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How to Get Started With Pilates

Safe for people of all fitness levels and challenging for even the very fit, Pilates just might be the perfect exercise regimen. Created to train professional boxers and dancers, it’s a toning and strengthening regimen that we can’t get enough of.

If you’re new to Pilates, we encourage you to find a classical studio and enroll in mat classes. Learning basic Pilates mat exercises will give you the foundation you need to get strong fast and stay strong for a lifetime. Here’s a taste of Pilates mat work that addresses the foundation of a healthy body: encouraging spine and core connection and spinal mobility. The exercises are intended to be done in the order below.

lower abs activation

Lower Abs Activation

Purpose: To help you locate and engage your lower abdominal muscles.
Set Up: On your back with your knees bent, press your spine into the floor.
Move: Using only the lower abs, lift and lower each knee while focusing on keeping the pelvis stable and unmoving. Repeat six times on each side. Lift and lower both knees at the same time to increase the intensity. Repeat with both legs six times.
Focus: On pressing the lower back to the floor, rather than the hips.
Modification: If your head and neck feel strained, place a small pillow under your neck.

upper abs activation

Upper Abs Activation

Purpose: To help you locate and engage your upper abdominal muscles.
Set Up: Same as previous move. On your back with your knees bent, press your spine into the floor.
Move: Extend both arms overhead then sweep them forward toward your thighs while lifting your head and neck up. Try to lift up to the tips of the shoulder blades. Return to the starting position. Repeat six times.
Focus: Movement must come from the chest and lower ribs, not the neck

Pilates upper and lower abs activation

Upper and Lower Front Trunk Activation

Purpose: To help you engage your upper and lower abdominal muscles at the same time to build a connection along your whole front body.
Move: Combine the previous two movements, engaging lower and upper abs at the same time. Repeat eight times.
Focus: Keep the back and spine stable and unmoving; lift only from the front trunk muscles.

Roll Up

Purpose: To improve spinal mobility and flexibility.
Set Up: Sit up tall with your legs out straight in front of you; clasp your hands behind your knees.
Move: Roll down toward the floor, curving the spine and dropping one vertebrae at a time to the floor. Roll back up to sitting, reversing the motion, lifting one vertebrae at a time off the floor. Repeat eight times.
Focus: Whole segments of the spine may want to drop down or lift up when the spine and back are very stiff.  Do your best to attempt the roll slowly and one vertebrae at a time.
Modification: Use the hands to help achieve the rolling motion; this is not a sit up, this is a roll up.

Pilates single-leg stretch

Single-Leg Stretch

Purpose: To loosen the hips and challenge the core.
Set Up: Lie on your back; lift head and knees toward one another.
Move: Hold one knee with both hands and squeeze tightly into the chest (to bend the hip joint) while extending the opposite leg out long.  Keeping head and neck up, alternate legs. Repeat 10 times on each side.
Focus: On upper and lower trunk activation; keep the spine and trunk stable.

Pilates double-leg stretch

Double-Leg Stretch

Purpose: Hip mobility and trunk stability.
Set Up: Pull both knees into your chest and lift your head and neck. Squeeze both knees into the chest with your hands.
Move: Extend both legs long and arms overhead, creating a 45-degree angle with your body. Return to the starting position and squeeze your knees in. Repeat eight times.
Focus: Keep your back anchored into the floor and concentrate on your abs doing the work. 

Pilates single-leg kick

Single-Leg Kick

Purpose: To tone glutes and lengthen quads.
Set Up: Lie on your stomach; extend your legs long and zip them together. Lift onto your elbows (sphinx pose).
Move: Lift your stomach up to support the lower back and squeeze your glutes to press your hip bones and pubic bone into the floor. Bend one knee and bring your foot toward your glute; pulse twice and extend your leg long back to the floor. Switch to the other leg. Repeat six times on each side.
Focus: Keep your pelvis, spine, and trunk steady and unmoving. Range of motion is secondary to stability.

Pilates double leg kick

Double-Leg Kick

Purpose: To open the chest and strengthen the back and glutes.
Set Up: Lie on your stomach; zip your legs together and bend your knees; place your head on the floor and turn to one cheek. Clasp your hands behind your back and press your elbows toward the floor.
Move: Extend your clasped hands toward your feet, lift your chest, open your shoulders, and look forward while extending your legs long but keeping them lifted. Lower back to floor, reversing head turn, keeping hands clasped, and pulsing your heels toward your glutes two times. Repeat six times.
Focus: On pressing the hip bones and pubic bone down into the floor to stabilize.

Pilates spine stretch forward

Spine Stretch Forward

Purpose: To lengthen the spine and hamstrings.
Set Up: Sit up with long legs spread at a 45-degree angle.
Move: Stretch your arms out long in front of you; slowly reach forward toward your toes while dropping your head and contracting the abdomen. Return to an upright position, lifting your arms above your head and lifting the head and spine up toward the ceiling. Repeat six times.
Focus: On gently rounding your spine to release tension and grow longer. 

Pilates wall roll down

Wall Roll Down

Purpose: To encourage spinal mobility and flexibility.
Set Up: Stand with your back against a wall and your feet about 1 foot from the wall. Keep your knees soft.
Move: Drop your head and slowly roll down toward the floor, peeling your back off the wall to encourage the rolling motion of the vertebrae.
Roll back up and reach the arms overhead toward the wall above your head while extending the spine as much as possible and keeping it close to the wall. Repeat eight times.
Focus: On pressing your back into the wall, pulling your lower ribs in, and lifting your stomach in and up.

Niedra Gabriel is a California-based Pilates instructor who does personal coaching, holds teacher trainings, and teaches private classes. To learn more about Gabriel, read our story and go to niedragabriel.com.

Illustrations: Alexandra Gritz

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