All the straps, springs, and moving parts of a typical Reformer class make Pilates seem almost scary compared to those yoga classes full of flickering candles, blocks, and cozy blankets. Plus, fancy machines mean Pilates can be pretty pricey—upwards of $40 per class at some studios! Add in the svelte celebrity fans applauding the workout, and we don't blame you for thinking it all seems a little intimidating—and out of your budget.
But before you pass up on Pilates, we have some good news: You don’t need any extra equipment to reap the physical and mental benefits—all you need is a mat! Mat-based Pilates is a gentle, low-impact, yet serious strength workout that research shows can help ease low back pain, reduce body fat, improve flexibility, and even support mental well-being The Effectiveness of Pilates Exercise in People With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review. Wells, C., Kolt, G.S., Marshall, P. PloS One, 2014, Jul.; 9(7):1932-6203. The Effect of 8 Week Pilates Exercise on Body Composition in Obese Women. Cakmakçi, O. Collegium Antropologicum. 2012, Mar.; 35(4):0350-6134. Pilates, Mindfulness and Somatic Education. Caldwell, K., Adams, M., Quin, R. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices. 2013 Dec 1; 5(2):141-153. . In fact, mat Pilates can be even more effective than using a reformer since you’re using your own bodyweight to strengthen your muscles and stabilize your joints, says Taylor Phillips, a senior Pilates instructor at Equinox.
Here, Phillips demonstrates a 20-minute Pilates mat workout—no gym or weird apparatus needed. Whether you’re new to Pilates or you’re an experienced pro, you can follow along, taking modifications or more advanced positions where noted.
Complete three rounds of the following moves for an intense full-body burn.
Stand with feet parallel, hip-distance apart. Inhale, then exhale while extending arms up and reaching through upper back. Inhale, then exhale and slowly roll down toward the floor one vertebrae at a time. Sit back as if sitting in a chair before reaching up and lifting heels. Return to standing.
Dynamic Core Plank Series
15 reps per side
Walk hands out to plank position. Engage your abs to draw right knee into chest. Extend leg back, pointing toes to the ceiling and engaging glutes and hamstrings. Repeat for 5 reps. Then, bring right knee to left shoulder in the same manner for 5 reps. Finally, bring right knee to right shoulder in the same manner for 5 reps. Repeat entire series on the other leg. To modify, lower knees to floor and limit leg range of motion.
Kneel on the floor with knees directly under hips, feet touching. Hinge upper body back about 45 degrees, engaging abs, glutes, and feet while maintaining a straight line from head to knees. Return to the starting position. For more challenge, sustain the hinge position and lower and lift your arms 10 times.
Kneeling Side Kick
10 lifts and 10 circles per leg
From kneeling, lower left hand to the ground and extend opposite right out, holding right hand behind head. Lift right leg to hip height, then lower for 10 reps. Then hold leg at hip height and rotate leg in small circles for 10 reps. To modify, lie on side instead of kneeling.
10 to 15 reps
Lie faceup. Curl up to raise shoulders slightly and engage abdominals to support lower back. Extend arms by ears and raise legs to a 45-degree angle from the floor. Circle arms around and hug knees into chest. To modify, keep legs at a 90-degree angle and rest head. For more challenge, add leg beats, scissoring legs on top of each other for 5 beats with each extension.
10 reps per leg
Lie facecup. Curl head and neck up to raise shoulders slightly off the ground. Lift left leg 1 inch above the mat and extend right leg to ceiling, bringing your hands to your ankle. Double-pull your right leg, then switch legs. Maintain hip stability throughout the exercise. To modify, softly bend knees and keep head down. For more challenge, reach arms by ears throughout, keeping hands out.
Lie faceup, arms at sides. Curl head, neck, and shoulders up, and extend legs to a sustainable level (where abs stay engaged but lower back is not lifting from the mat). Begin pumping arms up and down, breathing in for 5 counts and exhaling for 5 counts, totaling 10 breath cycles. To modify, bend knees at a 90-degree angle (as shown).
5 reps per side
Lie on right side, supporting body with right hand. Engage core and rotate hips to lift legs as high as possible from floor to engage obliques. Return to starting position with control.
5 to 8 reps
Lie facedown. Place hands underneath shoulders. Engage core and lift head slightly. Raise your chest up and extend arms forward as you lift legs 1 inch above the mat. Bend elbows so arms form a "W" shape, hold, then lower everything down to the mat.
Side Leg Series
10 kicks and 15-20 circles in each direction per side
Lying on your left side, bring legs slightly in front of your hips to create a kickstand. Lift right leg to hip height and kick forward and back, maintaining upper body stability and pointing toes. Repeat for 10 reps. Then pause at hip height, point foot, and rotate in small circles (about the size of a tennis ball), circling 15 to 20 times in each direction.
Lie faceup. Extend arms to ceiling, lifting head and engaging core to roll up smoothly. Reach forward with hands reaching toward toes while still drawing your waist back to create length along your spine and maintaining a feeling of drawing your abs in. Slowly roll back down.