Pilates Basics

I’ve been familiar with Pilates for over a decade now, but just recently started to really learn the history of the exercise.   Although Pilates may seem like a fad workout program, as it all of a sudden shot to popularity about 10 years ago (Remember Windsor Pilates?), it’s actually quite fascinating and I find it to be a great addition to anyone’s exercise program.


Last year my job sent me to get a Pilates Mat certification. Certifications typically are a weekend long (unless you are working on a 200 or 500 hour certification, like Yoga, which can take much longer).   I did my certification through PHI Pilates and can teach basic Mat Pilates classes.

I chose this organization because I really liked how it was created by Physical Therapists. They pay a lot of attention to form and being precise with the movements to make sure you are using the right muscle for the exercise.  The instructor during my certification was a Physical Therapist so it was interesting to get that perspective on Pilates.  It’s not just about “toning” or “tightening”.   Pilates can be beneficial for many other reasons!

Group Exercise

Each week I teach one full Pilates Group Exercise class that is 45 minutes long.  Two other days I teach a 55-minute class that is half cardio and half Pilates.  People at the facility I work at really like the variety that class has to offer.  If it were up to me, I’d keep the two separate as I think you need more time in a Pilates class.  However, I make it work with the time I have.

Pilates Basics

The very first thing you do is find your neutral alignment in whatever position you are in (supine, prone, seated, lying on your side, or standing). This is a very important step as it sets you up to do the exercise correctly. When you come out of neutral alignment during an exercise, it usually means that other muscles are being recruited to make the exercise easier, therefore you are not getting the true benefit of the exercise.

From PHI Pilates:

When working with the general population, neutral alignment is the most functional choice. It is the goal for a healthy and pain free posture (**However, there will be times when someone can not maintain a neutral position for whatever reason, so there are other positioning techniques that can be used.  As a fitness professional, I can not diagnose anyone, so I’d also recommend a rehabilitation professional if it were out of my scope of practice**).

Identifying Neutral Spine

The easiest and most accurate way to identify alignment is using bony landmarks on the body.  The triangles of the pelvis is what I use often.  It includes the ASIS, pubic symphysis when in supine or standing position, the PSIS and cocyxx in prone position, and the “bike seat” (ischial tuberosities and pubic ramus) in a seated position.

3 steps to achieving neutral spine

PhysioAdvisor offers these tips for achieving neutral spine (I follow these as well and it’s what PHI Pilates teaches)

Before you commence these 3 steps, begin lying on your back with your knees bent, your feet shoulder width apart and your arms by your side.

1) Lower back and pelvis

Tilt your pelvis forwards and backwards without moving your ribs, so your lower back arches fully and then flattens fully. Then try to maintain a pelvic and lower back position half way between these two extremes (i.e. a slight curve in the lower back). This is neutral spine for the lower back and pelvis.

2) Upper back and shoulder blades

Pull your shoulder blades back and down slightly, whilst maintaining a flat upper back against the floor. This is neutral spine for the upper back and shoulder blades.

3) Neck

Tuck your chin in slightly and ensure your eyes and nose are facing directly upwards. This is neutral spine for the neck.

These principles can be applied to achieve neutral spine in any position and should be integrated into all Pilates exercises.

Neutral Spine:


Notice the slight curves.  Neutral is not standing up perfectly straight like you are in the military, nor is it standing like a cheerleader with your butt out and chest pointed out arching your back.  There are natural curves to the body when in neutral.


Please read more here to see more tips for neutral alignment.  It’s a great read!

Sample Pilates Routine

The goal of maintaining neutral spine through the duration of each exercise should always be on your mind. Sometimes you drift off and get sloppy and that’s OK – it takes practice to keep the focus of proper breathing, form and alignment, and concentration of each exercise.

Breathing should be in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Making a “HA!” sound as you exhale really allows the deep abdominal muscles to contract.  Try it! 🙂

Let’s get started!

Alternate Leg Lifts: 10 each leg

Directions: Using the abdominal muscles, lift one leg up at a time on an exhale to a table top position (where the knee is over the hip).  Lower down on the inhale with control and repeat on the other leg.

