Mat Pilates workout: 4 best exercises to get you started

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The term Mat Pilates is usually just used to mean exercises that don’t use Pilates machines. Although the original Pilates exercises weren’t done standing (apart from the push-up, which starts from standing), many Pilates classes have evolved to include standing work. So, if you go to a Mat Pilates class, you won’t necessarily be on a mat the whole time. You might, for example, do some standing work for balance, spine flexibility and upper body posture without a mat. This mini routine is all done from a lying position, though. A fitness mat isn’t essential, but you need some sort of cushioning for your spine. A folded blanket or quilt should be fine.

mat pilates mini workout

The Pilates principles

Pilates created his method around some basic principles: breathing, concentration, control, centring, precision and flow. “Centring” is the principle that we should have strong core muscles to support the spine and stabilise the body. Exercises 2-4 in this routine are based on original Pilates core strengthening exercises. Exercise 1 isn’t an original Pilates exercise but follows Pilates principles.

Smoothies in less than a minute

Mat Pilates routine

Mat Pilates routine

Please see here for general exercise safety guidelines.

Understanding neutral pelvis

To do Pilates, you need to understand pelvic alignment. The pelvis hinges on the spine to allow movement. The natural resting position should be “neutral”, that is not tilting forwards or backwards. Lack of activity, too much time spent sitting and other lifestyle factors can lead to bad pelvic alignment. In women, especially after pregnancy, the pelvis is often in a forward tilting position, accompanied by poor abdominal tone. Doing mat Pilates properly will help to correct this and strengthen the core abdominal muscles. In exercises like heel taps and single leg stretch, although the movement is in the legs, you need to concentrate on keeping the core engaged. The core muscles should be working to keep the pelvis in the neutral position as the legs are moving. Here’s how to find neutral pelvis:

Mat Pilates how to find neutral

Exercise #1 heel taps

This isn’t an original Pilates exercise, but it’s popular in mat Pilates as well as in regular gym and class programs.

Mat Pilates heel taps

  • Lie on the floor with your legs in the air, hips and knees at 90 degrees.
  • Exhale as you contract your abs to keep your pelvis in the neutral position and lower one foot to the floor. Now inhale and exhale as you bring your leg back up to the starting position and repeat with your other leg.
  • Make sure you maintain the neutral pelvis position all the way through, otherwise your core muscles won’t be working.

Exercise #2 Pilates roll up modification

The original Pilates roll up is similar to a full sit up with straight legs. Fitness programs usually avoid straight leg curls and sit ups. This is because bending the knees and putting the feet flat on the floor puts the lower back in a much safer position. You need very good core control to do the full Pilates roll up safely. This modification starts in the upright position.

Mat Pilates roll down

  • Sit on the floor with your legs straight and heels pressed into the floor. Your back should be straight, with your shoulders relaxed down. If you have tight hamstrings (muscles at the back of the leg), then it may not be comfortable to sit with a straight back. If this is the case, then bend your knees slightly.
  • Exhale as you engage your core muscles and start to roll backwards. Stop when your back is at about 30 degrees to the vertical, as shown in the picture above. Take a breath and then exhale as you reverse the movement.
  • Make sure your heels stay touching the floor.
  • Keep your head in line with your spine – don’t lift your chin up

Exercise #3 Single leg stretch

This is a slight modification on the original Pilates exercise. In the original exercise, the hands hold onto each leg as it comes into the chest. Here, the hands are supporting the head, which helps to avoid neck strain.


  • Lie on the floor with your legs in the air, hips and knees at 90 degrees.
  • Lift Your head and shoulders from the floor and support your head with your hands, elbows out to the side.
  • Engage your core muscles and make sure they keep the pelvis in neutral throughout the exercise.
  • Exhale as you extend your right leg out straight, at an angle of about 45 degrees, at the same time bringing your left knee into the chest
  • Inhale and exhale as you reverse the movement.

If you find that 45 degrees is too low and your lower back is arching as you extend your legs, then adjust the angle as necessary.

Smoothies in less than a minute

Exercise #4 Rolling like a ball

This is also an original Pilates exercise. If you find the full exercise too much, start with the modification. Make sure you have enough cushioning for your spine, or this will be uncomfortable.


  • 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, exhale as you engage your core muscles and roll backwards
  • When your upper back is on the floor, take a breath and exhale as you 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

If your abs aren’t strong enough to do this yet, then use this modification:

  • Get into the starting position.
  • Keeping balanced on the hip bones, alternate touching right then left foot to the floor.

For the 10 minute workout, do 3 sets of 12 reps (that is, do each exercise 12 times, then repeat the whole sequence twice more).

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Related to Mat Pilates:

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