The First 10 Pilates Mat Exercises

Learn the Classical Pilates Workout

Though one will find tremendous variation in the way that Pilates exercises are presented today, there is an original traditional order to the Pilates mat exercises as developed by Joseph Pilates.

Below are samples of the first 10 exercises of a classical Pilates mat workout, including a fundamental warm-up.

Sazztastical/Flickr Creative Commons

The exercises in the traditional program create a challenging workout, especially for the abdominals. Many instructors and classes will precede this classical program with some warm-up exercises. I have also added modification reminders for each of the exercises to assist those who are beginning to develop their core strength or have physical challenges.


Pilates Hundred

The Hundred builds core strength, stamina, and coordination. To do this exercise you must fully engage the abdominal muscles as you practice a dynamic breathing pattern.

Modifications for the Hundred include working with the legs higher, or slightly bent, and leaving the head down.

There are exercises you can do to prepare for the Hundred which can help to improve your form.


pilates roll up
roll up. courtesy of Kolesar Studios

The Roll Up is a great challenge for the abdominal muscles and a wonderful articulation for the spine. It has been said that one well-executed Roll Up is equal to six regular sit ups, and is much better than crunches for creating a flat stomach.

Supported roll back and chest lift are good training exercises for Roll Up.


pilates roll over
The Roll Over. (c)2007, Marguerite Ogle

The Roll Over is one of those exercises that Joseph Pilates saw as stimulating the spine. It does involve a lot of spinal articulation, and the only way to control that is to use your abdominal muscles.

Remember, roll over goes only as far as the shoulders. It does not roll up onto the neck.


Pilates One Leg Circle
One Leg Circle Modified. (c)2007, Marguerite Ogle

The One Leg Circle challenges core stability, as one must keep the entire trunk -- including the hips -- still as one leg circles independently.

Modify one leg circle by having the non-working leg bent with the foot flat on the floor. The knee of the working leg can also be slightly bent.


pilates picture
Pilates Rolling Like a Ball. by Peter Kramer, courtesy of Kolesar Studios

The first of the rolling exercises, rolling like a ball stimulates the spine, deeply works the abdominals and tunes us into the inner flow of movement and breath in the body.

Modifications for rolling like a ball include holding the thighs behind the knees and opening the legs further out from the body. Do not do rolling exercises if you have back or neck problems.


Single Leg Stretch

Single leg stretch is often cited as an exercise that helps target the lower abs. Of course, it works the entire core, requiring strength and stamina as one maintains an upper body curve and keeps the torso stable while switching the leg and arm positions.

Modify single leg stretch by leaving your head down or working with your legs higher.


Pilates Double Leg Stretch
Double Leg Stretch. (c)2007, Marguerite Ogle

Going for even more abdominal strength and endurance, we follow single leg stretch with Double Leg Stretch. Double Leg Stretch is a graphic way to experience working from the center of the body as the arms and legs reach away and return together.


Courtesy of Peak Pilates

Spine Stretch is a Pilates mat exercise that feels really good. Though it is still a flexion exercise done with the abs lifted, the emphasis has changed to stretching the spine. Spine stretch can also be a stretch for the hamstrings as well as a moment to center oneself before moving on to more challenging exercises.

Spine stretch rarely needs much modification, but those with tight hamstrings may want to sit on a small lift or have the knees slightly bent. Spine stretch can also be done with the arms lower, fingertips along the floor.


Open Leg Rocker

This is a deep abdominal control exercise. The rolling has to come from deep within the core, not from momentum. Throwing your head back to get going, or jerking yourself up by pulling on the legs are not part of it.

For some, rolling exercises are very hard and for some, they are not healthful for the back. Open leg balance is an alternative to open leg rocker.

Edited by Alycea Ungaro, P.T., M.S.


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