When Pilates burst onto the fitness scene in the 1990s, some brushed it aside as just another wannabe-yoga workout. But those who tried it soon learned the differences between the two forms of exercise: Both yoga and Pilates promote flexibility, but Pilates places more of an emphasis on physical conditioning while yoga stresses spiritual and mental well-being. Developed by a German athlete in the 1920s, Pilates includes exercises performed on a mat or with a special machine.
Timea Presley, head Pilates instructor at Mint in DC’s Adams Morgan, started doing Pilates after a long dance career. She says Pilates can help non-dancers develop the same flexibility in their joints.
“Pilates is a holistic approach to working out,” Presley says. “It focuses on balance, strength, flexibility, and mobility around the joints. So you usually leave the class feeling strengthened, mobilized, stretched, and rejuvenated.”
If you’re not looking to beef up, Pilates is great way to tone your muscles. Try this five-exercise mat workout made for Pilates beginners. Presley says it’s a great morning workout and short enough for those who are in a rush.
Keep in mind that Pilates isn’t about speed but control. “You should perform the exercises at whatever speed allows you to perform the movement without losing stability,” Presley says.
Exercise 1: The Hundred
Muscle area: Core, spine, shoulders
Reps: One set of 100
Lie on your back and lift your legs, knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Inhale.
Exhale as you lift your neck and shoulders from the floor and reach your arms forward, so they’re parallel to the ground. Move your arms up and down rapidly, keeping your gaze above your knees. Inhale five times through your nose, then exhale five times as you continue to move your arms up and down. Synch your arm movements with your breathing. You have completed the exercise when your arms have moved up and down 100 times.
This exercise increases stability and endurance. While you’re doing the Hundred, focus on working your core. Avoid any tension in your neck.
Exercise 2: One Leg Circle
Muscle area: Hip abductors and abs
Reps: One set of five to eight circles in one direction, then another five to eight in the other.
Lie on your back. Extend one leg and lift the other straight in the air. With your toes pointed, rotate the lifted leg in a medium-size circle. As you circle, make sure both sides of your torso maintain contact with the floor. Rotate the hip five to eight times in one direction, then do another five to eight counterclockwise. Switch legs and repeat.
This exercise is a great substitute for your everyday ab exercises, says Presley, “since it takes so much effort to keep the torso stable as the leg circles.”
Exercise 3: Breast stroke
Muscle area: Upper and lower back, shoulders, glutes
Reps: One set of eight to ten
Lie on your stomach. Start with your arms at your side and inhale. While exhaling, glide your hands forward along your sides, bringing your arms straight in front of you. Then inhale, lifting your chest off the floor and bringing your arms back to the side of your body, as if you’re doing the breast stroke in water. After eight to ten reps, keep your chest and legs lifted, with your arms at your side for a few seconds. Then relax.
If you notice any tension on your lower back, don’t lift your upper body as high during the exercise.
Exercise 4: Saw
Muscle area: Hip joints, core, back
Reps: One set of three on each side
Sit with your legs straight out and spread a little wider than shoulder width apart. Sit straight up. Raise your arms out to the side so they’re at shoulder height. Inhale as you rotate your torso, reaching your right arm toward the left foot. Exhale as you lean toward your toes, reaching beyond the pinky toe with your hand. Inhale as you sit up, and exhale as you return to starting position. Repeat, switching sides.
You can bend your knees if this position is too difficult.
Exercise 5: Side Kick
Muscle area: Hip, back, core
Reps: One set of ten
Lie on your right side with your right arm extended. Rest your head on your arm.
Create some space between your waist and the floor. Your bottom leg should be slightly in front of you. Lift the top leg so it’s in line with your body. Place your left hand on the ground for support.
Flex the foot of your lifted leg. Inhale and bring your leg forward. Inhale as you bring the leg back to starting position. Repeat ten times. Switch to your left side and repeat.
Be sure to maintain control, and don’t overextend the rotation of the leg.