When I first started attending Pilates sessions at a studio I had no idea there was a difference between classical and contemporary – I had never even heard those words before. Up until that moment, my Pilates experience was limited to exercises a physiotherapist had given me and some home videos. The videos were contemporary, which I didn’t know, and the studio I had chosen to attend was classical, which I also didn’t know. Over the years, however, I came to know that these 2 camps existed and what the differences were.

Before I dive into this discussion, I want to emphasize this main point: this article is not intended to be a comparison of one type of Pilates being “better” than the other. It is meant to inform you of the differences between the two variations so that you can make an informed decision on which one is better for you. Each approach has benefits for different clientele; you just need to know which is going to meet your own personal needs.

First off, what even is classical Pilates or contemporary Pilates? We are going to discuss a variety of ways that they differ, but to put it into one sentence:


Classical Pilates teaches the Pilates method the way that

Joseph Pilates himself taught it;

Contemporary Pilates has grown from those teachings and added to them.


If you walk into a classical studio anywhere in the world, you will know exactly what to expect. If you walk into a contemporary studio across the street from your usual place it may be completely different than what you’re used to. But what does that mean for you as a student? And how can you tell them apart?


One major difference is the training. Generally speaking, training to be a classical teacher takes much longer than contemporary instruction. A comprehensive classical program takes, on average, well over a year to complete. There is a massive variety available for contemporary instruction, with some courses being as short as a single weekend.

What does this mean for you?

Whether you are choosing a classical or a contemporary instructor, make sure you are comfortable with their training. If the instructor has a website, this information should be very clearly stated. If it isn’t, or if they do not have a website, ask. If the instructor seems offended by your asking for their qualifications, it may be a red flag. Any well-qualified instructor will be proud of the training they received and will be happy to discuss it.

The Order

The biggest difference that you, as a client, will observe almost immediately is The Order. In Classical Pilates, we follow the classical Order, which means we always do the same exercises in the same order. As you advance in your practice, more advanced exercises are introduced and inserted into the order where they belong. This honors the order as Joseph Pilates himself taught it. It also serves a more modern purpose as well – each exercise prepares you for the one that follows.

After a time you will notice that within the exercises you warm up a muscle group, then you strengthen that group, then you stretch it. As you progress through your session you will work that same muscle group again, increasing the challenge as your body warms up. Following the order in this way ensures that every session is a whole-body workout without the risk of overusing any one muscle group. It also ensures that you stretch properly throughout the session, reducing the risk of injury or post-workout discomfort. Another benefit to following the order is being able to see and accurately gauge your progress. When you are doing the same exercise week after week you will get better at it, but when you only do that exercise sporadically it is harder to see your progress.

In contemporary Pilates, you will most likely not see the order. The majority of contemporary instructors will create their own class plan focused on a specific goal- for example, a session focused on glutes or arms. You will also most likely never do the same class twice – the majority of contemporary instructors highly value variety and not being able to predict what will come next.

So which is right for you?

If variety is important to you, then you may find more stimulation with a contemporary instructor. If you prefer predictability and a natural way to measure progress, then classical instruction may be a good fit.

The equipment

This may not be as noticeable to you as a client right away. But there is a definite difference between classical and contemporary apparatus (the word we use for equipment). As always, in classical Pilates, we attempt to stay true to the way Joseph Pilates taught. This includes the apparatus. The classical apparatus that is sold today replicates the design, measurements, and feel of the originals.

Many contemporary pieces replicate the basic design but have made many modifications. One simple example is the reformer. The premise of the reformer is the same, but the springs, sizes, footbar, handles, and straps are all different. Also, in contemporary Pilates, there are many pieces of equipment that have been added over the years that were not used originally.

What does this mean for you?

Possibly nothing. If you’ve never used the apparatus you may not notice a difference. But if you have experienced the classical apparatus you will definitely notice that it will take some time to adjust.

Class size

Classical Pilates studios keep their class sizes very small – the average being five or fewer participants per class, especially for apparatus classes. The largest class I have ever personally seen was 10 participants, and that was an advanced mat class. The small class size allows the instructor to pay more personal attention to each participant.

Contemporary instructors will vary in their preferences, but they tend to have much larger classes (above 10 participants is very common).

What does this mean for you?

If you thrive on the high energy of a large group environment, then you may prefer a contemporary studio. If you prefer a smaller class, you will most likely feel more comfortable in a classical studio.


Another difference you as a client will notice right away, even before booking, is the price difference. Classical studios tend to have a higher cost per session than contemporary studios. This higher price is directly reflective of the smaller class sizes, the higher apparatus costs, and the more extensive education.

What does this mean for you?

If price is going to be the determining factor for you, then you will most likely find contemporary instruction to be more affordable. If price is a secondary factor, then you should base your decision on the other points.


Summary – What are the main differences?

Classical Pilates

  • instructors have received extensive and intensive training
  • follows the classical order
  • uses classical apparatus
  • small class sizes
  • potentially higher price tag

Contemporary Pilates

  • can possibly be certified in one weekend
  • allows for a wide variety of class programming
  • uses contemporary equipment
  • more likely to have larger class sizes
  • more budget-friendly