength is.”

He attends class twice a week at his Life Time gym and says he now walks more upright and feels more limber. While he used to be the only male participant, he says in the past two years another guy often joins the four-person class. Most group fitness classes, such as yoga, are included in his membership fee. But Pilates costs an extra $30 per class, which Mr. Cook says he justifies by the specialized equipment and small class size.

Chris Farnsworth was an attorney who discovered Pilates when he injured his back in 2018. He loved the discipline so much he co-founded LiveMetta, a Pilates studio with six locations in Southern California. He says machines add resistance while also providing stability, so exercises can be performed safely by older participants and people with injuries.

In the past two years, there has been a 10% increase in male attendees.

“There’s an unspoken bond when you see another guy in the studio,” he says. “It’s like we’re in on this secret workout that makes you strong and feel good. But with more men, especially athletes, finally talking about how great it is, I don’t think it will stay a secret that much longer.”

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