At-Home Practice

Your Mat Pilates Cheat Sheet: Exercises for Every Level

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Think you need lots of money or fancy equipment to practice Pilates? Prepare to get schooled.

Like many of us, I’ll never forget my first a Pilates Mat experience. Having been a straightlaced cardio queen, running and spinning my heart out on the regular, I sauntered into class feeling confident in my athletic abilities...albeit a little intimidated. I quickly understood that I’m neither naturally flexible nor coordinated. At the end of that hour-long Mat class, after taking every modification thrown my way (“bend your knees”; “keep your head down”; “just breathe!”), I was humbled to my core — literally.

Twelve years later, I’m not only measurably more flexible and graceful in my movement, but I still regard the Mat exercises — a sequence of 34 body-weight exercises devised by Joseph Pilates in his aptly titled book, Return to Life — as some of the most challenging work within the Pilates repertoire.

Benjamin Degenhardt, Pilates Anytime teacher and founder of 360° Pilates, backs me up. “The Pilates Matwork is an important part of the original Pilates method. The Mat is where most people begin their exploration of Pilates, only to learn that the system of Pilates Mat exercises is one hardest pieces in the Pilates puzzle to master,” he says. “We have to find high levels of coordination and control within ourselves to successfully practice on the Mat.”

Despite its difficulty, it’s hard to argue that the Mat repertoire is anything but genius. “I love that the Mat exercises, if done in the full sequence, truly address the body in its entirety and progress logically from the Hundred to the Push Up."

Plus, you can’t beat the bang for your buck. “The Mat exercises can be done anytime and anywhere, as long as there’s enough space to move and enough protection for the spine (a towel or mattress will do when on the road),” Benjamin points out. “On a physical level, the benefits include strength and mobility-building as well as improved circulation, body awareness and uniform development of the body.”

The advantages of a regular Pilates Mat practice don’t end there, either. Studies have found that it can result in increased athletic performance, improved mindfulness and mental well-being, better balance, and even relief from low-back pain.

Although Benjamin says the ideal is a full Mat workout three times a week, even just a few minutes of regular at-home practice will work wonders. “I keep my own practice to under 40 minutes, but I honestly think that even five minutes of constructive movement can be incredibly effective,” he says.

Before you get started on the movements below, keep these three tips from Benjamin in mind:

1. Listen to your breath. “It can be confusing to coordinate breath properly with the movement, but my rule of thumb is, if you can’t do it and breathe, don’t do it. Pay attention to your ability to breathe (especially when things get challenging) and notice when your body decides to hold it.”

2. Honor your body. “That means not competing with anyone around you, and not competing with your own performance in previous or other classes. It also means that sometimes, movement will manifest differently in your body than we see in pictures or videos.”

3. Less is more. “As trite as it sounds, focusing on greater detail rather than greater movement ranges makes for a more nuanced practice and greater body awareness.”

Ready to unroll your mat? You bet you are. Read on for Pilates Mat exercises you can do in your living room.

THE WORKOUTS

BEGINNER

The Hundred
Lie on your back with your arms reaching long by your hips, and your legs long and together. Curl up to the tips of your shoulder blades, and then extend your legs to 45 degrees. Pump your arms up and down, as you inhale for 5 counts, and then exhale for another 5 counts. Repeat the cycle 10 times. (Too difficult? Do the exercise with your legs resting on the mat, or with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.)

Half Roll Down
Sit tall with your knees bent and feet sit bone–width apart on the floor, and your hands behind your thighs. Curl your tailbone under and roll back until your arms are straight. Roll back up to start. Do 6 reps.

Shoulder Bridge
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet sit bone–width apart on the floor close to your pelvis, and arms pressing into the mat by your sides. Curl your tailbone under, and roll your spine off the mat sequentially. Slowly roll back to start. Do 6 reps.

Rolling Back (aka Rolling Like a Ball)
Sit with your heels as close to your buttocks as possible, squeeze your heels together, and hold onto your ankles with your hands. With your knees as wide as your shoulders, your head between your knees and spine in a tightly rounded position, slowly roll back until you reach the tips of your shoulder blades, and then rock back to start with control. Do 6 reps.

