Pilates Mat Essentials

These core principles and base Pilates moves provide mind-body benefits to participants in any group exercise modality.

by Portia Page

The great thing about the Pilates method is that it adds a mindful approach to exercise. At its core (pun intended!) are simple, foundational movements that are used in some form or another in almost all fitness classes. You probably already use some of them in your programming. By taking a deeper dive into the specifics of some common Pilates moves, you can offer your group participants additional variety and greater benefits.

Pilates Principles and Progressions

Pilates connects mind and body as one. It uses the body’s strength, flexibility and coordination to maximum advantage and requires paying attention to the body throughout each movement.

To deepen the mind-body connection, practitioners rely on six Pilates principles—breathing, concentration, control, centering, precision and flowing movement (rhythm). Using these same principles, we will look at three core movements: the hundred, the teaser and the pushup. Each of these exercises teaches participants a particular movement or movement pattern that becomes a base for more challenging movements. Here, you’ll learn the purpose, or focus, of each move and when is the safest, most effective time to include it in a workout. You’ll also learn how to prepare for and perform the base movement—and how to incorporate modifications, challenges and variations. The variations sections will explain how to adapt the exercises or progress them into other movements. This will allow you to add variety and/or to match a class to the skill level of the instructor and participants.

The Pilates Hundred

This is basically an abdominal curl with arm movements. It can be made simpler or harder just by changing a lever length or varying the arm patterns.

PURPOSE: The basic movement teaches participants how to lift the head without straining the neck. The arm movements encourage circulation and breath while warming the core muscles for harder work ahead. When done with the legs extended, the hundred provides a challenging way to work on overall core strength and coordination. The move can be modified for a variety of levels.

PLACEMENT: The hundred can be used at any point in the workout; however, it was meant to be the first exercise in a Pilates mat workout, so the warmup is a perfect place to introduce this movement.

PREP

  • Lie supine with knees bent, feet flat on floor, hands under head, and elbows bent and lifted off floor (in peripheral vision).
  • Inhale: Push head into hands and bring chin toward throat (lengthening back of neck).
  • Exhale: Lift head, neck and shoulders off mat while keeping light pressure of head pressing into hands. Lift upper body high enough so that neck doesn’t strain and gaze is between thighs or at top of knees.
  • Inhale: Reach arms to ceiling.
  • Exhale: Lower arms to hover beside hips, just above floor, keeping upper body curled up.
  • Return to starting position (supine, knees bent, feet flat, hands under head).
  • Repeat 4–6 times.

BASE MOVE

  • Lie supine with legs straight on floor, arms beside hips, palms down.
  • Inhale: Reach arms to ceiling.
  • Exhale: Lower arms (palms down) to hover just above floor, beside hips, while lifting legs and upper body off floor.
  • Lift upper body high enough to look toward toes, and lift legs high enough to be able to maintain neutral lower back or imprint position. (In imprint position, lower back is pressed flat against floor while navel is drawn in toward spine. Either way, be sure back does not arch.)
  • Pump arms up and down in 2- to 4-inch range while inhaling for count of 5 and exhaling for count of 5.
  • Repeat 10 times (100 counts—which explains why the move got its name!).

MODIFICATIONS

  • Lie supine with knees bent, feet flat on floor. Follow arm movements as described for base move, but do not lift feet.
  • Do hundred with legs in tabletop position (legs bent at 90-degree angle, knees over hips, shins parallel to floor) or with legs extended straight up (knees slightly bent if hamstrings are tight).

CHALLENGES

  • Change arm pattern by turning pinky side of hand down, and instead of pressing up and down, press in and out toward hips.
  • Add leg movements: Include small beating motion with legs (or walk legs up and down) to add coordination/intensity challenge.

VARIATIONS

To vary starting position, try standing. Take out upper-body curl and instead focus on arms staying strong and straight as they move forward and back in shoulder flexion and extension by sides of hips. The longer lever of the standing body adds challenge.

Perform this same pattern in high kneeling position (both knees on floor, upper body vertical, not bent at hips) or seated on chair (arm angle will change). These options are a great way to warm up and teach trunk stability.

The Pilates Teaser

The teaser occurs in all forms of Pilates and can be done on every piece of Pilates equipment. The base movement incorporates rolling along the spine while balancing in a seated position. It requires coordination, core strength and rhythm to master the timing and the shape at the “top” of the movement.

PURPOSE: This movement teaches spinal articulation, strengthens the abdominals and hip flexors, and develops coordination and balance.

PLACEMENT: The teaser works really well in the middle of a workout since the exercise requires students to be well-prepared in both spinal movement and core strength. With preps and modifications, though, the move can work well at any stage of a class.

PREP

  • Lie supine, legs in tabletop, arms reaching to ceiling.
  • Inhale: Lift upper body and reach hands to lightly hold backs of thighs.
  • Exhale: Continue to roll up to modified seated V-position (place hands on backs of thighs to help with lift, if needed).
  • Inhale: Pull legs closer to chest while lifting chest as spine lengthens.
  • Exhale: Release hands and straighten arms with palms down while maintaining balance between sit bones (ischial tuberosities) and sacrum.
  • Inhale: Reach hands to backs of thighs (for balance).
  • Exhale: Roll back down to starting position.
  • Repeat 4–6 times.

