Joseph Humbertus Pilates was born near Dussledorf, Germany in 1880. He suffered from a range of debilitating conditions throughout his childhood including, rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever. Determined to overcome his poor physical health, he devoted himself to the task of becoming as fit and strong as was humanly possible. This determination was characteristic of Pilates' spirited and forceful personality. His early fierce reaction to illness would inform all his future enterprises.

   In his youth, Pilates studied and became proficient at numerous sports and fitness activities, including skiing, gymnastics, diving, and bodybuilding. By the time he was 14 years old, he was in such good shape that he was able to work as a model for anatomical charts. In 1912, Pilates moved from Germany to England where he earned a living in a wide variety of jobs that required him to be in peak physical condition. He worked as a boxer, circus performer, and self defense trainer of English detectives.

   When World War I broke out, Pilates was interned because of his nationality. He was held in camps in Lancaster and the isle of Man. While there he acted as a physician to the other men. It seemed a natural step for him eventually to take responsibility for the health of the other interns and he began training them in physical fitness. It was then that he first improved making fitness equipment, removing springs from the beds and attaching them to the walls above the beds so that patients could exercise while lying down. After the war, Pilates continued his fitness programs back in Germany, in Hamburg, where he worked with the police force before being drafted into the army. By 1926, disenchanted with Germany, he decided to move to America. On the ship to New York, he met a nurse called Clara, the woman he was later to marry.

   Soon after arriving in New York, Pilates set up his first exercise studio at 939 Eighth Avenue. Though little is known about the early years of his business, by the 1940's, Joe had achieved a certain amount of notoriety amongst the city's dance community. "At some time or other," reported Dance Magazine in its February 1956 issue, "virtually every dancer in New York had meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates." By the early 1960's, Pilates could count many of New York's finest dancers among his clients. George Balanchine, one of ballet's foremost choreographers and co-founders of the New York City Ballet, worked out at "Joe's" as he called it, and also invited Pilates to instruct the young dancers of his acclaimed ballet company. "Pilates," as it was now becoming known, was catching on and becoming very popular outside New York City as well. As the New York Herald Tribune noted in 1964, in dance classes around the United States, hundreds of young students limber up daily with an exercise they know as Pilates, without knowing that the word has a capital P, and a living, right-breathing namesake.
   When Joe passed away in 1967, he was 87 years old. He left no will and had designated no successor to carry on the Pilates exercise work. Nevertheless, due to the popularity and effectiveness of the technique, his work was destined to continue.
   Clara, Joe's wife, continued to operate what was already known as the Pilates Studio in New York and Romana Kryzanowska, a former student who had been instructed by Pilates in the 1940's, became its director in the 1970's.