I’m pretty evangelical about Pilates — in fact, I’d go as far as saying Pilates changed my life! And I’m not overexaggerating! So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share my favourite 5 Pilates exercises with you.
A quick disclaimer to say that I am not a trained Pilates tutor. I practiced for almost a decade with my amazing professional instructor Natalie (who oversaw these movements as we photographed them).
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Pilates Exercises List
I could definitely list lots more than five too but these are the basic Pilates exercises that I do on a daily basis — and the ones that I attribute to reducing my back pain and making my body strong.
You can do these basic Pilates exercises at home; they’re super simple but a brilliant way to keep your back healthy.
I’ve listed them in no particular order; although if I could only pick one to do ever again, it would be a roll down.
1: Basic Pilates Moves — The Pilates Cat Stretch
Cat stretches are one of the simplest — and gentlest — ways to keep the spine mobile.
They’re great for improving core strength and also brilliant for improving bone density in your wrists.
For a long time my lower back was so painful but practicing cat stretches every day have eased this immeasurably. These are the perfect Pilates exercises for beginners at home.
The Pilates Cat Stretch: Position 1
1. Get on to all fours; hands aligned beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
Keep your back in it’s natural position — in neutral spine.
The Pilates Cat Stretch: Position 2
2. Starting with your tailbone, start to tip your pelvis forward.
Pull your navel in towards your spine, squeeze your bottom and try to tuck your tailbone underneath, to create a rounded C shape with your lower back.
The Pilates Cat Stretch: Position 3
3. Continue to curve your spine — each vertebrae at a time — and let your head slowly drop forward; until your whole spine is arched in a cat stretch.
Push your arms into the mat for extra resistance, whilst stretching the upper back.
Keep your abs and rib cage pulled in.
Your back should be as rounded as possible.
Repeat 10 times.
2: Basic Pilates Moves — Pilates Bow and Arrow (Sitting)
The bow and arrow is one of my favourite exercises in my Pilates workout routine.
When I began Pilates, I had little (to no) movement in my thoracic spine (the upper and middle of my back).
Hours of sitting in front of a computer — and using a mouse with one hand — had made my upper back as stiff as a brick.
Initially I thought that it was destined to be stuck rigid forever but, little by little, the movement has increased and now I do the bow and arrow with ease.
The key to this movement is to try to keep your hips facing forward as you move; to endeavour to get all of the rotation coming from your back — rather than your pelvis.
You can do this movement standing too but sitting on a block is a good way to make sure your pelvis doesn’t twist.
Pilates Bow and Arrow (Sitting): Position 1
1. Sit up tall on your sit bones — a block is a useful tool to help you sit up nice and straight.
Pilates Bow and Arrow (Sitting): Position 2
2. Look to one side and begin to rotate your spine, keeping your hips to the front as best you can.
Grow tall out of your waist and start to bring your arm back — as though you were pulling back a bow.
Keep your elbow nice and high but make sure your shoulders are relaxed.
Pilates Bow and Arrow (Sitting): Position 3
3. Continue bringing your arm back and rotating your spine — with your hips facing forwards — until you reach your limit.
Don’t try to twist round any further than is comfortable and don’t strain your neck.
Return back to the original position.
Repeat 10 times on each side.
3: Basic Pilates Moves — The Pilates Dart
The Pilates Dart is a fairly recent addition to my list of favourites.
I used to really dislike it; mainly because I’d try to copy some of the other, more advanced, members in my group and — as a result — I’d end up pulling my lower back.
These days I love it. The Dart has trained me to protect my lower back and since I have more strength and stability, I’m able to do more Pilates back extension exercises like the swan and swimming poses.
It’s a brilliant exercise for back pain, as it strengthens all of the extension muscles in both the upper and lower back.
Plus it can be practiced by beginners as well as advanced students (as long as you take your time and don’t try to go to step three until your lower back can handle it!).
The Pilates Dart: Position 1
1. Lie face down on a mat with your legs together.
Place a Yoga/Pilates pad — or folded towel — underneath your forehead, to make sure your neck is properly aligned and well protected.
The Pilates Dart: Position 2
2. Take a deep breath and — as you slowly exhale — raise your head, so you’re looking down at the towel.
Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in and anchor your pelvis to the floor.
The Pilates Dart: Position 3
3. Either you can hold the stretch (as per position 2).
Or when your lower back is feeling strong enough, you can carry on to the next step.
Lift each bone of your upper back — imagine a strand of pearls, lying on a flat surface and being lifted by one end — until your chest is off the floor and you’re looking straight ahead.
You shouldn’t feel any pinching in your lower back.