Swan
Lie facedown with your legs together and arms by your sides. Stretching out in all directions, lift your head, chest, arms and legs. Continue to lengthen (it’s a small lift), and then return to start. (Make it easier by spreading your legs to hip width.) Do 6 reps.

Swimming
Lift back into the Swan position, and then “flutter kick” your arms and legs in a reciprocal motion. Do 10–20 sets.

Don’t know these movements? Check out this tutorial and this one, too.

INTERMEDIATE

Hundred (see Beginner workout)

Roll Up
Lie on your back with your arms overhead, legs together and feet flexed. Lift your arms, head, neck and shoulders to sequentially roll up. Stretch over your legs, actively keeping the rounding of your back. Roll down with control. Do 6 reps.

Shoulder Bridge (see Beginner workout)

Single Leg Circle
Lie on your back with your palms pressing into the mat. Extend one leg long on the mat, foot flexed, and your other leg toward the ceiling with your thigh turned out. Circle your leg toward your midline, and then around for 5 reps. Reverse the direction for another 5 reps. Repeat on your other side.

Rolling Back (see Beginner workout)

One Leg Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees into your chest, and curl up to the tips of your shoulder blades. Place your right hand on your right ankle and your left hand on your right knee, and then extend your left leg out on a diagonal. Inhale as you pull your bent knee into your chest and reach out with your straight leg. Inhale again as you switch legs. Exhale to repeat. Do 6–10 sets.

Double Leg Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees into your chest and hands around your ankles, and then curl up to the tips of your shoulder blades. Extend your arms by your ears as you simultaneously extend your legs forward, reaching in opposite directions. Return to start, hugging your knees in tight. Do 6–10 reps.

Spine Stretch
Sit tall with your legs extended wide and arms forward at shoulder height. Bring your chin to your chest, and then roll down your spine as you reach your arms forward, keeping them in line with your shoulders. Stack your spine to return to start. Do 6 reps.

Saw
Get into your Spine Stretch position, but extend your arms out to your sides. Twist from your waist to one side, keeping your hips even and reaching your pinkie fingers toward your toes. Return to center, and then repeat to your opposite side. Do 6 reps.

Swan
(see Beginner workout)

See some of these exercises in action here.

ADVANCED

Hundred (see Beginner workout)

Roll Up (see Intermediate workout)

Shoulder Bridge (see Beginner workout)

Single Leg Circle (see Intermediate workout)

Rolling Back (see Beginner workout)

Single Leg Stretch & Double Leg Stretch (see Intermediate workout)

Spine Stretch & Saw (see Intermediate workout)

Swan Dive

Lie on your stomach with legs together and hands placed by your head. Lift your abdominals away from the floor while sending your tailbone to the floor. Press through your hands into Swan, maintaining a long spine and lengthened neck. Release your arms straight to the side as your body rocks forward. Maintaining the arc position of the body, the legs will lift off the Mat. Rock back onto the thighs, lifting the chest, and maintaining the extension and arc position of the body. Repeat.

Teaser
Lie on your back with your legs together and arms overhead. Curl your upper body off the mat as you simultaneously lift your legs, coming into a V position. Reach your arms forward and your legs long. Lower back to the mat, coordinating the movement so your head and heels land at the same time. Do 3–5 reps.

Swimming (see Beginner workout)

Kneeling Side Kick
Come to a kneeling position with your shoulders above your hips and your legs slightly apart. Extend one leg out to your side with the inner edge of your foot pressing into the mat. Bring your opposite hand to the floor under your shoulder, with your other hand behind your head, lifting your leg off the mat. Extend your leg behind you, and then kick your leg forward twice and back again. Do 5 reps. Repeat on your other side.

Side Bend
Get into a Plank position, and then bring one hand underneath your chest and roll your feet and body to your side as you lift your top arm toward the ceiling. Hold for a breath, come back to Plank and repeat to your other side. Do 3–5 reps on both sides.

Push Ups
From a standing position, roll down, and then “walk” your hands forward into a Plank position. With your elbows back, lower into a push-up, and then press back up. “Walk” your hands back toward your feet, and then roll up. Do 3 sets of 3 Push Ups.

About the Author

Amanda Altman

Amanda Altman is an NYC-based editor and writer, not to mention "Mommy" to two adorable boys. She has been fully immersed in the Pilates world for more than a decade.


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