If you’ve ever seen a Pilates reformer, then you know why they can be intimidating. With straps, springs, and lots of moving parts, those things look like medieval torture devices. And while the machines definitely benefit your Pilates practice by offering resistance and support, it’s way easier (and just as effective) to do certain moves on a mat.
“One of the most amazing things about Pilates is that it is so effective with just your body weight or small props, so you can do it at home, in a hotel room, at the park, in the car, waiting in line—I literally do it everywhere,” says Erika Bloom, certified Pilates teacher and founder of Erika Bloom Pilates Plus.
Here, Bloom demos the best 18 moves you can do without a reformer. These exercises aren’t just pulled from the classic mat repertoire; they’re adapted for the mat from reformer choreography, so they go above and beyond a typical mat Pilates class or video.
Keep in mind that Pilates is supposed to be done very slowly and deliberately, so don’t rush through these moves. It’s all about control, not muscle exhaustion or speed of reps, so take your time and connect to your breath. “One of the most important Pilates principles is the idea that the breath is coordinated with core engagement,” Bloom says. “Breathe into the diaphragm, then on the exhale, wrap the lower abs around the body like there's a magnet between the spine and belly button.” Think of it like cinching up a corset around your midsection—you know, like that scene in Titanic but less painful.
Pilates is designed to have a warm-up built in, so simply grab a mat to get started. To mimic some parts of a reformer and make some moves more challenging, you can opt for a light resistance band and a set of 1- to 3-pound weights. (No weights? Two water bottles work well too!)
1. Toe Tap
Lie faceup with a neutral spine (there should be a small gap between your lower back and the mat), knees bent, feet flat, heels in line with sit bones. On an exhale, float legs one at a time up to chair position (with knees bent 90 degrees). On each exhale, alternate tapping one toe to mat, going as low as you can while maintaining a neutral spine. Inhale to float the leg back to chair position. Do 10 reps on each leg.
2. Press and Point (a.k.a. Coordination)
Start faceup with arms by side, knees bent, feet on mat. Lift legs to a floating chair position one at a time. Bend elbows 90 degrees. On an exhale, curl head, neck and shoulders up from your lower ribs while simultaneously stretching your arms and legs long. Inhale as you press legs open slightly wider than hip width then draw them back closed. Exhale to bring the legs back to starting position while keeping the body curled up. Inhale to release head, neck, and shoulders back down. Repeat 8 times.
Make it easier: Keep legs bent and just move the upper body.
3. Side Plank Twist
Lie on your side, right forearm against the mat under right shoulder, left arm reaching up to the ceiling. Float your hip and waist up to a side plank. Focus on pressing up from hip and side waist instead of shoulder. Thread left arm through the space below torso to twist. Return to starting position. Lower hips to mat. Do 8 reps on each side.
4. Knees Off
Start on all fours, toes tucked under, spine reaching long, and shoulder blades wide across back. Exhale, deepen your abdominals to spine, and float your knees off the mat a few inches. Make sure to keep spine neutral as you lift. Hold the knee lift for two breaths, deepening the belly on each exhale, then lower knees back to mat. Do 5 reps.
5. Inner Thigh Circle
Lie on right side with right leg extended out and left knee bent, resting on mat. Lift right leg up 6 inches above mat. Engage inner thigh to draw small circles with right leg as though you’re tracing the outside of a tea saucer with your big toe. Complete 10 circles in each direction then repeat with opposite leg.
Make it harder: Add ankle weights up to 2 pounds.
6. Side Kick Front and Back
Lie on side. Bring just the legs forward 12 inches and place your top hand on mat for support. Inhale to prepare and exhale to lift top leg up a few inches. Inhale twice while you pulse top leg forward, keeping pelvis stable. Exhale once and glide leg behind the line of the body. Repeat 12 times on each leg.
Make it harder: Add ankle weights up to 2 pounds.
7. Bridge With Leg Lift
Start faceup with knees bent, feet flat and hip-width apart. Press into feet to lift hips up, maintaining a neutral spine. Extend right leg up. Lower it down, making sure to keep pelvis lifted and neutral, then raise leg back up. Do 8 reps on each leg.
8. Leg Lift (a.k.a. Battement)
Lie on side with both legs extended straight, toes pointed. Turn top leg out so top of foot faces ceiling and lift while maintaining the rotation. Keep pelvis stable by drawing in belly. Do 12 reps on each side.
Lie facedown with arms by hips. Reach arms back as you float up into a small upper back arch while maintaining a long, supported lower back. You should feel like top of your head is reaching forward as fingers reach back. Lower down. Do 8 reps.
Lie facedown with arms reached out in-line with shoulders like a T. Float arms up about two inches as you reach your head, neck, and shoulders forward and up into a very small arch. Reach arms back to hips as you slightly increase the arch. Lower torso and arms down and return to starting position. Repeat 8 times.
Make it harder: Add 1-pound weights (max).
Lie facedown with arms and legs extended straight. Take flight by lifting arms, head, shoulders, and legs up. Gaze down to mat to protect neck. Alternate tiny arm and leg lifts as if you were swimming, but only take your arms as high as you can keep your collar bones wide, so your traps (the triangular muscles on either side of your spine behind your neck) stay soft. Inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 4 counts. Repeat for 5 breath cycles.
Hips and Butt
Lie on your side with knees bent and stacked. Keeping feet together, spiral the top leg out to lift the knee up as high as you can while keeping pelvis stable. Lower it back down (like a clamshell), opening then closing. Repeat 15 times.
Make it harder: Add a resistance band around your thighs.
13. Back Lift With Band
Lie on your right side with knees bent and a resistance band tied around thighs. Press the sole of the left foot into the band to lengthen the leg back and down at a diagonal until the knee is straight. Stretch it long as you lift leg up above hip height. Lower back down and then bend it back in to complete one rep. Do 12 reps on each leg.
14. Single Leg Bridge Press
Lie faceup with knees bent, feet slightly apart, arms by side. Exhale and roll hips, back, and ribs off mat by pressing firmly into both feet to a bridge position. Lift left foot off the mat, keeping knee bent, until knee is hovering over the hip in a chair position, shin parallel to floor. Pulse your hips up by pressing into your right foot and engaging the back of your right leg and glute. Keep hips level and make the pulses as small and focused as possible to keep the work in the leg and butt and out of the back. Do 12 pulses. Switch legs then repeat for a total of 2 sets of 12 on each leg.
15. Posture Perfecter (a.k.a. Chest Expansion)
Stand with a light weight in each hand. (To make it easier, perform without weights.) Bend knees to hinge forward at the hips with a long, neutral spine. Lengthen arms down to floor with palms facing each other. Reach weights back and up until palms come to hips. Feel the collar bones widen and draw shoulder blades down your back. Lengthen arms back down to starting position. Do 15 reps.
16. Arm Circle
Stand with a light weight in each hand, arms at sides. (Again, ditch the weights to make it easier.) Lift arms forward in-line with shoulders. Reach both arms out to a T, only so wide that they stay in your peripheral vision. Bring arms back down to sides to complete the circle. Engage your abs to keep spine lifted and shoulders draping down your back. Do 8 circles.
17. Skim the Surface (a.k.a. Rotator Cuff)
Stand with resistance band held between hands, palms facing up. Bring elbows to your sides bent at 90 degrees. Keep upper arms against your body but allow them to spiral out—like they’re rotating—as you pull hands apart. Only go as wide as you can while keeping shoulder blades stable. Then resist back in to starting position. Do 12 reps.
18. Pilates Push-Up
Lower chin toward chest and begin rolling slowly down toward floor one vertebrae at a time. Soften knees, bring palms to floor, then walk hands out to plank position. Feel long in your spine and keep your core tight. Now bend elbows toward sides for a small triceps push-up (don’t lower all the way down to mat). Push back to plank. Reach sit bones back and up and begin to walk hands back until you come to hang over legs. Draw in belly to roll slowly back up to stand. Repeat 8 times.
Make it easier: Drop to your knees instead of plank.
The 15-Minute Do-Anywhere Pilates Sequence
Ready to put it into action? Bloom created this beginner sequence you can do anywhere, anytime to work your whole body.
Special thanks to Erika Bloom, Pilates teacher and founder of Erika Bloom Pilates Plus, who designed and modeled these moves for us. Bloom wears her own tank top by Mara Hoffman. Find more from Bloom on Instagram and Twitter.