When you hear the word Pilates, do you casually dismiss it with the underlying assumption that the practice is complicated and requires flexibility? This preconceived notion could not be further from the truth! Pilates is the ninja of the fitness world—it’s the sneaky, intelligent, and athletic method of exercise that will shape and sculpt your body with an emphasis on targeting the deep core muscles that connect your entire body.
Let’s be real for a second—one of the reasons Pilates is so intriguing is that it looks like you aren’t doing much. You only need to properly do 5-10 reps of each exercise, but these moves will do wonders for building strength. One of the things that reduces Pilates’ intimidation factor is that the focus is on going at your own pace and practicing proper form and alignment. This workout is about YOU, not about keeping up with others or simply trying to make it through to the end.
Unroll your mat or find a soft surface like carpet or grass and try these five beginner-friendly must-do exercises.
Lie flat on your back with legs bent into a tabletop position: knees over hips, shins parallel to the floor, and arms by your sides.
Curl head and chest up and hover with your arms about two inches above the mat.
Begin to pump the arms up and down (2-3 inches).
Inhale for 5 counts.
Exhale for 5 counts.
Continue the Inhale/Exhale combination for 10 sets.
If holding your head up strains the neck, keep your head flat or place a rolled up towel underneath for support.
Focus on drawing the abdominal muscles in and up along the spine to keep the movement controlled and out of the lower back. This is a fantastic way to strengthen the core muscles, warm up the body, and even stimulate circulation.
To make this move more challenging, extend the legs out to a longer angle. Double check that abdominals are deeply scooped in and active.
Half Roll Down
Sit upright with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, place your hands gently behind your thighs.
Inhale and lift the spine up tall by drawing the abdominals in.
Exhale, round and lean back to straighten arms, drawing the core muscles in toward your spine.
Inhale, uncurl and return forward.
Exhale, sit tall.
Repeat 5 times.
The entire exercise is about working the different shapes of the spine while controlling the movement from the core.
Focus on your core muscles throughout the movement.
To make this more challenging, lighten your fingers so you are barely touching the backs of the thighs. This will help challenge your core muscles. To reduce intensity, lessen the range of motion and if need be, sit on a towel for comfort.
Single Leg Stretch
Set-up: Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on ground. Extend one leg toward the ceiling.
Trace a small circle on the ceiling with the lifted leg. Think about moving from one shoulder, down around to the other shoulder, and pausing in the center.
Repeat 5 times in each direction.
Keep the hips squared and even.
The deeper you scoop your abdominal muscles in, the less “hip dancing” you’ll experience.
Keep good posture by actively pressing your hands into the mat to keep the shoulders from curling forward off the mat.
If you tend to veer over to the less flexible side, slightly bend the straight circling leg to help support the lower back and stay out of the hip flexors.
Set-up: Lie flat on back, arms by your side, lift legs up to the ceiling and touch the feet together creating a slight diamond shape.
Lower legs a few inches toward ground.
Actively draw your abdominals in.
Lift your legs back up toward the ceiling.
Repeat 8-10 times.
This exercise targets those tricky lower abdominals, so make sure the entire focus is on scooping the core muscles in. The range of motion can be one inch if need be—just focus on those abs.
If the lowering action is too difficult in the lower back or hips, focus instead on slightly rocking the tailbone under you and lifting the legs and hips up an inch toward the ceiling and lowering back down. It’s as if someone is holding your toes and lifting your hips up and down.
Set-up: Lie flat on your stomach with your legs together and hands stacked like a pillow under the forehead.
Draw your core muscles in toward your spine.
Lift your head and chest up about an inch.
Lower your head and chest back down.
Repeat 8 times.
Imagine a rope coming out from the top of your head and lengthen the body as if this rope is being gently pulled when you lift. Do not crank your body up from your back. It’s about staying in a long line.
The movement is controlled from the core. Imagine a tack under your navel and do not let your abdominal muscles touch the tack – keep them engaged!
Do not push up to straight arms. The maximum you should push up with your arms is into a 90 degree angle.
Place your hands under your armpits and press gently down with hands to lift body up.
Lift the legs straight up off the floor either by themselves or at the same time you lift the chest.
Bonus: Side Leg Series — Circles
Set-up: Lie on one side with your head resting in your hand and legs extended at a slight angle in front of your body. Rest the other hand in front of the body for support.
Lift the top leg up to hover at hip height.
Circle the leg forward, up, back, and around. (The circles should only be as big as you can control without hips dancing around.)
Repeat 5 times in each direction.
Flip to your other side and repeat.
Reach out from your toes and lengthen from the top of your head to keep the hips from scrunching up.
The deeper your abdominal muscles are engaged, the greater control over the exercise you will have.
This strengthens the gluteus medius, which helps tone the outer leg, lift the booty, and support the lower back.
Lie your head flat on the arm if propping up is too much on the neck.
Try to incorporate these five moves into your day—whether it is during your morning home or gym routine, workout regimen, or pre-bedtime wind down. They won’t take more than 10 minutes and your body will thank you.
Andrea Speir is the face of DailyBurn’s Pilates and has starred in two top-selling DVDs, Trim, Tighten and Tone (2014) and Perfect Pilates Body (2013). This spring, her first studio Speir Pilates will open in downtown Santa Monica, fusing classical Pilates with modern cardio and intense circuit training: speirpilates.com.