Basic Pilates – a 4 week guide to get you started

Pilates is an exercise system that was developed by Joseph Pilates around 100 years ago.  Pilates based his system around various principles which he believed contribute to having a healthy body.  These include having a strong core to support all body movement, correct body alignment and focusing on smooth, controlled movement.  The early followers of the Pilates method were elite athletes and dancers.  This means that most classic Pilates exercises are quite challenging and not suitable for beginners.  Basic Pilates or beginner Pilates programs therefore have to either modify the original exercises or use other exercises to build the skills necessary to do Pilates. This program starts by building a foundation using simple exercises.  Then it goes on to introduce some of the classic Pilates exercises.

The Benefits of Pilates

Doing Pilates benefits physical and mental health in lots of ways.  It has a strong mind-body element and a focus on breathing, which help with relaxation and mental health.  Physical Pilates benefits include:

  • A strong core
  • Flexibility in muscles and joints
  • Correct posture
  • Smooth, controlled movement patterns
  • Healthy spine
  • Improved balance

Basic Pilates – understanding neutral pelvis

Understanding neutral pelvis should be your first step.  The pelvis hinges on the spine to allow movement. The natural resting position should be “neutral”, that is not tilting forwards or backwards. It’s common, however, to have a forward or backward tilt at rest. Lack of activity, too much time spent sitting and other lifestyle factors can lead to this. Having a pelvic tilt can lead to a variety of problems, including poor posture, back pain and poor abdominal tone. The first exercise of the program is therefore learning to hold your pelvis in “neutral”.

Notes on doing this workout

Please read the general exercise safety guidelines here.

Although an exercise mat isn’t essential, you’ll be more comfortable with some sort of cushioning on the floor, folded blankets for example.  In particular, make sure you have enough cushioning for the shoulder bridge and “rolling like a ball” exercises.  The exercise instructions are below and at the end of the post you can get a printable download of the 4 week plan.

Week 1

Find neutral
Toe taps 10 on each leg
Abdominal hollowing 5 x 5 seconds

Find neutral pelvis:

Mat Pilates how to find neutral

When you are confident where your “neutral” is, you can move on to these 2 exercises:

Toe taps

In this exercise, the core muscles must hold on to the neutral position, while you lower one leg at a time to the floor.

Find neutral as described above, then take both feet of the floor and hold the legs as shown:

toe taps

Holding on to the neutral pelvis position, lower one leg to the floor. It’s important not to let the pelvis move – the core muscles will have to work to hold on to neutral. Bring the leg back up to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.

Abdominal hollowing 

ab hollowing

Abdominal hollowing is just sucking the core muscles in. You can do it in any position – standing, sitting, lying, kneeling .. but doing it in the all-4s kneeling position is good because you are working directly against gravity.

Get into the all 4s position, then suck your abdominal area in as much as you can without your back moving. Hold for 5 seconds, release and repeat.

Week 2

Toe taps 10 each leg
Ab hollowing 5 x 5 seconds
Shoulder bridge x 5

New exercise: shoulder bridge

The Pilates shoulder bridge looks similar to a glute bridge, but it’s done differently.  Whereas in the glute bridge, the objective is just to lift your hips up and down to work your glutes, with the Pilates shoulder bridge the objective is to work through the joints of your spine.  It improves mobility in your spine and core control.

Basic pilates shoulder bridge

Start by lying on the floor with your knees bent and your feet about hip distance, with your pelvis in neutral.  Now press your lower back into the floor, tilting your pelvis backwards.

Follow this movement through so that your lower back starts to peel off the floor.  You should be aiming to come into the bridge position with a smooth, controlled, curling movement.  Concentrate on working through one vertebra at a time.  You will probably find this difficult at first as parts of your spine will be less flexible.

Stop when your whole spine is lifted and your weight is resting on your shoulders. Now reverse the movement, lowering back down one vertebra at a time. Again, it should be a smooth, controlled movement, working through each joint in the spine.

Week 3

Toe taps 10 each leg
Shoulder bridge x 5
Spine twist 8 each way
Single leg stretch 12 on each leg

New exercises: spine twist and single leg stretch

The spine twist is good for core control and upper back strength and mobility.  You need to sit up with your back straight and your pelvis in neutral.  If you have tight hamstrings (muscles at the back of your thighs), you’ll find this difficult.  If necessary, bend your knees a little to allow you to sit up straight.

In the single leg stretch, your core stabilising muscles need to work hard to keep your pelvis in neutral.  Make sure that you don’t allow your back to arch.

Spine twist

Basic Pilates spine twist

Sit with your back straight and straighten your legs out in front.

Raise your arms up to shoulder height, so that they are parallel with the floor.

Keeping your back straight and your arms lifted, engage your abdominal muscles and  rotate your upper body to the right.

Come back to the centre and keep turning to repeat the movement to the left.

Single leg stretch

single leg stretch

Lay on the floor with your arms by your side, your legs about hip distance apart and your pelvis in neutral.

Bring both knees in towards your chest,  extend one leg as shown.  Your core muscles should be working to hold onto neutral (ie stopping your back from arching).

Now reverse the movement and repeat on the other leg.

Week 4

Shoulder bridge x 8
Single leg stretch 15 each leg
Spine twist 10 each way
Rolling like a ball x 10

New exercise “Rolling like a ball”

In this exercise, the core muscles should be controlling the movement, you shouldn’t be relying on momentum.  Try to make the movement smooth and controlled.

Pilates rolling like a ball

Sit on the floor. Balancing on your hip bones, bring your knees towards your chest and put your hands on your lower legs. Point your toes.

Keeping a curve in your spine and your chin tucked in, engage your core muscles and roll backwards.

When your upper back is on the floor,  contract your core and buttock muscles strongly to start to roll back to the starting position.

This should be a SMOOTH, CONTROLLED movement. The spine gradually makes and releases contact with the floor, one vertebra at a time.

The ball shape you make should stay the same throughout the movement.

Don’t roll onto your neck – start to reverse the movement once your upper back is on the floor.

Get a printable copy of the 4 week plan

Basic Pilates printable

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