Your shoulder blades will slide down your back and your arms will be ‘soldier-like’ by your side.
Your feet will lift off the floor and your body will resemble a dart in flight.
Repeat 10 times.
4: Basic Pilates Moves — The Pilates Roll Down
The roll down is something that I do everyday, without fail. It’s one of the most fundamental, basic Pilates exercises; and if you’ve been sitting still for long periods of time — in a car or at a desk — a few gentle roll-downs make you feel lovely.
Roll downs are essentially a warm-up exercise but I think they’re so much more than that!
They’re a great way of getting the blood circulating again and also a nice and gentle way to stretch and realign your spine, strengthen abdominal muscles, stretch your legs, plus they help to improve blood circulation throughout the body.
Quite impressive for such a simple movement eh?
The Pilates Roll Down: Position 1
1. Stand with feet hip distance apart, toes and hips pointing forward. Your shoulders should be back and down — but relaxed.
Stand as though you’re a skeleton hanging from the ceiling, by a string in a doctors office!!
The Pilates Roll Down: Position 2
2. Inhale, tighten your pelvic muscles and pull in your tummy to engage your abdominal muscles.
Then exhale, tilt your chin in and down (which will lengthen the back of the neck) and let your shoulders drop forward, as your start bending from the upper back.
Allow the arms to dangle (imagine that skeleton again!).
As you work your way down towards the floor, keep soft in the knees (don’t lock them — they can have a slight bend, which will take the pressure off your lower back).
Roll your entire spine forward and down, one vertebra at a time.
The Pilates Roll Down: Position 3
3. Once you’ve rolled down as far as you can (and is comfortable) — just stay at the bottom, feeling the stretch in your hamstrings and breathe deeply for a couple of breaths.
Then exhale and reverse the movement.
Roll back up one vertebra at a time, until you reach position 1.
Repeat 10 times. Or more if you’re feeling stiff!
5: Basic Pilates Moves — Pilates Tabletop (AKA The Kneeling Superman)
I love this next movement.
When I began practicing Pilates, I struggled to do position 2 successfully — I’d be wobbling about all over the place!! I had very little core strength and my balance was pretty shaky as a result.
But, after a few years of regularly doing the Pilates Tabletop (or Kneeling Superman), my core is now really strong and I’m able to hold position 3 for quite a while.
Pilates Tabletop (AKA The Kneeling Superman): Position 1
1. As with the cat stretch, get on to all fours with your hands aligned beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
Keep your back in it’s natural position — in neutral spine.
Pilates Tabletop (AKA The Kneeling Superman): Position 2
2. Extend your left leg out behind your body — toes brushing the floor — whilst simultaneously extending the right arm.
Hold the pose for a few seconds, until you feel balanced and strong.
Pilates Tabletop (AKA The Kneeling Superman): Position 3
3. Simultaneously, raise your left leg up from the floor — to trunk height — whilst raising the right arm.
Hold the pose for a few seconds.
Then reverse the action; lower your toe and hand back to the ground, then pull them in towards the body, until you’re back in position 1.
Repeat up to 10 times — then swap sides.
Pilates Exercises at Home
One thing I’d say about all of the basic Pilates moves that I’ve listed is to take your time; don’t rush.
Pilates is all about correct body positioning and good alignment. You can do Pilates exercises at home but there’s no point speeding through if your body is in the wrong position; you just won’t get any benefit.
But if you take your time — listen to your body — and make sure you’re in the right position at each stage, these basic Pilates exercises will work wonders.
It sounds gushy but Pilates has literally changed my life.
If you suffer from back pain or — even if you don’t — I highly, highly recommend it. It is a brilliant relaxant but also a fantastic way of keeping your body strong and healthy.
One thing I would stress though — be very choosy about finding a class.
Since I’ve been practicing, I’ve been to a few different classes — both home and abroad — and I can honestly say that the level of care and expertise is sadly not the same across the board. I’ve been so lucky to find an instructor — ‘Body Control’ trained — who has taught me to go at my own pace and listen to what my body is telling me.
There’s no point struggling to do an exercise that everyone else in class is doing, just because you think you should. It took a couple of years before I felt brave enough to not just follow what I was being shown — and to stop if it didn’t feel right.
So that’s it!
My favourite 5 Pilates exercises — and a brilliant little Pilates workout for beginners.
Caro Davies is a former art-director turned writer and content-creator, and editor behind UK lifestyle blog The Listed Home. She writes about home-related topics, from interiors and DIY to food and craft. The Listed Home has been featured in various publications, including Ideal Home, Grazia, and Homes & Antiques magazines.