Get Pilates Strong: The First Five Exercises

Recently a colleague of mine, Benjamin Degenhardt reminded me of Joe Pilates' quote  from a 1964 article where he stated "How can we have world peace?  . . . Not one man in the United Nations can do my first five exercises!“ I’m not sure I agree entirely with Joe on this point, world affairs being what they are, but it’s certain that we’d be off to a darn good start with this simple routine under our belts.

Taking up a new exercise regime or reinvigorating your own requires you to re-commit.  Whether it’s a new schedule, a new approach or a new goal, the process of beginning again is something we all do routinely. Some prefer to take up new things at the beginning of the year or the new school year while others dive in when motivation is high regardless of the calendar. 

If you are reading this article, decide to re-commit to the first five exercises in the Pilates mat in a whole new way. My suggestions follow:

#1 Take a cue from our Yoga friends. Wake up early and hit the mat each day with the first five moves. Then hit the shower.

#2 Can't commit to the morning routine? Then make your own. For 30 days find a time of day that works for you but don't go to bed without running your reps. You don't need anything but a mat or padded floor space so no excuses.

#3 Blend it in. There's no reason these first five moves need to stay at the beginning. Since they are the foundation of every other move in the practice, repeating the sequence intermittently through your larger routine can inform and influence your form in many other exercises. As an experiment perform the first 5 moves, then the second 5 moves in your routine. Then repeat the first 5 moves before moving on to the third set of second moves. Continue this pattern until you are through with your Mat workout. Working this way for a few weeks will transform your Pilates experience.

A list of very brief instructions and images for each exercise are included below. If you think you can't tackle these moves, you're wrong. There's a version for everyone. For more complete instructions for each move, follow the links within the text. 

The Hundred


 The exercise you love to hate. Begin on your back with knees into chest or legs flat. In one sweeping move curl yourself up, with the arms and legs extended forward. Take deep full breaths as you pump your arms vigorously, inhaling for 5 pumps and exhaling for 5 pumps until you reach 100. Lower everything to the mat to finish. 

Yes you can Tip: Can't make it to 100. Don't. Do as many as you can. Stop. Then repeat. Work your way up to 100.

The Roll Up


 A real test of your abdominal control. Stretch out long with legs together and arms overhead. Raise the arms to the sky and inhale to roll up. Exhale to roll over reaching past your toes. Inhale to roll halfway down. Exhale to lower back to start, arms overhead. Repeat 5 -8 repetitions.

Yes you can Tip: Can't sit up or lower down with control? Don't. Begin seated reaching past your toes, and lower down until you can just barely control it. Pause there and round back up over your toes. Repeat going lower and deeper each time.

The Roll Over


Hello spine, meet your abs. Abs, meet your spine.  Begin with your legs straight up and your arms pressed down into floor. Lift your hips and float your legs overhead towards the floor. Separate the  legs, flex the feet and roll down your spine to bring the legs back overhead. Close the legs and begin again. Perform 3 repetitions and then reverse the leg pattern.

Yes you can Tip: Can't get your hips up to bring your legs overhead? Don't. Use your hands to help you lift up gently then slowly lower down with no help from the arms. Repeat until you don't need the hands at all.

Single Leg Circles


An un-sung hero of the Pilates Mat. This is a great move to re-commit to. Take one leg up and one down. Cross the top leg up and across your body then circle down and around and back up to center. Repeat 5 times and reverse direction. Use large but controlled movements and time your breath to exhale on the "up" portion of the circle. Switch legs. 

Yes you can Tip: Can't keep your back flat and your neck long and your bottom leg straight all at once? Don't. Bend your bottom leg and plant your foot flat. Then continue. Voila'.

Rolling Like a Ball


You are only as young as your spine right? So roll baby.  Sit with knees bent tight into the body, holding onto each ankle. Tuck your head down between your knees. Rock back upside down staying tight in a ball. Roll back up to your start. Repeat 5 - 8 times.

Yes you can Tip: Can't roll back smoothly without missing some spinal segments? Or can't come back up at all?  Don't. Start at the top and practice initiating the roll. Curl back one inch. Then two. Finally as far as you can with your abs controlling the move. Eventually you'll roll. 

Start Today

Whether you are just starting out are starting anew, these foundational exercises are on your must-do list.

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