I was 16 years old when I was first introduced to pilates. I was a member of a ballet company, and in order to qualify for the most advanced dance classes, we had to take this new, weird class called “pilates” (which every single one of us incorrectly pronounced like “pilots”) before we were allowed in. A very serious, very fit man showed us the ropes and cheered us on through an increasingly complex set of core strengthening exercises. By the end of the six month crash course, we all qualified for those advanced classes.
The unique thing about pilates is that it follows a philosophy of strengthening you from the core on outwards. A strong core – in this case, meaning your abdominal muscles, obliques, back and glutes – is an excellent foundation on which to build total body strength. Unlike some circuit training routines or cardio classes, pilates is virtually zero impact. Have tricky joints? Pilates is a gentle alternative to strength training which can help you build strong, solid muscle while also babying that tender knee or hip. Use this guide to an easy pilates workout routine to get you started.
Any workout should begin with a gentle, but thorough stretching session. This not only gives your body the change to wake up a little, but it is an important step in preventing injury, and getting the most out of your workouts. Concentrate especially on a good hamstring and quad stretch, followed up by a crossed leg stretch for those glutes. A few gentle back and forward bends should help prepare your lower back and abs for the workout. Your arms, shoulders and neck need some encouragement too. I know it’s tempting to rush this part, but really try to devote ten whole minutes to stretching alone. Once you’ve checked in and stretched all your muscle groups, it’s time to begin.
If you have taken any pilates class, at any level, you are already familiar with “The Hundred”. If not, you will come to learn that this is an integral part of every class, and it’s easy to see why. This exercise promotes strength, endurance, and stability.
To get into position, begin by sitting on the floor, and place your hands behind your knees. Scoop your belly in, making an effort to bring your navel towards your spine, and curl down towards the floor. While keeping the head and shoulders elevated slightly, keep your lower back pressed to the mat. You should be settled into a “U” shape. Next, pump your arms in small up and down motions at your sides. Breathe in, and do five pumps, then breathe out for five more. When you hit 50 pumps, allow yourself to lie back for a slow count to 30. When ready, sit up in position again, and repeat the previous actions for a total of 100 pumps. Hence, “The Hundred”. As your skills and strength improve, you can lessen the break you take in the middle.
The Roll Up
Think of this exercise as an exaggerated sit-up. Begin by sitting upright with your legs straight in front of you. Extend your arms so that they are straight out, reaching for your toes. Holding this position, lower your upper body slowly back towards the floor. When you reach the halfway point, bring your arms up parallel with your ears. Curl backwards while bending your knees up, and stop just before your shoulder blades hit the floor. Raise your arms up and pull your abs towards your spine for leverage. As you exhale, lower your arms towards your toes again, and straighten your legs as you curl back up. Try doing this motion 6-8 times. If you are feeling strong, as a variation, lower yourself all the way to the floor before coming back up.
For this exercise, begin by lying flat on your back. Feel your body pressing into the floor. Begin by slowly raising one leg up straight towards the ceiling, if you are able. If a lower angle feels more comfortable, then go ahead and lower to a position that feels less intense.
Once you are ready, begin by lowering your leg a few inches towards the ground. Sweep the leg outwards, and make a small, circular motion. If during this exercise, either your pelvis or hips begins to lift off the ground, simply decrease the range of motion. As a beginner, proper form is more important than dramatic movements, so keep it simple. Cross your leg over your body slightly to complete the circle. Inhale on the outward motion, and exhale on the inward. Do two sets of five motions to begin, and gradually increase your numbers as your workouts progress.
Rolling Like a Ball
While sitting on your mat, clasp your hands around your legs, just above the ankle. Be sure to relax your shoulders. This will help open your back while also allowing for a better abdominal “scoop”. Keep your head and neck looking forward, and avoid tucking them into your chest.
Lift your feet off the mat, and allow yourself to find balance on your “sit bones” (the part of your pelvis you cal feel pushing into the mat) While taking a deep inhale, pull those lower abdominal muscles in and upwards. Allow yourself to fall into a controlled roll backwards. Use your core to stop yourself before you roll onto your neck. Try to keep the pinnacle of the roll at your shoulders. On an exhale, return to an upright position, and balance.
The Front Supported Plank
Planks! These are popular even outside pilates class. While they definitely take a lot out of you, they are fantastically effective strengthening exercises.
To begin, lie comfortably on your stomach while on your mat. When you feel ready, bring yourself into a classic push up position. Keep your legs straight, and balance on your flexed toes, making yourself resemble a flat plank of wood. Lock your elbows with your hands placed directly beneath your shoulders, and push straight up into this arm balance. Breathing steadily will help this exercise, which is about endurance as much as it is about raw strength. Keep a timer or clock with a second hand around, and begin by holding this position for 20 seconds. Drop gently down to your mat afterwards, and allow your breath to become even before trying again. As you improve, try to add time to your planks.
This one is a twisting exercise, meant to focus in on your obliques and lower back. Begin by sitting upright, with your legs straight out in front of you. Extend both arms out to your sides to begin. While keeping your spine straight, begin by bringing your right arm to your left foot. Lean down slightly to allow your fingers to touch your toes, if possible. Return to center, straighten up, and then repeat on the opposite side. Do this for 10 reps, then rest. Try to do three sets, and add more as you feel stronger.
Pilates has become a popular exercise phenomenon because it is fun, and it gets results. You don’t have to be a marathon runner or weight lifter to have a fit, strong body. You just have to exercise regularly, and consistently. Pilates is a great path to a healthier you.
Udemy has lots of great pilates courses available. Check out the following to get more in-depth practice: