At first glance, a Pilates studio might look like a medieval torture chamber, with strange straps and metal springs hanging from padded platforms called “reformers.” In reality, Pilates is a form of exercise that aims to develop flexibility, good posture, strength, and balance all at the same time.
Pilates has been a go-to regimen for anyone interested in working on strength, grace, and of course, a solid core.
What is Pilates, anyway?
Originally coined as “Contrology” by its creator, Joseph Pilates, the practice of Pilates aims to improve strength, mobility, and flexibility with emphasis on your body’s core. It uses exercises on a mat or with specialized equipment to target, tone, and stabilize key muscles.
Pilates may offer more than just a nice set of abs.
In a 2016 study, researchers worked with a small group of women considered to be overweight or obese. After 8 weeks of Pilates, the participants had lost weight, lowered their BMIs, and decreased their ab and hip circumferences.
Researchers have also found that Pilates may be an effective way to manage low back pain and rehabilitate from injuries, though more research is needed in this area.
A 2014 survey of physical therapists who had treated people with low back pain found that Pilates improved body awareness, posture, and movement control, though precautions should be taken for those with a fracture or certain other conditions.
The benefits are more than just physical, of course. A 2017 study found that doing Pilates once a week not only increased the participants’ muscle strength, flexibility, and balance but also improved their mood.
With all of those benefits, let’s get to the best Pilates exercises you can do at home.
1. Pilates Curl
Lie faceup with knees bent, feet flat on the mat, and arms at your sides. Exhale, curling your chin to chest and bringing your shoulders completely off the mat. Hold for 1 breath, then lower back down slowly. Lift from your chest to engage abs and avoid crunching your neck.
2. The Hundred
Lie faceup and bring knees in toward chest. Lift head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. Stretch hands out by your sides with palms facing down.
Extend your legs to a 45-degree angle with heels together and toes apart (called the Pilates stance). Pump arms up and down while breathing in and out through your nose for 5 counts each. Repeat for 10 sets.
Lie faceup with your arms extended toward the ceiling. Exhale, curl your chin to chest, and roll up to a sitting position with arms reaching toward your feet. Exhale and reverse to roll down, one vertebra at a time. Move slowly and smoothly with no forward lunging or jerking.
4. Rolling Like a Ball
Sit on the mat with knees drawn toward your chest and arms wrapped around your legs. Rock back to tailbone, with feet hovering a few inches above the mat.
Inhale, rolling back to your shoulder blades. Exhale to roll forward and return to the balanced starting position. Use abs to control momentum and pause before your feet touch the mat.
5. Single-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat with knees drawn toward your chest and shins parallel to the floor in a tabletop position. Exhale to lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. At the same time, extend your left leg straight to a 45-degree angle and draw right knee in toward your chest.
Grab right knee with your left hand and right ankle with your right hand. Switch legs on the inhale, pulse for 1 beat, then switch legs again on the exhale, keeping your shoulders off the mat and core engaged throughout.
6. Double-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat. Lift your head, neck, and shoulders and bring knees to chest, arms hugging shins. Inhale, then straighten your legs to a 45-degree angle while simultaneously extending your arms along your ears.
Exhale and circle arms down to hug your shins as you return to starting position. Keep your shoulders off the mat throughout and maintain even breathing.
7. Single Straight-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat with legs extended straight up, perpendicular to the floor. Lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. Bring right leg in as close to your face as flexibility allows, lightly holding your right calf with both hands.
Pulse right leg toward your face 2 times while left leg extends away from your body and hovers above the mat. Repeat on the other side.
Lie faceup on the mat, hands behind your neck and elbows wide. Lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the mat.
Bring left armpit to your right knee and extend your left leg to high diagonal. Twist to the other side and switch legs, bringing right armpit to your left knee and extending your right leg.
9. Double Straight-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat with hands supporting the back of your neck and knees bent toward your chest. Exhale, bringing your upper torso off the mat and extending legs toward the ceiling. Lower your legs to a 45-degree angle for 3 counts, then lift again for 1 count.
10. Teaser II
Lie faceup and hug knees to chest. Reach arms directly overhead and extend both legs to high diagonal. Stretch arms back toward your ears, then shift them toward your toes, rolling up to a seated V position.
Keep your arms and legs at a 45-degree angle to the mat. From this position, lower and raise your legs for 3 to 5 reps. Roll your spine down to the mat one vertebra at a time, then lower your legs to return to starting position.
11. Pilates Plank to Push-Up
Stand tall. As you exhale, round your chin toward your chest, rolling your body down to a “rag doll” position. Walk hands out into a high plank position.
Lower your body halfway to the mat, elbows tucked close to ribs. Straighten your arms to press up. Repeat for 3 to 5 reps. Walk hands toward your feet and roll back up to starting position.
12. Shoulder Bridge
Lie faceup with your knees bent, feet flat on the mat, and arms along your sides.
Exhale and lift your hips off the mat toward the ceiling. Holding this position, extend your right leg and kick it toward the ceiling with pointed toes. Flex your right heel and lower right leg to the level of your left knee.
Do 3 reps, then place your right foot on the mat. Extend your left leg and repeat on the other side. Roll hips down to the mat to return to starting position.
13. Double-Leg Kick
Lie facedown with right cheek on the mat. Place hands on your low back, one on top of another, palms facing up. Allow your elbows to fall toward the mat. Kick both heels to your glutes 2 to 3 times.
Straighten your legs, keeping feet off the mat. Extend clasped hands toward your feet and lift your chest off the mat, gazing downward toward the mat. You should feel no pressure in your low back. Lower your chest to the mat. Turn your head to the other side to repeat.
Special thanks to Pilates instructor Sarah Ruback for creating the workout for this article. Also, special thanks to personal trainer Molly Ritterbeck for modeling the exercises seen here. Molly wears her own Brooks tank and H&M tights.
Hilary Lebow is a writer, certified yoga instructor, certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and certified nutrition coach. When she’s not working, she can be found in nature with her two dogs or planning her next travel adventure.