Heel Taps: 10 each leg

Directions: From table top, lower one heel towards the ground using the abdominal muscles. With control, lift the leg back up.  Repeat other side.

Chest Lift (basic crunch): 12-15 Reps

Directions: Exhale as you lift your head, neck, and shoulder blades off the mat while maintaining  neutral spine.  Relax the head and neck and focus on lifting with the abdominal muscles.

100:10 sets of breath (inhale quick for 5 counts and exhale quick for 5 counts)

Directions: Starting in table top position lift your head, neck and shoulders off the mat.  Raise your arms off the ground and begin “slapping the water”.  Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in and your spine neutral.  Relax the head, neck and shoulders.

Roll Up: 5-6 reps

Directions: Start lying down with your hands reaching up towards the ceiling.  As you exhale, slowly peel yourself off the mat creating a “C” curve with your spine and using the strength of your midsection (not momentum!).   Slowly lower down, one vertebrae at a time to the start position.

Single Bent Leg Stretch: 10 each leg

Directions: From table top, place both hands behind one thigh.  Extend the other leg straight, lowering only as far as you can while maintaining neutral spine.  Alternate sides, using your breath as a guide.

Double Straight Leg: 6-8 Reps

Directions: From table top, place both hands behind thighs.  Exhale as you extend your legs out and reach your arms overhead while maintaining a neutral spine position.  Focus on keeping your abdominals pulled in.

Bicycle or Criss Cross: 10 each leg

Directions: From table top place both hands behind your head.  Extend one leg straight out while keeping the other leg in a table top position (knee over the hip).  Alternate sides while using your breath as a guide.  Make sure to keep both hips and on the mat and get the rotation from the torso.  Relax through your head, neck and shoulders.

Prone Plank Hold: 60 second hold

Directions: Start by lying on your stomach and resting on your forearms.  Curl your toes under as you lift your body up and pull your abdominals in.  Maintain a neutral spine.

Side Plank Hold: 45 second hold on each side

Directions: Start by lying on your side with your legs and shoulders stacked on top of one another.  Lift your body up so that you are balancing on your forearm and feet.  Keep the hips lifted and stacked as you continually engage the abdominal muscles.

**Remember if you can not maintain a neutral spine in any of these exercises (or other Pilates exercises) make sure to modify the movement to your needs.

Have fun!


What are your thoughts on Pilates? Do you do it regularly? 


8 responses to “Pilates Basics

  1. Yup I totally had the windsor pilates videos, and they were HARD!! My problem with pilates is the same I have with yoga, its not enough for me. Yes, its tough, and yes I sweat. But to me there is no better feeling than sprinting, jumping or lifting!! I do try and do it once a week though!

  2. This was really interesting! I have taken pilates classes a couple of times, but I’m not sure I really got the full benefit out of them- probably because I was doing the movements wrong haha. All of this is really helpful!

  3. I like pilates. I don’t do it all the time, but I enjoy it occasionally. I like how it makes my back and hips feel a little stronger and a lot more loose. That’s great when you sit at a desk all day like me!

  4. I admit that I am not a huge doer of Pilates….but only because it brings out the worst in me. I want to curse my head off the entire class because it hurts so bad. LOL Pilates does work the core like none other!

  5. I haven’t ever tried pilates but I really want to. Honestly the thing that hold me back is cost. I don’t want to pay to go to a pilates studio but I made a deal with myself that the next time I see a Groupon for it I am doing it! 🙂

    • don’t bother with a studio! Try it online at YogaDownload.com. Actually, a lot of it is similar to what you already know I bet from the moves demonstrated in this post. But “hundreds” and the holds and stuff given by instructors is invaluable – proper technique is essential!

  6. I am a Physical Therapist and a lot of my exercise rehab involves Pilates. But to me it’s not just “Pilates” – it’s simply core work! There’s a clash with yoga as well. But I definitely advocate pilates. Honestly, yoga and pilates are pillars of physiotherapy – I’m not sure which came first 😉 Core and stability work is the foundation of any rehab program.

  7. Pingback: Star of the Morning |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s