How to Do a Better Pilates Hundred

In the Pilates hundred, we have dynamic exercise that strengthens the abdominal muscles, stimulates the breath and circulation, and really engages the whole body. It also happens to be, for many, one of the more difficult and frustrating exercises in the Pilates mat work. However, the hundred can be a challenge worth meeting -- if we can figure out how to make it work for us instead of against us.

Below are 10 tips that might help you make better friends with the hundred. They won't all apply to you but there may be something here that will shift your experience of the hundred into the harmonious, body warming, blood, and oxygen circulating, body toning, ab workout that it can be.

Wake Your Body Up First

The hundred comes first in Joseph Pilates classical mat exercise sequence and most of us end up placing it near the beginning in our workouts and classes. Even if you modify it, the hundred is a lot of work. I suspect that Joseph Pilates was in a perpetual state of being warmed up, but for those of us coming into a workout from a sedentary activity like sitting at a computer, it's not fair to expect our bodies to jump into a long abdominal contraction with a heavy duty breathing pattern. The hundred will warm you up -- that is part of the benefit of having it at the beginning of a workout -- but do yourself a favor and wake your body up with some simpler warm up exercises first.

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Make Sure You Know the Exercise

The full hundred, advanced, Courtesy of Peak Pilates

This might seem like a no-brainer, but many of us plunge into exercises where we really aren't exactly sure of the choreography -- we figure we will get the details as we go along. That approach might work with some of the simpler exercises so long as you understand Pilates fundamentals and principles, but it won't work with the hundred.

The hundred is a coordination exercise from beginning to end and you have to have your intention clear from the start. It's very hard to correct it once you are in it. In fact, if you come up into hundred position and you are uncomfortable -- say your back is straining up off the mat or your abs are poofing out, don't try to fix it mid-hundred. Go back down and reset your position. Tips below will help you do that.

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Prioritze the Breathing

In each Pilates exercise, it is important to consider what the essential points of the exercise are. The hundred is very much focused on the breath -- how it stimulates the body from inside and drives the coordinated movement. If you have to let go of something to accommodate something else, as we often do when we modify exercises, don't let go of the full breathing pattern in the hundred. We will talk about more modifications, such as the tabletop legs pictured, later that will make that easier to do.

The breath in the hundred has to be deep, but your abs are going to be in a deep, held contraction so you do need to understand lateral breathing. Breathing deeply and evenly will also help you calm your mind and integrate the exercise (rather than feeling like a "frantic penguin" as some people have described it).

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Engage Your Abdominal Muscles Before You Move

The hundred requires a deep scoop of the abs and it is really hard to get those abs scooping once you've already loaded them with a pelvic stability challenge from the weight of the legs, and an upper body curl as well.

Just before you lift upper body and legs, let the exhale help you pull your abs in deeply and lengthen your spine along the mat, then continue that length along both ends to curl up and lift the legs.

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Nod Your Head

Don't Leave Your Head Back, (c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

Your head is very heavy. If you leave your head behind as you come up into the hundred, you will end up straining your neck (see photo). The head nod is an opening and lengthening at the base of the skull and along the neck as it carries the line of the spine out through your head. This is very different than jamming your chin to your chest, which you don't want either. If you initiate the upper body curl with the head nod, you will come up much more easily and your ribs will settle down into the scoop more comfortably as well.

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Roll to the Base of Your Shoulder Blades

Don't come up too high.. (c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

We talked about the head nod lengthening and opening the back of the neck. The curl up continues this motion and deepens the scoop of the upper abs so that you are curled up to the base of the shoulder blades. Your ribs will come together slightly and pull down into the scoop. If that action doesn't happen, you may end up in a fold-up rather than a scoop and your upper body will be up too high. The photo shows this problem well.

Connect to the Backs of Your Arms

The hundred performed with a higher arm pump. Courtesy of Benjamin Degenhardt

The pulse of the arms is a bouncy move that has a lot to do with the backs of your arms being connected to the power of your back. If you get that, it will open your chest, free your breathing and make the exercise more whole and core-connected.

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Adjust Your Leg Height Appropriately

the Pilates hundred
(c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

If the weight of your legs is straining your back or pulling your low back off the mat you do need to raise your legs and build strength to take them lower. There is no point in doing the exercise if your legs are straining your back.

The ultimate version of the hundred is to have the legs held at eye level. That takes strength and finesse, but you can get there. The exercise is easier the closer your legs are to 90 degrees. From there you can experiment with opening the hips and taking the legs lower while maintaining your abdominal contraction and your low back on the mat (this is not a neutral spine exercise!). The leg height shown here is about 45 degrees which is a good working height for many people. You can also choose to do the exercise with your legs in tabletop position, a good option for beginners.

Traditionally, the hundred brings the upper body and legs up from the floor simultaneously. You can, however, begin with your legs in tabletop or at 90 degrees then lower them after you curl up. These modifications work well when you intend to have your legs between 90 and 45 degrees. Once you start taking them lower than that, some people find that it is actually easier to bring the legs up from the floor.

Remember, the important point is that your body gets stronger, not how low your legs are.

Move into Your Midline

pilates stance
The Pilates Hundred in Pilates Stance. Amanda Edwards / Getty Images

There is a lot going on in the hundred. One of the way to simplify and gain control of the exercise is tune into your midline: Squeeze the inner thighs together, plug your arms into your shoulders and hug your body into your midline. Try it. The exercise will be easier.

Sometimes turning the legs out in Pilates stance, as shown, will help you get the feeling of squeezing the legs into the midline and will give you little lift under your bottom. The hundred is often taught with the Pilates stance variation.

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Get More Help

Pilates Exercise - The Hundred
Pilates Exercises Video - The Hundred.

If you are having trouble with this or any other Pilates exercise, your best option is to work on it with a Pilates instructor.

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