6 Fundamental Pilates Exercises

Sam Harris-Hughes
6 Fundamental Pilates Exercises

Never done Pilates before and want to know how to do it? Or have you done Pilates but need to brush up on some of your technique?

Get yourself ready to take on the 7 Day Pilates Challenge or your next class with this comprehensive guide below. These exercises build the fundamental techniques for just about all Pilates exercises.

The key to effective Pilates training is precision and control. Nail these exercises and you’re halfway there. But before you move, you need to know where you start. So get your mat out and have a lie down (in the neutral spine position that is!)

Neutral Spine Position

This position is one of the most important underlying concepts of the Pilates method. It refers to the position of the spine and pelvis that works with the natural curves of the spine to create the healthiest posture.

To find this position, lay on your back with the knees bent, feet flat on the floor the width of your sits bones (those two bones in your bum that you sit on). You should be in a straight line with your arms at your sides reaching toward your feet.

Get your shoulders as wide as they can be without letting the base ribs lift off the floor. Relax in this position so there is no tension in the back muscles and front of the hips. Your two hips bones and pubic bone should be all on one level, parallel to the floor.

Here, most people will have two natural arches in their spine; one in the lower back and one at the neck. These curves in the spine function to absorb shock and reduce strain on surrounding muscles and ligaments. Variations to these curves are what can lead to pain in the back, neck/shoulders and can radiate out to the rest of the body.

This is why, in Pilates, we choose to often work in this position to strengthen the muscles that support it. Here are the six fundamental Pilates exercises to get you to a good start.

1. Breathing, Printing and Imprinting

Ok so this is kind of 3-exercises-in-1. But these exercises teach you how to do the Pilates breath, activate the pelvic floor and core muscles and how to use the abdominal muscles to mobilize your spine – pretty much the most important stuff!

Step 1. Breathing - Lay on your back in Neutral Spine. Breathe in through the nose, into your back and sides. You should feel the sides of your ribs and back expanding outward, rather than your belly or front of your ribs lifting upward.

Breathe out allowing the ribs to draw toward one another and the waist to narrow. Repeat 4-6 times.

Step 2. Printing - On the next exhale, slowly and gently engage the pelvic floor muscles, (known as printing). On the following inhale, slowly release the pelvic floor muscles until they are fully relaxed.

Note: During this step, you should always remain in the Neutral position. There is no external movement when engaging just the pelvic floor muscles. Repeat 4-6 times.

Many of you have probably just asked yourself “engage my what? And HOW?” This is pretty important stuff to understand so let’s take a minute to look at it.

Your pelvic floor is the hammock-like muscles that lie deep inside the bowl shape of your pelvis. When you engage the pelvic floor muscles, the bottom of the hammock rises up towards the stomach, giving the sensation of lifting.

Here are some cues that might help you engage your pelvic floor:

  • Imagine trying to stop the flow of urine half way and also trying to stop yourself from passing wind. That’s your pelvic floor working.
  • Alternatively, visualize trying to draw your pubic bone and tailbone toward one another, and also your two sits bones. Imagine these four points coming closer together and then lifting upward into your stomach.
  • Make sure you always engage your pelvic floor slowly and with control and not forcefully gripped on as hard and fast as you can. Complete control throughout the entire contraction and release is key to having a strong pelvic floor.

Don’t worry if you don’t feel anything happen at first. The sensation will come when the strength builds. Just be sure you don’t over-do it by tensing the 6-pack muscles or obliques so that you feel something. This is incorrect, and you’ll never truly build your core strength.

Step 3. Imprinting – On the next exhale, repeat step 2 (printing) and then pull your belly button in towards your spine, allowing your lower back to flatten and pelvis to tilt, imprinting the spine into the mat.

With the following inhale, return the lower back and pelvis to neutral, relaxing the muscles. Repeat 4-6 times.

Tip: Make sure you always work in order…start the breathe out, gently engage the pelvic floor, then draw the belly button in flattening the lower back. It’s also very important to make sure the abdominals don’t push out, or dome, to do this movement.

