Joseph H. Pilates was born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880. Joseph Pilates was a sickly child, plagued by rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. He dedicated his life to becoming physically stronger. In his youth, he studied and became proficient at bodybuilding, diving, skiing, and gymnastics. By the time he was 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts.


Joseph Pilates moved to England where he trained as a boxer, but with the outbreak of World War I he was soon incarcerated as an "enemy alien". It was during this time that Pilates began further developing his system of exercises, which he called "Contrology", and teaching them to his fellow inmates. Later Pilates was transferred to Isle of Man to work as a nurse. He began working with patients immobilized by war injuries. Pilates modified the hospital beds with straps, springs, and pulleys to assist the patients in exercising. This marked the early development of the Pilates apparatus.


After the war, Pilates immigrated to the United States. On the ship to America, Pilates met his future wife Clara. Upon arrival, the couple founded a studio in New York City which is in operation to this day. Joe and his wife personally supervised their clients at the studio well into the 1960's