Updated: Jan 12
Have you been thinking about getting back into shape for months, you’re looking for new ways to accelerate your fitness through targeted workouts, or just getting back to moving? Pilates offers what you need: intense or rehabilitative exercises that are safe, effective, and will get your heart going. Let’s have a look at some top Pilates movements to help support you goals this year! (You can guess one of them, because Emily swears by them for full body strength...)
No Pilates workout is complete without the hundred! This exercise is intense as it pumps blood through the body while you focus on isolating, engaging, and using the abdominal muscles and arms. Here are 3 different ways you can practice the hundred, depending on your fitness level.
Beginner/Prep Variation: Lying on your back on a mat or soft surface, knees bent and feet on the floor. Inhale to prepare, then exhale and curl up the head neck and shoulders, reaching the arms out long towards your feet. Begin to pump the arms up and down about 2”, actively pressing the palms down on the pump as if you were having to press through thick molasses. Your breath as you’re pumping the arms will inhale for 5 pumps and exhale for 5 pumps. Continue, working up to 100 pumps, then roll back down and relax. *If your neck fatigues during this exercise, lower the head at any time, then bring it back up if/when you’re ready.
Intermediate Variation: Lying on your back on a mat or soft surface, lift one leg up to table-top position (90 degrees at the hip and knee), then on an exhale, bring the other leg up to meet it. Gently squeeze the legs together to help better engage the core. Keep your stomach flat and imagine drawing your belly button in as if you were trying to zip up some really tight jeans! It’s hard! Curl up the head, neck and shoulders and begin pumping the arms as in the beginner variation, working your way to 100 pumps breathing in for 5 and out for 5. *You can lower the head at any time if your neck begins to fatigue.
Advanced Variation: For the advanced variation, you will begin the setup just as in the first 2 variations: Legs in tabletop, curling up into a crunch position, arms reaching long. From here, you’ll extend the legs to the ceiling, then keeping the legs straight, begin to lower the legs down towards the floor until you are just hovering the legs a few inches off the ground. If this is too intense, just lower the legs to the point that you feel challenged, but you’re not losing control of the abs (*If you lower the legs too far, you will see the abs raise or “pooch”, or feel the low back arch). Once the legs are at the desired level, externally rotate the legs taking the heels together but the toes apart (Pilates “V”), gently squeeze the legs together, then begin to pump the arms, breathing, working towards 100 pumps!
Rolling Like a Ball
Rolling like a ball is a fun, fast paced exercise that works the deep abdominal muscles and truly challenges whole body awareness and control. The rocking movement back and forth, also gives a nice stretch or massage to the muscles along the spine.
Begin by sitting at the front of your mat, looking back before you begin to make sure there’s nothing behind you that you could roll into and also that you have enough mat to cushion the spine along the way.
Pull the knees and feet in towards you by wrapping the arms around the outsides of the legs and grasping your ankles. The legs will essentially be in a “frog” position with your heels together and knees apart. Tilt the pelvis back slightly allowing the feet to just hover off the floor. Bring the gaze down towards your belly button.
To begin rolling, simply start rocking back, maintaining your tight rounded (or ball) position, rolling back onto the shoulder blades, then rolling back up towards seated position, stopping just prior to the feet touching the floor. Hover the feet and pause to gain control of the movement and repeat rolling back again. Work up to 10 reps! *Make sure you don’t roll so far back that you are putting pressure on the neck – shoulder blade height is ample!
Planks/ Side Planks
This is the one Emily swears by! Planks work your entire body with particular focus on torso and shoulder strength. A well-executed plank position is key to staying safe while getting the most out of this workout. Beginners and Advanced moves can make them as challenging or supportive as you need.
Planks: Start kneeling on your mat with the forearms resting on the ground, palms facing in creating the number 11 with your arms. From here, you can step the feet back into your plank position. If this is ample challenge, continue to hold your plank here! If you want more challenge, come up onto the hands with your index fingers pointing forward, fingers spread wide and gently gripping the mat with your fingertips as if you were going to pull the mat up into the palms of the hands. Step the feet back into the full plank position and hold. You can set your hold time to whatever your body can tolerate with perfect form, but if you’re not sure, start with 10 second holds, then work your way up to 1 minute!
