Woman doing Pilates Hundred Move

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Curious About Pilates But Unsure How to Start? Try These 6 Foundational Moves

Build strength from the inside out with these low-impact exercises.

By Joy ManningFebruary 16, 2024


Pilates exercises have a strong emphasis on precision, form, and control, so it's understandable that they can seem intimidating to beginners. But practicing them comes with unique benefits you don’t get from many other types of workouts. “It’s a way to strengthen yourself from the inside out,” Peloton instructor Kristin McGee says. “I think of it as working in instead of working out.”

The barrier to entry is also relatively low for beginners, as you can get started with little to no equipment. So to help ease you into your Pilates practice, we asked experts to share their knowledge, including tips on how to do six beginner-friendly exercises at home.

What Is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of strength training featuring steady, controlled movements that incorporate your full body but focus on your core (aka the major muscles that move, stabilize, and support your spine). While many classic ab exercises, like crunches, work in a limited plane of motion, Pilates takes a 360-degree approach to strength training, targeting your core from every angle. “We’re used to working more superficial muscles,” Kristin says. “The muscles we work in Pilates are deep core muscles, the muscles connected with the diaphragm and our breathing.”

Aligning your breath with your movements is an extremely important part of Pilates, which is one of the reasons Anabelen Aranton, a physical therapist and certified Pilates instructor at Texoma Medical Center in Texas, suggests this form of exercise to many of her patients. “Many of my patients tend to hold their breath during other types of exercise, which puts pressure on the spine and pelvic floor,” she explains. “In Pilates, as you move your body, you move your breath, which helps calm the body and decreases pain and discomfort.”

This method of movement may seem like it’s suddenly everywhere (and it is), but it’s by no means new—in fact, German boxer and gymnast Joseph Pilates brought it to New York City in the 1920s. Since then, its proven benefits have made it appealing to a wide range of people, from competitive athletes looking to prevent injury to beginners seeking decreased stiffness. “You can modify all the movements to meet you where you are in terms of strength, mobility, and flexibility,” Aranton says.

The Benefits of Pilates

A regular Pilates routine comes with a variety of physical and mental health benefits, including the following: 

  • A stronger, more stable core. Pilates works the deep abdominal muscles and tiny muscles along your spine to stabilize your upper body and pelvis. Over time, repeating these exercises can lead to major improvements in abdominal muscle endurance, which makes it easier to do daily movements, such as picking up a heavy object from the ground or reaching for an item on a high shelf.

  • Reduced back pain. A review of 14 studies published in 2014 evaluated the impact of Pilates on individuals with low back pain and found that it can offer as much improvement in pain and functional ability as massage therapy and other forms of exercise. Of course, you should always follow medical professionals’ advice when it comes to injuries, but these findings suggest that adding gentle Pilates exercises to your routine can have a positive effect on low back aches and pains.

  • Increased flexibility. The range of motion you use while doing Pilates exercises improves joint mobility and helps stretch tight muscles, especially your hip flexors and hamstrings.

  • Improved mood. Pilates is a physical practice, but it can have a positive effect on your mental health too. A 2020 study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that 30 minutes of mat Pilates immediately reduced anxiety and increased energy in a group of 87 young adult men.

How to Do Pilates: Exercises for Beginners 

There are several forms of Pilates (classical, contemporary, and reformer—to name a few), but mat Pilates is one of the best, most accessible options for beginners looking to do at-home workouts.

“Mat Pilates uses your body weight to build strength,” Aranton says. Its emphasis on proper alignment and deep core activation make it the perfect way to learn and practice Pilates fundamentals. Here are six foundational mat exercises to try.

Pilates 100, Kristin McGee GIF | The Output by Peloton

1. Hundreds

This Pilates staple is challenging but accessible for beginners. “There are a lot of ways to make it easier,” Kristin says. “Some people feel a strain in the neck, in which case you can place your head on a yoga block or place one hand behind your head, alternating hands every 10 counts.” 

  1. Lie down with your low back pressed gently to the mat. Lift your legs until they’re positioned at a 45-degree angle to the floor. If that’s not possible, bend your knees and elevate your legs until you can keep your low back on the floor.

  2. Curl your head and shoulders off the ground and extend your arms long beside your body. Your palms should face the floor.

  3. Inhale for five counts while you pump your arms up and down. Continue pumping as you exhale for five counts. Repeat this breathing pattern while pumping your arms until you’ve reached 100 counts. 

Muscles worked: Deep core muscles, Obliques

Roll-Up, Kristin McGee GIF | The Output by Peloton

2. Roll Up

“This is great because it can prevent the back strains people get from everyday movement. It really focuses on that deeper layer of abdominal muscles,” Kristin says. 

  1. Lie on your back and extend your arms overhead on the floor behind you. Your palms should face up. 

  2. Lift your arms so they're at a 90-degree angle with the floor and continue to lift your head and shoulders. Slowly peel your spine off the floor with your chin tucked into your chest until you reach a seated position.

