Pilates uses bodyweight as resistance to tone, stretch and strengthen the body, with emphasis on your abdominals, posture and alignment. It lengthens and stretches all the major muscle groups in the body to improve flexibility, strength, balance and body awareness.
Why is it good for you?
Pilates has many benefits for both body and mind. Pilates improves flexibility while increasing your muscle strength and tone – with a particular focus on the ‘core’ muscles of the body (abdominal muscles, lower back, hips and buttocks). Other benefits include improvement in posture, coordination and balance, as well as prevention of injuries related to muscle imbalances.
Pilates increases body awareness and is also a great form of stress management, and can be a wonderful source of relaxation.
Who should try it?
Pilates caters for all ages and all fitness levels. It is important to remember to work within your own level and modify where need be.
Correct form is very important. Keep in mind your posture, alignment and core activation throughout the sessions.
How to find your ‘neutral spine’
In any pilates class, your instructor will guide you to find and maintain a neutral spine position. With practice, you will get good at finding this position and recognising how it feels in your body. The following exercise can help.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the mat. Your feet and knees should be hip distance apart, your arms relaxed by your sides.
- Imagine there is a bowl of water resting on your lower pelvis, two inches below your belly button. Relax your pelvis and lower back and try to find the point where you can balance the imaginary bowl of water, keeping your abdominal muscles flat with the belly button pulling gently towards your spine.
- You should feel a slight curve in the small of your back away from the floor. This is the natural curve of your lumbar spine.
- The fronts of your hip bones and pubic bone form a triangle that should be resting flat, approximately parallel with the floor. This is your neutral spine position.
- Inhale to prepare. Keeping the pelvis and lower back still, exhale and draw the navel in further towards the spine. Inhale to release, exhale to repeat. Repeat several times.
Beginners may wish to opt for what is called an ‘imprint’. This means simply tilting the pubic bone slightly higher than the front of the hip bones, and gently pressing the lower back into the mat.
1. The clam
Pilates clam is a simple exercise that begins to tone the hips, glutes and thighs. It also teaches pelvic stability as the leg rotates inward and outward at the hip. The clam will help you build the strength and flexibility you need for more difficult side-lying exercises.
- Lie on your side with your hips and shoulders in a straight line. Bend your knees so that your thighs are at approximately a 90-degree angle to your body.
- Stretch out your bottom arm and rest your head on it comfortably. Keep your neck long. Bend your top arm and place your hand on the floor in front of your chest for extra stability.
- Stack your hips directly on top of each other. Do the same with your shoulders. Lengthen through both sides of the waist. Use your deep abdominal muscles to keep this alignment throughout the exercise.
- Keep your feet relaxed together as you slowly rotate your leg in the hip socket so that the top knee opens, squeezing your glutes. Open the knee only as far as you can go without disturbing the alignment of your hips.
- Slowly bring your knee back to the start position.
- Repeat the clam 30 times, then change sides. Repeat this set twice.
2. The hundred
The hundred is a classic pilates mat exercise. It is a dynamic exercise for the abdominals and lungs. It requires that you coordinate your breath with the movement, and be strong and graceful at the same time. It is challenging, but the hundred is an easy exercise to modify.
- Lie on your back, finding your neutral or imprinted spine. Activate your abdominals and bring your legs to tabletop position, with your shins and ankles parallel to the floor. Inhale.
- As you exhale, fold into a contraction by sliding your ribs towards your hips, keeping your shoulders sliding down and engaged in the back. Focus your gaze towards your thighs. Hold and inhale.
- Exhale and deepen the activation of the abdominals. Extend your legs out in front.
- The lower your legs are, the more challenging it will be. Lower them only as far as you can go without shaking and without the lower spine pulling up off the mat.
- Stretch your arms out straight and low, just a few inches off floor.
- Hold your position. Take five short breaths in and five short breaths out. While doing so, move your arms in a controlled up and down manner. Be sure to keep your shoulders and neck relaxed.
- Repeat 10 cycles of five short breaths in, and five short breaths out. Breathe into your back and sides.
Variations: If this is too challenging, you can keep your head and shoulders down, or keep your legs in tabletop position instead of stretched out. You will still feel it in your core!
3. Triceps push ups
Unlike traditional military-style push ups, pilates triceps push ups are done with the elbows close to the body, which sculpts the upper back, sides and the trouble zone on the back of the arms as well as the biceps.
- From an all-fours kneeling position, draw your abdominals in and keep your shoulders relaxed away from the ears. Ensure you keep your shoulders over your wrists throughout the exercise.
- Inhale to bend the arms, bringing the forearms towards the floor, keeping arms hugged close to the body. Ensure you don’t let your weight shift back.
- Bend only as far as you can keep your chest open, body straight, butt tight and abs in. Exhale to push up and squeeze through the triceps.
- Do 8 reps and repeat 3 times.
4. Toe taps
Toe taps are an excellent exercise for targeting your lower abdominals and pelvic stability.
- Maintaining a neutral spine (come into imprint if required), bring legs to tabletop, one leg at a time, ensuring your abdominals are activated and your pelvis is stable.
- Keep your legs bent at a 90-degree angle, as if they are in a cast. Hinge at the hip and tap one leg down to the mat, then return and switch legs. The movement comes from your core, not your legs.
- Do 8 reps on each leg and repeat the set 3 times.
5. Single leg stretch
Single leg stretch is all about learning to move from the core and keeping the pelvis very stable. It trains the abdominals to control the movement, and to support and stabilize the trunk as the arms and legs are in motion. Many people find it especially helpful in targeting the lower abs. There is an element of coordination to this exercise as well.
- Lie on your back and find your neutral or imprinted pelvis. Activate your abdominals, inhale to prepare and exhale to take your legs to tabletop one at a time. Inhale again to prepare.
- As you exhale, curl up by sliding ribs to hips, keeping the shoulders sliding down and engaged in the back. Your gaze should be towards your thighs.
- Stretch your left leg out at a 45-degree angle. The right leg remains in stable tabletop position with the hands gently holding the right knee.
- Inhale as you switch legs so the left knee comes in, and pulse that knee toward you.
- Exhale as your switch legs and pulse.
- Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and your abdominals deeply scooped. Release the exercise if you are finding tension in your shoulders and neck or if your lower back is taking the strain.
- Switch legs up to 10 times. Rest and repeat the set three times.
This pilates workout was provided by Lauren Holloway from Pure Health Clubs, with moves demonstrated by Marina Perry.
Exercise safely: See your doctor for advice before starting any new exercise program, especially if you have any existing health concerns or you are just starting out. Find out more about exercise safety from the Better Health Channel.