If you’ve ever seen a Pilates reformer, then you know why they can be intimidating. 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 Pilates 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.
Tips for maximizing the moves
Pilates is meant to be done very slowly and deliberately, so don’t rush through these moves. Take your time and connect to your breath.
Pilates is designed to have a warmup 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 your sit bones.
On an exhale, float your legs one at a time up to Chair Position (with knees bent 90 degrees). On each exhale, alternate tapping one toe to the 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 (aka 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 your legs open slightly wider than hip width then draw them back closed. Exhale to bring your legs back to starting position while keeping your body curled up. Inhale to release head, neck, and shoulders back down. Repeat 8 times.
Make it easier: Keep legs bent and just move your upper body.
3. Side Plank Twist
Lie on your side with right forearm against the mat under your right shoulder, and left arm reaching up to the ceiling. Float your hip and waist up to a side plank. Focus on pressing up from your hip and side waist instead of shoulder.
Thread your left arm through the space below your 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, your spine reaching long, and shoulder blades wide across your back. Exhale, deepen your abdominals to spine, and float your knees off the mat a few inches.
Make sure to keep your spine neutral as you lift. Hold the knee lift for 2 breaths, deepening your belly on each exhale, then lower your knees back to the mat. Do 5 reps.
5. Inner Thigh Circle
Lie on your right side with right leg extended out and left knee bent, resting on mat. Lift your right leg up 6 inches above mat. Engage inner thigh to draw small circles with your 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 your side. Bring just your legs forward 12 inches and place your top hand on the mat for support. Inhale to prepare and exhale to lift top leg up a few inches. Inhale twice while you pulse the top leg forward, keeping your 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 your knees bent, feet flat and hip-width apart. Press into your 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 (aka Battement)
Lie on your side with both legs extended straight, toes pointed. Turn top leg out so the top of your foot faces the ceiling and lift while maintaining the rotation. Keep your pelvis stable by drawing in your belly. Do 12 reps on each side.
Lie facedown with arms by your hips. Reach your arms back as you float up into a small upper back arch while maintaining a long, supported lower back. You should feel like the top of your head is reaching forward as your fingers reach back. Lower down. Do 8 reps.
Lie facedown with your arms reaching out in line with shoulders like a T. Float your arms up about 2 inches as you reach your head, neck, and shoulders forward and up into a very small arch.
Reach your arms back to your 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 your arms and legs extended straight. Take flight by lifting arms, head, shoulders, and legs up. Gaze down to mat to protect your 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.
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 your 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 your 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 your side. Exhale and roll your hips, back, and ribs off mat by pressing firmly into both feet to a bridge position.
Lift your 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 (aka Chest Expansion)
Stand with a light weight in each hand. (To make it easier, perform without weights.) Bend your knees to hinge forward at the hips with a long, neutral spine. Lengthen your arms down to the floor with palms facing each other. Reach weights back and up until palms come to hips.
Feel your collar bones widen and draw your 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 your arms forward in line with shoulders. Reach both arms out to a T, only so wide that they stay in your peripheral vision.
Bring your arms back down to your 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 (aka Rotator Cuff)
Stand with a resistance band held between your hands, palms facing up. Bring your 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 your chin toward your chest and start rolling slowly down toward the floor one vertebrae at a time.
Soften your knees and bring palms to floor, then walk your 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 the mat).
Push back to Plank. Reach your sit bones back and up and start to walk hands back until you come to hang over your legs. Draw in your belly to roll slowly back up to stand. Repeat 8 times.
Make it easier: Drop to your knees instead of Plank.
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.