2. Pelvic Curls

This is a wonderful exercise that builds the connection and stability in the core, works the glutes, and gets mobility in the spine.

Step 1. Lay on your back in the Neutral Spine position, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

Step 2. Breathe in to prepare. Breathe out to imprint the spine (as in previous exercise) then peel the spine off the mat one vertebra at a time, lifting the pelvis and butt high off the floor but keeping the shoulder blades on the floor.

Be careful not to arch your back, but rather keep your abdominals tight, and your pubic bone tilted up toward your belly button. Hold this position for the breath in.

Step 3. Breathe out as you roll back down, again articulating through the spine, until you all the way back to neutral position. Repeat 4-6 times.

3. Chest Lifts

Similar to sit ups, but with more control, making them SOOOO much more effective.

Step 1. Lay in the Neutral Spine position. Hands behind your head with the fingers interlaced, elbow slightly off the ground and shoulder down away from the ears. Pelvic floor gently engaged throughout the entire exercise.

Step 2. Breathe in to prepare. Breathe out and slowly lift the head and shoulders off the ground, no higher than the tips of the shoulder blades, whilst keeping the pelvis and lower back in neutral. Keep the head heavy in the hands so avoid straining the neck muscles.

It’s very important that the stomach is pulled flat and not pushing out. The aim is to do this movement without moving the pelvis or pressing the lower back into the floor. If you can’t stop your tummy from pushing out, do the entire exercise with the spine imprinted into the mat (as in Imprinting exercise).

Step 3. Breathe in to hold the chest lift. Breathe out to slowly lower down. Repeat 6-8 times.

4. Single Leg Lifts

This is a great exercise for training core muscles to provide stability to the lower back and pelvis.

Step 1. Lay in Neutral Spine, with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms down at your sides. Pelvic floor muscles engaged throughout.

Step 2. Breathe in to prepare. Breathe out and float one leg to a table top position (90 degrees), keeping the abdominals flat and without moving from the neutral position.

Step 3. Breathe in to hold the position. Breathe out and lower the leg back down to the start position, again keeping the abdominals flat and spine in neutral.

Step 4. Repeat on other leg. Repeat 3-4 times each leg.

One you have mastered this, you can lift the second leg to table top before lowering the first one, so both legs will then be at table top position. Then lower one leg at a time.

5. Spine Twist

This is a rotation exercise for the lower spine. However, it is also about control and working the abdominals and obliques and less about flexibility.

Step 1. Lay in Neutral position with both legs at table top (90 degrees) and arms out to the side on the floor about 45 degrees to the body. Knees squeezed together and pelvic floor engaged.

Step 2. Breathe in and rotate the spine by taking the legs to the right, to between about 1 and 2 o’clock (ie. Not too far over to the floor). The left side of your pelvis should be lifted off the ground, the knees should still be exactly beside one another, and the left shoulder blade glued to the floor.

Step 3. Breathe out and pull the belly button in to help drag the legs back to the start position.

Step 4. Repeat to other side.

Tip: If you’re finding it difficult to hold the legs at table top to do this movement, you can keep the feet on the floor or on top of a fitness ball if you have one. Just be sure to still keep your knees together and beside one another when you rotate to the side.

6. Hula (Chest Lift with Rotation)

Works those obliques and say hello to ‘V’ muscles!

Step 1. Begin in a chest lift but with the hands on top of one another with arms straight and pointing between your knees. Be sure your pelvis is still in neutral and pelvic floor is engaged.

Step 2. Breathe in to prepare. Breathe out and rotate the upper part of your spine so that your hands are now reaching just past the outside of one of your knees. Don’t cheat by moving your legs or just your arms! Think of you ribs rotating around your spine to do the movement.

Step 3. Breathe in and return to the start position.

Step 4. Repeat other side and repeat 3-4 times on each side.

Tip: If your neck begins to feel strained whilst doing this exercise, put the hand behind the head and relax the head in the hands.

These all may seem like a lot to take right now especially if you've never tried Pilates before, so join me in my Pilates for Beginners class and I'll guide you through your first steps. Let's do this!