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The Pilates Chair

I wasn’t always a fan of the Pilates chair. For a long time, I felt limited by its size, unsure of my balance and a little intimidated by how hard some of the exercises were. I usually only did a few stock exercises on it, and then moved onto another piece of equipment. Everything changed when I moved to rural Panama, and didn’t have access to much in the way of Pilates equipment. So when a studio in the country’s capital, five hours away, was selling a chair, I jumped on it.

Every morning it was just me and the small beast of a chair in my itsy-bitsy living room/dining room/kitchen. I did the exercises I knew forward and back, I pulled out manuals, watched videos, got creative, and slowly began to fall in love with the chair. While I cursed at some of the workouts, I appreciated its ever-changing challenges, the rotations, stretches and brutal strengthening that it provided. I always felt as though I had a really full workout. I couldn’t imagine how I had overlooked the chair for so long. It was my Pilates life-line in Panama.

Joseph Pilates’ initial design was literally a powerhouse piece of exercise equipment that could double for a living room chair. The original Wunda Chair as it was called, consisted of a seat and a pedal with springs attached to the seat. Pilates filed for a patent for his chair in 1931 including several drawings. In his patent application he wrote:

“My present invention relates to improvements in chairs. More particularly, it is an object of my invention to devise a chair which will better support the body, promote better posture and insure a more thorough rest and relaxation to the sitter. A further object is to provide a chair which is convertible into an exercising device as well as to provide an improved exercising device.”

The pedal of the Wunda Chair moved not just up and down but in an arc, creating challenges to balance, and pelvic and shoulder stability. Pilates originally created the chair for his clients to use during the summer months and holidays away from his 8th Avenue studio. There are some wonderful old vintage videos of Joe and friends casually enjoying a summer afternoon of Pilates chair workouts in their swim suits:

After Pilates passed away, the chair apparatus was largely overlooked and fell to the wayside. According to Nora St. John of Balanced Body, most of the chair exercises that we have today have been shared by one of Pilates’ long-term students, Kathy Grant’s, or through existing photos and videos of Pilates himself.

The chair has experienced a renaissance in Pilates studios around the world in the last decade. It’s small size, compact and powerful movements and creative versatility are perfect for a studio space or in-home. Another bonus to the chair is that it’s the most functional of all the Pilates equipment, meaning the exercises done on the chair most mimic actions in day to day life and can be done seated or standing. Take for example, lunges performed on the chair, which target the same muscles and posture needed for actively and properly climbing stairs; or footwork, which also mimics the action of actively sitting in a chair and engaging core muscles, while lengthening the spine— no slouching allowed! The chair moves clients in a variety of positions, and with many advanced exercises, it requires good upper-body strength, strong legs and core to stabilize the pelvis.

The chair is well-worth getting to know, and it won’t disappoint with its many advanced exercises and functional movements that translate easily into life outside of the Pilates studio. Prepare to work, to sweat (a lot), and with perseverance, I’m betting you’ll fall in love with the little power-house that is the Pilates chair.


— Kari Skaflen

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