Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Though it’s routinely patronized by the Lulu-clad, carefully coiffed, alkaline-water-drinking set, make no mistake: Pilates takes no prisoners. Adding this decades-old practice to your training protocol can help hone your competitive edge, enhance your sports performance, improve your movement patterns or simply connect you to your core. Here’s how to master the mat to take your training — and your physique — to the next level.
The Test of Time
Though it has become super trendy in recent years, Pilates has actually been around for nearly a century. Joseph Pilates, a physical trainer from Germany, originally developed a practice he called “Contrology” to aid in the rehabilitation of veterans. His methods were later adopted as the preferred conditioning protocol for dancers, and over the years, Contrology morphed into the current practice of Pilates. The original mat-based movements and fundamental tenets of Contrology developed by Joseph Pilates are still in use today, and the practice still works to coordinate and harmonize the body, mind and spirit.
“Pilates in its original form, when done correctly, should give you a balanced, synergistic body,” explains Juliet Kaska, NASM-CPT, ACE-CPT, Pilates master teacher and owner of Zen Fitness in Beverly Hills, California. “And the cool thing about Pilates is that everyone — whether you’re a 5-foot-2-inch 55-year-old woman who has never worked out in her life or a 6-foot-10-inch NBA player — is going to do the exact same exercises.” The point here is that anyone can adopt a Pilates practice and use it to succeed at his or her goal, including hikers and gym rats, runners and karate enthusiasts, golfers and grapplers.
Pilates is founded on six principles — breathing, centering, concentration, control, flow and precision. These principles apply to literally any movement pattern you can think of, even explosive plyometrics, and implementing them can correct imbalances and asymmetries. Athletes who play a dominant-side sport have the most obvious imbalances, such as golfers, tennis players, hurdlers and high jumpers. “For example, I would not ask a golfer to reduce training their swing and possibly lose that mobility, but I would instead help them work to enhance it by balancing out the muscles that have become weakened or overstretched by that consistent movement pattern,” Kaska says.
Pilates also may help you excel at your sport: A recent study published in PLOS One found that runners who added Pilates to a 12-week training program significantly improved their 5K performance and decreased the metabolic cost (calories burned) of running at a set speed. In other words, the runners who did Pilates expended less energy and were able to maintain a faster race pace. They also demonstrated increased core strength and were better able to stabilize their pelvis while running, which likely also contributed to their faster time.
And yes, Pilates does also work to make your abs pop: A classic study conducted by Michele Olson, Ph.D., compared exercises from Pilates, yoga, “standing” abs and the classic crunch and found that three Pilates moves (the teaser, crisscross and roll-up) topped the rest when it came to activation in your rectus abdominis and external obliques. Greater activation through a full range of motion translates to better gains from every move you do for your abs and obliques.
Kaska curated these moves from Joseph Pilates’ original list and training philosophy, and each targets a different area of the core, hips and shoulder girdle — areas where athletes most commonly experience issues such as imbalances and suboptimal activation patterns. Perform these moves together as a stand-alone mini-Pilates session, or sprinkle them into your regular training to target and improve your mind-to-muscle control and activation.
This move is a great add-in to your programming if your sport or activity involves rotational power and anti-rotational control, such as you might need in tennis, golf or running. This move also can be done on a reformer.
Anchor a resistance-band loop at about knee height, then kneel sideways to the anchor point with your knees hip-width apart and your hips square. Grip the band hand over hand in front of you at shoulder height, and allow your body to turn slightly toward the anchor point. “Zip up,” inhale and then exhale and keep your hips steady as you twist your upper body as a single unit away from the anchor, moving only from the center of your spine, not your hips. Inhale as you control the recoil and return to the start.
Posture is everything when it comes to Pilates, and Kaska’s favorite cue is to “zip up” your front body. “Imagine a zipper running from your pubic bone to your sternum,” she says. “Before you do a move, pull that zipper all the way up, then try to maintain that sensation through the entire move.”
Tip: The tendency (especially if you have tight/overactive hip flexors and quads) is to cheat this move by flexing slightly at your hips. Squeezing your glutes and pressing your hips forward ensures that your spine and pelvis are neutral and stabilized while your obliques do the work.