BASE MOVE

  • Lie supine with legs in tabletop, arms reaching overhead.
  • Inhale: Lift arms toward ceiling and slowly roll up head, neck and shoulders off mat as legs straighten.
  • Exhale: Continue to roll up, reaching arms forward and extending legs to 45-degree angle above mat. Find seated V-position and balance at top of move.
  • Inhale: Roll spine down toward floor, keeping arms reaching forward, legs long.
  • Exhale: Continue roll-down to supine position, keeping legs at 45 degrees.
  • Repeat 8–10 times.

MODIFICATION

If the lift in the base move proves to be too challenging, place the hands on the backs of the thighs to assist with the lifting and lowering portions, like this:

  • Lie supine with knees bent, feet flat on floor, arms reaching to ceiling.
  • Inhale: Lower arms toward thighs and roll upper body up.
  • Exhale: Continue to roll up to seated V-position (hands on backs of thighs to help, if needed).
  • Inhale: Lift chest and straighten spine (release arms to reach forward if they were behind thighs).
  • Exhale: Lift feet off floor to come to V-position balance.
  • Inhale: Lower feet back to floor (and reach hands to backs of thighs, if needed).
  • Exhale: Roll down and back to starting position.
  • Repeat 4–6 times.

CHALLENGE

  • From seated V-position balance at top of base move, lower and lift legs 2–4 times while keeping upper body in same position.

VARIATION

  • Perform base move one time, but on roll-down from V-position, reach arms overhead and synchronize lowering of legs to floor with lowering of upper body. Come to full supine position with arms overhead and legs stretched long and straight.
  • From here, anchor legs and lift arms toward ceiling as upper body curls up and off floor. Continue with full roll-up to seated position, arms reaching forward over thighs/floor.
  • Roll back down, then roll up again, keeping legs straight and arms overhead, into V-position balance.
  • Repeat 2–4 times.

The Pilates Pushup

The pushup is seen in many different forms of exercise (yoga, for one), as well as in most fitness classes and programs. The reason? It’s a perfect exercise to work the entire body and can be regressed and progressed for all levels.

PURPOSE: The pushup strengthens the entire body, with a focus on building upper-body strength and balance, as well as core strength and integrity.

PLACEMENT: Like the other two exercises, this movement can be done just about anywhere in the workout, especially if you start with the prep and then progress the move through modifications. To build up to the intensity and strength needed to perform the pushup with its full expression, however, the move works best as a finale (near or at the end of a workout). By placing it at the end, you can ensure that participants build the necessary skills throughout the workout to feel safe and confident in doing this exercise.

PREP

  • Start in all-fours position, knees under hips and arms beneath shoulders. Spine is neutral, and belly is drawn up and in toward spine
  • Sternum drop (scapular) pushup: With straight elbows, retract scapulae by dropping chest and then protract by lifting upward and pushing floor away. Lower back remains neutral throughout movement. Repeat 4–8 times.
  • Arm walking: Pick up right hand by bending elbow toward ribs to bring right hand toward right armpit. Place right hand back down and repeat, left. Repeat 4–6 sets. The goal is to warm the wrists, build core control and support, and work on balance.

BASE MOVE

  • Stand with feet together, firmly pressing into floor, arms reaching to ceiling, eyes on the horizon.
  • Inhale: Bring chin toward chest. Roll down one vertebra at a time, reaching arms toward mat.
  • Exhale: Lower onto palms and walk hands out in front of body until you are in high-plank position. (Balance on palms and balls of feet, with wrist stacked below shoulder on each side, legs long and straight, trunk in line from head to heels. Keep abs and glutes tight.)
  • Inhale: Bend elbows, keeping them close to rib cage, while bringing chest to elbow height; maintain long line from head to heels
  • Exhale: Straighten arms, pressing body away from floor in one long line.
  • Repeat pushup movement (elbows bend/straighten) 4–10 times.
  • Walk hands back to feet and roll up to standing position.

MODIFICATIONS

  • On roll-down from standing, bend knees as much as needed as hands reach for mat. From high-plank position, lower knees to floor and do pushup move with knees down. Hips will remain extended (not hinged) with chest centered between hands as elbows bend and straighten.
  • Alternatively, roll down to all-fours position (hands and knees) and bend and straighten elbows in this position. For an easier option, bend elbows toward thighs (i.e., weight shifts back toward heels). For more challenge, let weight shift forward, keeping hips over heels as elbows bend and straighten.

CHALLENGE

  • From high-plank position, lift right leg to hip height and pulse that leg upward while pressing back into heel of left foot on floor; breathe in sniffing pattern throughout.
  • Exhale: Lower raised leg and lift the other leg. Repeat, other leg.

VARIATION

  • Choose a modified position (on knees or on all fours).
  • From high-plank position, walk elbows under shoulders or toward floor and back up to hands, moving from high plank to “hover” (forearm plank) and back to high plank.

Challenge and Variety

Introducing Pilates moves into your classes helps attendees cross-train and reach their goals faster. It also infuses new energy into your programming. Never hesitate to expand your mind and teaching skills so that you’re current with exercise research and can confidently share your knowledge with others.

Meet our experts

PORTIA PAGE PORTIA PAGE , has been in the fitness industry for more than 27 years as a teacher, program and fitness director, international presenter, and writer. She is the education program liaison for Balanced Body® and the author of Pilates Illustrated.

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