Pilates mat exercises are a convenient way to practice this core-strengthening system when you don't have access to a studio and equipment like the Reformer. Advanced Pilates exercises are best done under the guidance of a certified instructor, but you can perform basic ones to improve flexibility, core strength and body control.
Joseph Pilates, the developer of Pilates, first created the mat system to help the German internees in an English war camp in World War I. He believed that the way for many of these bedridden colleagues to recover and regain function was to strengthen their "powerhouse," the area between your hips and shoulders now referred to as the core. Since then, the exercise program has helped dancers, gymnasts, Olympic athletes, people suffering from back pain and the general fitness goer become more functional, fit and strong.
About 50 mat Pilates exercises exist. Do this sampling for a home practice to experience some of the benefits.
Start your warmup with intentional breathing. As you lie on your back with your knees bent, breath in and feel your back imprint to the floor; hold the position as you exhale. Do five to 10 rounds of the breath.
Finish your warmup with the hundred, which is done by lying on your back with your legs extended above your hips. Lower the legs to a 45-degree angle with the floor, lift your head and shoulders and reach your arms by your hips, elevated about an inch from the floor. Breathe in short quick inhales and exhales as you pump your arms in conjunction with the breath. Complete 10 rounds of 10 inhales and 10 exhales.
The core consists of so much more than just your abdominals, but several of Pilates exercises do deal with these important stabilizing, twisting and crunching muscles. Along with the single-leg stretch, the double-leg stretch and the straight-leg variations of these moves, do the following to build up your rectus abdominis, obliques and transverse abdominis.
The roll-up trains your rectus abdominis, the front sheath of your belly, 38 percent more effectively that a traditional crunch, reported 2005 research published by the IDEA Health and Fitness Association. Its effects on the external obliques, your twisting and side-bending muscles, is even greater — 245 percent more effective than a crunch. Do the move with either bent knees or straight legs; whatever your leg position, though, be sure to make the action happen using your core, not by kicking or pedaling your legs. Your feet or legs stay grounded for the entire exercise.
To do the roll-up: Lie on your back on an exercise mat. For a bent-knee version, bend your knees and plant your feet 12 to 18 inches from your buttocks. For a straight-leg version, extend your legs long and squeeze them together. Place your arms alongside of your hips, elevated an inch or two above the floor. Inhale, contract your abdominals and roll your head, neck and shoulders off the mat. Exhale and continue to roll up, one vertabrae at a time, until you're upright and your spine makes a letter C. Inhale to remind your abs to engage, then exhale as you roll back down to replace each vertabrae. This completes one repetition. Work your way up to eight or 10.
The criss cross challenges your obliques 310 percent more than a classic crunch. As you perform the criss cross, try to lift your shoulder blade as high as possible off the mat to get the most activation.
To do the criss cross: Lie on your back on a mat, bend your knees and lift them up so their points are balanced over your hips, shins parallel to the floor. Place your hands behind your head and raise your head, neck and shoulders about an inch off of the floor. Inhale and, as you exhale, twist your upper body so that your right shoulder and armpit aims toward your left knee. Simultaneously extend the right leg at a 45-degree angle. Inhale, bring your body back to center and repeat the twist to the right with left leg extended. This is one repetition. Work your way up to 10 reps, working methodically; Pilates is about quality, not quantity.
Joseph Pilates recognized the importance of the hips in proper body function. He included numerous exercises to stretch and strengthen the area of the glutes — including the often overlooked gluteus medius — and hip flexors. The following exercises are easily performed at home.
Leg circles improve function in the hip joint. They warm up the hips and, as a bonus, use the abs and paraspinals to keep you stable.
To do leg circles: Lie on your back on an exercise mat. Extend your right leg above your hip and point the toe to the ceiling. Your left leg may either reach long in the mat on the floor, or rest with the knee bent and foot planted — go for the most comfortable and stable place for you. Imagine your big right toe is a paintbrush and begin to draw circles in one direction with the foot, generating the movement from the hip. Inhale on the downswing of the circle, exhale on the upswing. Repeat five to 10 circles one direction, then reverse. Switch legs.
Side kicks are a valuable way to train the gluteus medius, a muscle that sits on the outside of the pelvis. It's essential in walking and running form, and in stabilizing the pelvis.
To do side kicks: Lie on your right side on a fitness mat; prop up on an elbow, or lay all the way down. Stack your legs and hips and place your left hand lightly in front of you for balance. Inhale and raise the left leg as high as you can without rocking forward or back. Exhale and lower the leg. Complete 10 with the left leg, then switch to the right.
Pilates focus on the core includes the stabilizing muscles of the back. The exercises are so effective that they rival traditional medical treatments for low back pain, showed a 2014 study published in PLoS One. The following are two of the most effective exercises for back function and to alleviate back pain.
Swimming is a variation of the back extension, an exercise that works the muscles supporting the lower back. You'll use your abs, along with your hips, to execute the move.
To do swimming: Lie on your abdomen with your arms stretched past your ears and your legs long behind you, about hip-distance apart. Inhale and lift your arms, legs, chest and face off the mat. Hold for an exhale. Inhale, maintaining the lift while you raise the right arm and left leg slightly higher still. Return them to the height of the other limbs. Repeat with the left arm and right leg. Alternate for eight to 10 repetitions.
The saw teaches you functional rotation of the trunk. You'll learn how to engage both your abs and spinal muscles to facilitate healthy twists.
To do the saw: Sit on a mat and extend your legs out in front of you. Open them into a wide "V," about mat-width apart. Extend your arms to the sides of the room and balance your shoulders over your hips. Inhale and as you exhale, rotate your torso and lean slightly forward to "saw" one pinky toe off with the opposite pinky finger. Rise back up to center on an inhale and exhale, saw to the other side. Keep your arms open the entire time and avoid moving them — generate the twist from your torso. Repeat 10 twists in each direction.
Read More: 10 Surprising Benefits of Pilates