This move works your back extensors and trains core control during quick limb movements. Obviously, it’s a great move for swimmers but is also fantastic for runners and triathletes.
Lie facedown with your arms and legs extended, toes pointed, fingers reaching forward. Draw your bellybutton in toward your spine to engage your core and contract your glutes while pulling your shoulder blades down and back. Lift your arms, legs and head 6 to 8 inches above the floor with your head and spine aligned. Slowly lift one arm and the opposite leg, then switch, without rocking back and forth or side to side. Begin by alternating sides slowly and increase your pace until you are fluttering. Inhale and exhale every two to four switches.
Tip: A common mistake is to flail your arms back and forth, which causes the pelvis and upper body to rock side to side. Prevent this by anchoring your rib cage into the ground and lengthening your limbs and neck by actively reaching your fingers and toes away from each other and anchoring your shoulder blades down and away from your ears.
Kaska’s Cue: “Your arms and legs should feel weightless, as if they are floating in the air.”
This move helps you develop control through your entire core and in your hamstrings, and it trains spinal articulation at each intervertebral joint. The jackknife is a good move for divers and swimmers, and it is a great way to help you refine your toes-to-bar or harness your inner gymnast.
Lie faceup with your arms extended along your sides, palms facing downward. Lift your legs over your hips with your toes pointed and press them together tightly. Draw your bellybutton in toward your spine and, without using momentum, slowly pull your lower body up toward your head, rolling over until your legs are parallel with the floor while keeping your arms and shoulders on the mat. Quickly extend your hips so your legs are as perpendicular as possible with the floor. Then slowly roll down, placing down one vertebra at a time, until your hips meet the mat. Continue to lower your legs as far as you can without allowing your back to arch, with the goal of finishing a few inches above the floor. Raise your legs back over your hips and repeat.
Tip: Keep your gaze focused straight up at the ceiling to maintain alignment in your neck and to keep your weight on your shoulders rather than shifting it backward over your head, risking possible injury.
Note: This is an advanced-level exercise for individuals without neck injuries or sensitivities.
This move targets your deep core to develop pelvic and shoulder stabilization and upper-body postural control. This is a great move for cyclists and runners, and it can help develop better scapular positioning for dips and muscle-ups.
Anchor a resistance band about a foot above the floor and kneel facing the anchor point with your knees hip-width apart, chin level with the floor. Hold the band outside hip width with your palms facing rearward, and then press your hips forward slightly to align over your knees. “Zip up” and pull your shoulder blades down and back. Inhale deeply, then exhale and press your arms straight back as far as you can while maintaining alignment. Exhale and slowly release the resistance as you let your arms travel forward.
Tip: The pull of the resistance band will make you want to tip your shoulders forward or flare your rib cage out. Keep your shoulder blades firmly down and back, and draw your bellybutton in firmly to keep your shoulders and rib cage from popping up or arching your lower back.
This move targets the deep core muscles as well as the more superficial ones and the obliques, and it helps develop rotational end-range control. This is a great move to enhance the effectiveness of your regular core training and is especially great for martial artists.
Lie faceup with your legs lifted over your hips and your knees bent 90 degrees. “Zip up” and place your hands behind your head with your elbows flared. Inhale deeply, then curl your upper back and shoulder blades off the ground and hold here as you exhale and twist to the left, reaching your right armpit toward your left knee while extending your right leg straight out above the floor. The lower you extend your leg, the harder this move will be. Slowly twist back through the center and on the other side.
Tip: Imagine a bowl of hot soup is sitting on your pelvis. To keep it from spilling, rotate your body only from the belly-button up to keep your pelvis stable.
Kaska’s Cue: “You want to keep your rib cage from popping out, so as you inhale, imagine your rib cage is outward and down into the mat instead of up into your belly.”
Pilates on a Budget
Not everyone has the bucks to shell out for private reformer classes. Fortunately, there are plenty of free or low-cost workouts to be had. Look on YouTube or Amazon Prime for some great options, or try one of these affordable on-demand Pilates programs:
Pilates on Fifth