Side Planks: Beginning with the forearm plank for a more modified approach, you’ll kneel on your mat and come down to the forearms as in the first basic plank setup. The forearms will then rotate in, switching to a horizontal position with 1 arm right above the other (imagine an = sign). The elbows will be slightly narrower here lining up the elbows with the fist of the opposite arm. Have a sense of pressing yourself off the floor through the arms and shoulders. Step the feet back into the plank position, then lift the left arm off the floor and twist the torso left. The left arm will reach towards the ceiling and the legs will stagger on the floor ending with the left foot in front of the right foot, creating a wide, steady base. The right elbow should be directly below the shoulder joint. Press through the right forearm and slightly lift your top hip up to the ceiling which will activate the obliques. Hold for desired amount (10 seconds to 1 minute). De-rotate the body returning to your forearm plank and switch sides. To make the side plank more challenging, you’ll start the basic plank on the hands instead of forearms, and continue through the steps as in the first variation. You’ll feel a lot more balance and shoulder challenge in this position. Once in the full side plank position, you can take the top arm up over the head to create a nice stretch through the entire side body.
Swan/ Swan Dive
The swan and swan dive focus on thoracic extension and elongation of the spine. You’ll also feel a pretty intense shoulder stability challenge! The benefit of the swan is that it gets us out of our forward, rounded posture that we so often hang out in on our computes, in our cars, on our phones, etc…
Swan Prep: Lying on your stomach with the forehead hovering over the ground, legs reaching long. Have the sense of a gently pressing your pubic bone into the mat to engage the lower abs and protect your low back from too much extension. Bring the hands, palms down, directly under your armpits with the elbows reaching towards the ceiling (we like to call this cricket arms!). Begin to slowly lift the chest off the mat, palms staying planted on the ground but almost having a sense of sliding the hands up as if to push the mat out from under you. This slight movement will help you access the lower shoulder stabilizers like serratus anterior and lats! Your gaze will follow along with the spine, typically looking no higher than the top of your mat. Slowly lower back down to rest and then repeat 5-8 times.
Full Swan: The full swan setup is just like the prep but the hands will be placed a bit higher than the shoulder and also slightly wider. If you have any pinching in the shoulder while setting up, take the hands a bit wider again and see if this alleviates the discomfort. Start lifting the chest, pressing up with the hands as before, but this time coming all the way up onto the mid thigh. Make sure you maintain a nice gentle curve through the spine and avoid hanging into the pelvis. If the pelvis starts to drop you’ll usually feel the low back doing all the work. Keep a small pelvic tilt to avoid going into the lumbar spine too much. Slowly lower yourself down by bending the elbows, keeping them close to the body. Repeat 5-8 times.
Swan Dive: The swan dive is the most challenging variation because it adds not only speed, but a lot more impact work for the shoulders. From your swan prep position, you’ll then extend the arms overhead with the hands wider than your shoulders, palms facing down. Remember to engage the lower abs here by gently pressing the pubic bone into the mat. Begin lifting the chest allowing the straight arm to slide slightly in towards you, coming into extension or a full swan position. The hands will begin to slide back up as you drop the torso down to the mat, coming down onto the chest, head will just hover, feet and thighs will left off the floor, creating an arc position momentarily. With the momentum of the drop, the arm will then make a small circle out and back as you start to rock back up, catching yourself in the extension or full swan position. Repeat by sliding the hands up again dropping the torso as before. Repeat 3-5 times. *After all swan variations, feel free to sit back into child’s pose when you’re done for a nice stretch to the back muscles.
Swimming is a great extension challenge that not only incorporates shoulder stability and thoracic extension, but speed it up and you can also get the heart pumping!
Swimming Prep: Start by lying on your stomach with your forehead resting on the floor, the arms extended over the head and the legs reaching long. Slowly raise the opposite arm and leg up off the floor. It’s ok if they only come up a little bit. Remember to keep the belly button pulling gently in and the shoulders sliding out of the ears. Lower the arm and leg and switch sides. Repeat 3-5 times. If you feel any discomfort in your shoulders, you could also do this lying on a long box to take you a little off the floor and create less shoulder flexion.
Swimming: Once you’ve warmed up, you can progress into the actual swimming exercise which initially, is very similar to the prep exercise. To begin, you’ll set up just like the prep, on your stomach with arms and legs extended. Lift the chest up off the floor, keeping the gaze down to prevent over extending the neck. While holding the chest and head up, begin to lift the arms and legs as before. Repeat 5-8 times alternating opposite arms and legs.
Swimming Advanced Variation: The final variation continues with the same movement as before, and if tolerated, lift the chest even higher along with the arms and legs. The gaze will come up slightly as well. While “fluttering” the arms and legs, the final challenge adds lifting and lowering the head and torso. Imagine you’re actually swimming and having to come up for a breath. To increase the challenge even more, you can start to swim faster as well as add a tempo, having to keep the arm and leg movements to a metronome. Try to continue this movement anywhere from 20 seconds to 1 minute. As in our last extension exercise, feel free to sit back into child’s pose when finished to give the back a nice stretch!
Whatever difficulty level you need to start with, these exercises are sure to be challenging for many workouts to come!