SB Note: this article was originally published in 2016, but updated for formatting in 2023 by the StyleBlueprint editorial team.
We’ve partnered with the Pilates gurus from Club Pilates in Birmingham, Alabama and with artist, textile designer, and owner of Cotton + Quill, Mary Catherine Folmar (known for her hand-illustrated fabrics and wall coverings) to bring you a fabulous, core-strengthening Pilates workout — complete with illustrations.
These exercises can be done at home with a mat and in just 15 to 20 minutes. “We spend a lot of time hunched over in our modern culture,” says Club Pilates instructor Lindsay Booker. “Whether we’re at a desk all day or just spending too much time on Instagram, we’re wreaking havoc on our backs. In Pilates, we strive to restore balance and flexibility in the spine by working it in all directions — flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation. And we cover all of them in this workout.”
This series covers a few basic moves central to the Pilates method, so it’s a great way to dip your toes in Pilates, a practice that strengthens the spine and abdominal core. Through focusing on deep muscle building around the body’s central support column, you’ll enjoy better posture, balance, flexibility and strength — without the wear and tear that comes with running or jumping up and down in aerobics classes. And did we mention you can do these in the privacy of your own home?!
So, don your favorite workout threads, grab a mat, and give these six Pilates moves a whirl!
6 Basic Pilates Exercises That You Can Do at Home
1. The Hundred
Benefits: The Hundred is the first exercise in Joseph Pilates’ original order. It works the abdominal and respiratory muscles and the arms at the shoulder joint.
- Bring your legs into a tabletop position and lift your head, neck, and shoulders. Lower the back down into the mat — keeping the navel pressed toward the spine and the ribs lowered in and down towards the hips.
- Take a deep inhale and begin pumping the arms up and down, keeping wrists straight and elbows soft. Repeat, deeply inhaling and exhaling as you pump your arms up and down.
Reps: Do a total of 100 breaths.
Tips & Modifications: Lower your head if you feel your neck is straining or want more work in the lower abs. Bring the legs up to a 90-degree angle for an intermediate option and to a 45-degree angle, as shown in the illustration, for a more advanced one.
Benefits: Bridging works the posterior chain, massages the spine and opens the hips.
- Lie on the mat with arms at your sides.
- Take a deep inhale to prepare, and exhale as you peel the spine off the mat, one vertebra at a time, until the knees, hips, and shoulders are in a straight line.
- Take a deep inhale, then exhale as you roll the spine down, one vertebra at a time, until your spine is back on the mat. Gently reach the sit bones toward the heels, keeping your back on the mat and imagining your spine lengthening.
Reps: 5 to 8
Tips & Modifications: To make this more challenging, keep the pelvis level and bring one leg straight toward the ceiling, as shown in the illustration, and add some leg circles at the top for some killer glute work! If you have a back injury such as a herniated or bulging disc, avoid articulating the vertebra and instead lift the pelvis.
3. Back Extension
Benefits: Back Extension is the opposite of hunching over a computer or staring down at your phone — and it feels so good! It is the one exercise Club Pilates recommends doing every day, without fail!
- Lie on your belly with your forehead on the mat and arms glued to the sides.
- On an inhale, lift the head, shoulders, and chest — keeping the collar bone wide and opening the sternum. Imagine your shoulder blades hugging the spine and sliding down in a V toward the tailbone.
Reps: 5 to 8
Tips & Modifications: The abdominals should always be engaged, and the back of the neck should stay long, keeping the head in alignment. Avoid over-extending the spine if you have spondylolisthesis. If you feel this in your lower back, lift the navel and drop the pubic bone.
4. Open Leg Rocker
Benefits: Open Leg Rocker challenges the core and massages the spine.
- Begin balancing on sit bones with knees into the chest.
- Bring legs to an open V and hold both ankles, keeping the back straight and the collar bone wide.
- On a deep inhale, come into a deep C curve by scooping the abdominals inward, drawing the bottom rib to the hip, and roll backwards onto the shoulder blades.
- Exhale as you roll back up to sit bones, avoiding using momentum.
Reps: 5 to 8
Tips & Modifications: Avoid using momentum or relying on a rocking motion. Really engage your muscles and let the contracting of the muscles guide the rocking motion. It’s a lot harder than it looks! This exercise isn’t safe for those with back injuries, so skip this one if you have a bulging or herniated disc.
5. Single Straight Leg Scissors
Benefits: Single Straight Leg Scissors work the abdominals and stretch the hamstrings.
- Begin with legs at a 90-degree angle and shoulder blades lifted off the mat. Set your gaze on the upper inner thighs.
- Pull one leg toward your face, drop the other toward the floor, pause, and switch. Be sure to hold the calf or thigh — never the knee — and keep the legs as straight as possible. Move with your breath, keeping the core stable and the belly hollowed.
Reps: 10 to 20 for each leg
Tips & Modifications: Lower the head if you have neck issues or tension. Keep the lower back down to protect the spine when your legs are in the air unsupported.
Benefits: Planking is a must in all of Club Pilates’ classes. These side plank variations get a rotation of the spine and lateral flexion of the torso, ultimately strengthening the obliques.
- Hold a side plank with feet staggered or stacked, keeping a plum line from ear to ankle.
- Imagine you are between two panes of glass as you lift and lower your hips toward the ceiling and the floor.
- You can add “thread the needle” by twisting the obliques and lats, reaching the top arm under and across the body. Your gaze follows the moving arm, keeping the hips facing forward.
Reps: 3 to 5 on each side
Tips & Modifications: Drop to your forearms if you have wrist issues. If the shoulder girdle is not strong enough, leave the bottom knee on the mat and extend the top leg.
Now, drink your water because we’re betting you’ve challenged some new muscle groups with this core-strengthening workout! Way to go!
Thank you, Mary Catherine Folmar of Cotton & Quill.
And thank you to Club Pilates Birmingham owner, Lindsay Booker, for providing this fabulous workout routine!
Check out StyleBlueprint’s Instagram for inspiration from around the South!