Pilates Exercises

Pilates Exercises

Pilates is a comprehensive exercise system that uses isolated muscle movement to create and maintain strength, correct muscular alignment, core muscle control, spinal mobility, postural strength, flexibility, and resilience. Pilates exercises are now widely regarded as a leading exercise protocol for injury prevention.

On this page:

  • What is Pilates?
  • The neutral position
  • Beginners Pilates exercises
  • Intermediate Pilates exercises
  • Advanced Pilates exercises

What is Pilates?

Pilates was created by German athlete Joseph Pilates in the 1920s. Inspired by a series of different exercise disciplines, including gymnastics, yoga, dance, martial arts, and bodybuilding, Joseph Pilates sought to develop the optimum exercise regime for physical health, vitality, strength and well being. In collaboration with leading dance and physical exercise experts, Joseph Pilate’s techniques were refined in New York City in the 1960s.

Pilates is taught in various forms in the present day. Fundamentally there are two main approaches: Mat Pilates – in which exercises are performed using body weight and small pieces of studio equipment as necessary – and Reformer Pilates, which takes place on a Pilates machine with weighted, dynamic extensions.

Many physiotherapists are now trained in the principles of Pilates, and a Pilates routine is often prescribed to clients as part of the rehabilitation process.

Wayne Gordon, Pilates instructor, professional athlete, and TV Gladiator talks us through the correct positioning for Pilates exercises and about setting the core and pelvic floor muscles. This instruction provides the foundation for performing further Pilates exercises.

The Pilates Neutral Position

Before you begin to perform Pilates exercises, you will need to learn how to set the position of the pelvis. This is done laying on the back with the knees bent and feet flat. Start by rocking the pelvis to help understand the movements in the lumbar spine.

Wayne demonstrates how to rock the pelvis back and forth through its full range of motion and then find the neutral position. This is the position in which you will operate for all of the supine lying exercises in this series.

Beginners Pilates Exercises

Here we demonstrate some beginners introductory pilates exercises which are suitable for all levels and promote core stability and strength in the spine and shoulders.

The breaststroke exercise works on promoting stability of the thoracic spine and shoulders.

  • Lying on the front, place a rolled-up towel between the forehead and floor to maintain the natural curvature of the spine.
  • Contract the pelvic floor and aim to pull the belly button up off the floor.
  • Start with the arms by the sides and the legs straight.
  • Breathe in and as you then exhale, pull the shoulders back and arms up off the floor.
  • Hold this position before returning to the starting position and repeating.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The arm stretch exercise is a beginners level exercise which challenges the core muscles by moving both arms.

  • Start by lying on your back with the feet flat on the floor and the knees bent.
  • Find your neutral lumbar spine position and contract your core muscles.
  • Raise the arms so that they are pointing up to the ceiling.
  • Take a deep breath in and as you exhale slowly take the arms over your head towards the floor.
  • Stop just above the floor, pause and then return to the starting position.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The knee drop is an exercise which promotes pelvic stability and hip joint range of motion.

  • Lay on your back, maintaining the natural curvature of the spine.
  • Gently pull the belly button in towards the floor to activate the core.
  • Breath in and as you breathe out, slowly lower the leg out to the side, maintaining control throughout.
  • Maintain a stable, neutral pelvic position.
  • Slowly return the leg back to the starting position.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The clam which is an exercise to promote pelvic stability and hip joint range of motion.

The clam exercise should be performed for 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions. This is performed on the side and try to maintain the natural position of the spine. It is important the neutral position is maintained and the exercise is done in a slow and controlled manner.

Place a towel under the head to maintain the straight neck and bend the knees, feet together. Tilt the pelvis and pull the belly button in towards the spine. breath in, breath out and then raise the top knee, maintaining control and ensuring you don’t roll backwards. Slowly lower and repeat.

Intermediate Pilates Exercises

Intermediate pilates exercises which are suitable for most athletes who are comfortable doing the beginners ones. TV fitness expert Wayne Gordon demonstrates and maintaining perfect technique is the thing to aim for.

The shoulder bridge exercise increases glute (buttock) strength and pelvic and lumbar spine control.

  • Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.v
  • Start by breathing in and pulling the tummy button in.
  • Breath out and start to peel the back off the floor, starting with the tailbone and lifting up as far as comfortable.
  • Hold the shoulder bridge for a few seconds and then reverse the movement.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The single-leg tabletop is an intermediate level exercise which aims to improve pelvic and lumbar spine control and stability during leg movements.

  • Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Set your lumbar position and contract your core muscles.
  • Breathe in and as you exhale, move the weight of one leg onto the heel.
  • Lift the foot off the floor, leading with the bent knee until the knee is directly over the hip and the shin is parallel to the floor.
  • Hold this position for a few seconds before slowly returning to the start.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions

The advanced leg stretch which works the hip abductor muscles such as gluteus medius, whilst maintaining the stability at the pelvis and lumbar spine.