  3. Keep your core engaged as you fold forward over your legs and reach for your feet.

  4. Reverse this motion, slowly returning to the floor with control.

Muscles worked: Core muscles, Spine, Hamstrings

Single Leg Circles, Kristin McGee GIF | The Output by Peloton

3. Single-Leg Circles

“These teach you how to circle your leg independently of letting your hips rock,” Kristin says. Practice keeping your trunk stable during this exercise to engage your deep core. “Imagine you’re using your core to move the leg," she instructs.

  1. Lie on your back with your legs extended and your arms at your sides. 

  2. Keeping one leg straight on the floor, lift the other leg toward the ceiling. Slowly make small controlled circles with your lifted leg. Circle five times in one direction, then five times in the opposite direction.

  3. Repeat this movement with the opposite leg.

Muscles worked: Deep core muscles, Hip flexors, Inner and outer thighs

Bridge Pose, Kristin McGee | The Output by Peloton

4. Bridge

Bridges are a great way to target your glutes, which help stabilize your hips, legs, core, and low back muscles. As you do them, be sure to keep your pelvis neutral and your core engaged, Aranton says.

  1. Lie on your back and place the bottoms of your feet hip-width distance apart.

  2. Place your arms alongside your body.

  3. Bend your knees to about 90 degrees and make sure your shins are parallel to the floor.

  4. Press into your feet to lift your hips. Hold this position for 30 seconds.

Muscles worked: Deep Core, Hips, and Pelvic Floor

Dead Bug, Kristin McGee GIF | The Output by Peloton

5. Dead Bug

Dead Bug is a straightforward exercise that promotes spine stabilization and strengthens your core. If it feels too challenging, you can modify it by slightly bending your knees or abstaining from lowering your legs too far toward the ground. Looking for more of a challenge? You can also build heat by lifting your head, neck, and shoulders off the floor. 

  1. Lie flat on your back. Bring your legs to a tabletop position and lift your arms toward the ceiling so they’re in line with your shoulders.

  2. Inhale as you lower your right arm toward the floor above your head and extend your left leg so it hovers over the ground. Keep your torso firmly planted on the ground.

  3. Exhale as you simultaneously return your right arm and left leg to the starting position. Repeat this movement on the opposite side. 

Muscles worked: Core, Hip flexors, and Pelvic floor

6. Heel Taps

Heel taps are one of the most popular mat Pilates exercises, and this modifiable move is excellent for beginners. If you want to take things up a notch, speed up your movements and elongate your leg farther before tapping your heel.

  1. Lie on your back and bring your legs to a tabletop position.

  2. As you inhale, gently tap your right heel on the ground.

  3. As you exhale, use your abdominal muscles to return your leg to the starting position.

  4. Repeat this movement on the left side. 

Muscles stretched: Deep core, Hips

How Often Should You Do Pilates?

Two to three Pilates sessions per week is a great goal, especially for a beginner who wants to establish a consistent routine, Kristin says. “The workouts don’t have to be super long. Just 20 to 30 minutes is wonderful,” she adds. When you’re getting started, focus on your workouts’ quality rather than their duration.

Some Pilates enthusiasts practice almost daily, which Kristin says is OK. “Our abs are endurance muscles, so you can work them on the regular, even six days a week,” she explains. Since we engage our core muscles to some degree during most daily activities, they’re adapted to frequent use and recovery. However, you should still build time into your routine for rest and recovery.

What's the Difference Between Yoga and Pilates?

Yoga and Pilates are two low-impact types of movement that have clear similarities: Both focus on breathing, building body awareness, strengthening muscles, and stretching. While yoga and Pilates can both enhance your fitness level and mindfulness, their origins are very different. 

Yoga has its roots in ancient Indian spiritual practices. The physical movements are part of a larger system that ties into philosophy and meditation. Pilates is a newer method of movement that was developed in the last century. It's fitness-first and focuses mainly on the physical body (although, as we mentioned, it can have mental health benefits too). 

Different as yoga and Pilates may be, you don’t have to choose one or the other. Many people get a lot out of practicing both, and you can easily find a way to fit them both into your routine.

Can You Do Pilates While Pregnant?

In most cases, gentle Pilates is safe to do during pregnancy and can even benefit pregnant people when practiced safely, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The focus on pelvic floor engagement, stability, alignment, and controlled breathing can help you stay connected to your body, even as it’s changing by the day,” Kristin explains. 

Plus, strengthening deep core muscles supports your spine, which helps minimize the aches and pains that can come with pregnancy. Kristin recommends listening to your body and talking with your doctor about any concerns before jumping into Pilates (or any form of exercise) while pregnant.

How to Do Pilates at Home: Try These Simple Routines 

If you want to work out alongside Kristin or another Peloton instructor, there’s a wide variety of Pilates classes available in the Peloton App. Depending on how much time you have, these three are especially great for beginners:

Whether you make Pilates a pillar of your fitness routine or practice it alongside another type of movement, you’ll likely find it’s worth your time and energy. As Kristin says, “Pilates is a hidden gem and very complementary to anything else you do."


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