  • Lie on the side, position a towel between your bottom arm and your head to maintain the neutral position of the neck.
  • Bend your lower leg for stabilisation, keeping the upper leg straight.
  • Place the hand of the top arm on the floor in front of your navel.
  • Set the core muscles, breathe in and as you exhale, raise the top leg away from the bottom one.
  • Hold the top position for a few seconds, before slowly lowering back to the floor.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The swimming exercise is an advanced exercise as it uses both the arms and legs to challenge the control and stability of the entire back and pelvis.

  • Lie on the front, position your arms on the floor above your head.
  • Have the forehead resting on a towel and pull in the belly button and contract the pelvic floor.
  • Take a deep breath in and then as you exhale, raise one leg and the opposite arm just off the floor.
  • Hold for a few seconds before slowly returning to the floor and repeating with the other leg and arm.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The leg and arms slide exercise which is an intermediate exercise, designed to challenge and build on the stability of the pelvis, lumbar and thoracic spine with both arm and leg movement.

  • Lie on the back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Find your neutral position and contract the core muscles.
  • Start with the arms pointing up to the ceiling (palms facing in).
  • Breathe in and then as you exhale, slowly slide one leg out and take the opposite arm over your head towards the floor.
  • Remember not to arch the back as you move further into the movement.
  • Move as far as comfortable, hold this position and then return to the start and repeat.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The leg slide exercise promotes stability of the pelvis and lower back during lower limb movements.

  • Lying on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor, maintaining the neutral position of the spine.
  • Gently pull the belly button in and contract the pelvic floor.
  • Put the weight on the heel of the foot you are using.
  • Breathe in and as you breathe out, slowly slide the heel along the floor to straighten the leg.
  • Remember to maintain control of the pelvis and lower back as you do so.
  • Once the leg is almost straight, breathe in again and as you exhale, move the leg back to the starting position.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Advanced Pilates Exercises

These exercises are more advanced and require a higher level of strength in order to perform them with the correct technique. Instructor Wayne Gordon demonstrates exercises which are probably of more benefit to most sportsmen and women.

This leg circles exercise is an advanced level exercise. It starts with the legs raised and challenges the stability of the pelvis and lumbar spine by taking the leg out to the side.

  • Start in a lying position, on your back with the feet off the floor, knees bent and shins parallel to the floor.
  • Pull the tummy in and contract the pelvic muscles.
  • Take a breath in and then as you exhale take one leg out to the side.
  • Hold the position for 2-3 seconds before returning to the centre and alternating legs.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The four-point kneeling exercise is an advanced exercise as it uses both the arms and legs to challenge core stability, as well as being in a kneeling position.

  • Position yourself on all fours, with the knees in line with the hips and the hands underneath the shoulders.
  • Gently pull in with the belly button and contract the pelvic floor.
  • Breath in and as you then exhale, raise one leg and the opposite arm.
  • Hold for a few seconds, before slowly returning back to the starting position.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The single-leg bridge is a progression from the bridge exercise which works on improving the stability of the pelvis and lumbar spine whilst using the leg and glute (buttock) muscles for power.

  • Lie on the back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Bring the feet in close together, set your lumbar position and contract your core muscles.
  • Breathe in and as you exhale start to peel the back off the floor, starting with the tailbone, all the way up to the upper back.
  • Then lift one leg from the floor and extend the knee.
  • Hold for a few seconds, before slowly returning the leg to the floor and lowering your back down.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

This exercise is a progression of the single-leg bridge exercise. It is an extremely advanced exercise as it focuses on using a single leg to support the body, whilst incorporating arm movements and maintaining core control.

  • Start in a lying position, on your back with the feet flat on the floor and knees bent.
  • Raise one leg off the floor and position the arms pointing up to the ceiling.
  • Lift the buttocks off the floor using, slowly peeling each section of the back off the floor.
  • Take the arms back over your head towards the floor.
  • Return to the start position, maintaining complete control throughout.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The scissors exercise is an advanced exercise which promotes stability of the pelvis and lower back during lower limb movements.

  • Laying on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor, maintaining the neutral position of the spine.
  • Gently pull the belly button in and contract the pelvic floor.
  • Breathe in and as you exhale lift the toes of one foot so you are just on one heel, before lifting the leg off the floor so that the shin is parallel to the floor.
  • Do the same with the other leg.
  • From there, breathe in again and gently lower one leg towards the floor so that either the toes(easier) or the heel (harder) touches the floor.
  • Return the leg to the top position and repeat with the other leg.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

This exercise is a progression of the scissors exercise, as it starts with the legs in an elevated position to make it more challenging.

  • Start in a lying position, on your back with the feet off the floor, knees bent and shins parallel to the floor.
  • Pull the tummy in and contract the pelvic muscles.
  • Take a breath in and then as you exhale lower one foot towards the floor.
  • Bring the leg back to the start position and immediately take the other foot down towards the floor.
  • Aim to perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.
This article has been written with reference to the bibliography.