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Everything you need to know about Pilates for beginners

For folks accustomed to grunt-inducing workouts such as HIIT or powerlifting, it can be all too easy to see Pilates as child’s play. After all, if it doesn’t involve lightning-quick burpees or monstrous weight plates, how challenging can it truly be?

But as the saying goes, the eyes can be deceiving. “Pilates looks delightful, but it’s really an intense experience because you’re asking your body to use muscles you don’t even know you have,” says Amy Jordan, the creator and CEO of WundaBar Pilates. “Within a few minutes of class, you’re sweating and you’re trembling.”

Simply put, it’s a workout style that hurts so good and, as it turns out, has plenty of benefits to offer. Here, Jordan and other pros break down the basics of Pilates for beginners, sharing a brief guide to the common exercises, tips that’ll help you incorporate the method into your routine, and a workout that’ll leave your entire body quivering.

What is Pilates?

Created by Joseph Hubertus Pilates in the 1920s, Pilates was originally named “Corrective Exercise,” later rebranded to “Contrology,” before ultimately taking on its founder’s moniker, according to the Pilates Method Alliance, a not-for-profit professional association. “Contrology means the control of the body, and that pretty much tells you what his original intention for the method was: to learn how to control the body efficiently, connecting the mind to the body,” says Sonja Herbert, a classically trained Pilates instructor and the founder of Black Girl Pilates.

To achieve that control, you’ll work through specific exercises designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body, paired with focused breaths, according to the PMA. The moves can be performed on a mat with or without props (ie dumbbells, resistance bands, a small inflatable ball, a yoga block). Or, they can be done on machines that provide added resistance during strengthening exercises and assistance during stretches, such as the Reformer, Jump Board, or Wunda Chair, says Jordan.

Regardless of the exact exercise or how it’s performed, the core should be driving all of your movement, says Jordan. “You can think of Pilates as an exercise form that initiates everything from the core,” she says. “Everything we do at WundaBar and in Pilates, in general, is for functional movement, so when you walk out of the studio, you’re walking taller, you’re walking stronger, and you have better posture.”

Pilates
Image: Courtesy bruce mars/Unsplash

Breath also plays a key role in Pilates, says Herbert. Your breath is your source of power. Only once you tune into your breath, can your body move efficiently throughout the workout, she explains. That’s why Herbert starts all of her classes off with deep breathing, encouraging her clients to slowly inhale and exhale in the way that feels best for them.

Common Pilates exercises for beginners

Whether you’re testing out an in-person class or following along with a virtual workout, you’ll likely power through a few common Pilates for beginners moves. And some of them may already be a staple in your workout routine, such as high planks and side planks. The plank is a head-to-toe exercise that’s “the fastest way to a fully functional, strong core, as well as to connect to the back of your body,” says Jordan. Holding your arms, legs, and spine at length in the plank position can help strengthen your posterior chain (the muscles on the backside of the body, from the back of your head all the way down to your heels) and improve posture, she explains. (Score all those benefits by adding these plank variations to your abs routine.)

Along with tried-and-true abs exercises, you may also perform more unique core-crushing moves such as “the hundred,” which is a static combination of a crunch and a V-up paired with arm pumps and quick breaths, and “the roll up,” which involves rolling into a seated position from supine and back down again, says Herbert. To target the lower body, you might lie on your back and do single leg circles in the air or sit with your legs extended forward and try “the saw,” twisting at the torso to touch opposite hand to opposite foot, she says. Other lower-body Pilates exercises for beginners may be more familiar, such as the lunge or the glute bridge, adds Jordan. In each workout, you’ll target multiple “planes of movement” or angles, performing exercises lying on your back, standing tall, and on your hands and knees, with the goal of helping you move with ease IRL, says Jordan.

Though you may perform only five to 12 reps of each exercise — focusing on quality, not quantity — you’re sure to work up a sweat. The exact tempo of your Pilates workout will vary depending on the studio and instructor, but you can expect to keep your body moving the entire time, says Jordan. “The pace of the class is meant to challenge you with a fluid flow,” she says.

The benefits of Pilates for beginners and pros alike

Improves posture

All that sweat and core work has a few major pay-offs, including improved posture, says Jordan. “[Pilates] is getting you to connect to the back line [aka posterior chain], so you stand better and are just more aware of your posture,” she explains. On the same token, the exercise method targets the transverse abdominis, a muscle deep within the core that helps stabilise the lower back and keep you standing upright, says Jordan. Research agrees, as one small study found that participants who did a one-hour Pilates workout twice a week for 12 weeks had improved upper spine and core posture.

Increases flexibility

All the stretching involved in a Pilates workout can do wonders for your flexibility, says Jordan. In fact, a 2010 study found that folks who completed one hour of Pilates exercises twice a week for 12 weeks had significant increases in hamstring flexibility. And in a separate study on 32 individuals who completed one-hour Pilates workouts weekly, participants’ fingertip-to-floor distance (think: in a forward fold) shortened by, on average, 4.3 centimetres after six months.

Strengthens joints and improves cardiorespiratory fitness

Power through an in-studio Pilates class using a Reformer with a Jump Board, which allows you to “hop” horizontally on a padded surface, and you’ll get your heart pumping without killing your knees. “You’re sweating like crazy, you’re out of breath,” says Jordan. “But you’re horizontal, or lying on your side or on your knees so that you’re not taking the brunt of a jump, as you would on a concrete surface.”

Even at-home, mat-only Pilates workouts can do your joints some good. The exercise method targets and strengthens the vastus medialis oblique muscle, a stabilising muscle on the inside of the thigh, directly above the knee, says Jordan. “If you are not conditioning that muscle, you are going to be prone to knee joint problems,” she says. “So this is a great muscle to work on if you’re a runner or if you spin — you can help protect your knees from your other workouts.”

Regardless of the equipment involved, research shows Pilates can improve cardiorespiratory fitness. Exhibit A: A 2019 meta-analysis of nine studies, which researched the effects of both mat and machine workouts, found that Pilates increased VO2 max or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during intense exercise. The higher your VO2 max, the more energy your body can use, and the longer you can exercise, according to UC Davis Health.

Boosts confidence

A confidence boost may not be the most technical benefit Pilates has to offer, but it’s one Herbert has noticed most among her clients. “These exercises are very difficult, and it’s very hard to get the technique sometimes,” she says. “But once you get that exercise, your eyes light up and your body lights up. It’s like, ‘If I can do this exercise, then what else can I do outside of Pilates that I thought I could never do?'”

How to add Pilates to your routine

Pilates
Image: Courtesy Sergio Pedemonte/Unsplash

If the prospect of fixing the hunch in your back or finally being able to touch your toes has convinced you to give Pilates a shot, Jordan recommends first trying an online workout to get a feel for the method. Then, if it resonates with you, book a class at a local studio, she says. If you become hooked, consider incorporating it into your routine a few days a week, whether it be three 45-minute, high-energy classes or something you tack on to your traditional workout, says Jordan. For example, “in the event that you really enjoy distance running, maybe it’s something that you do on your off-days or you do a 10-minute Pilates workout after a shorter run,” she suggests.

And most importantly, don’t feel self-conscious while learning the moves or embarrassed about making a mistake, says Herbert. “You’re not there for anybody but you,” she says. “Everybody’s sweating, everybody’s cursing in their mind. Nobody really cares. It doesn’t matter what your body type is. Everyone can do Pilates.”

Ready to get a taste of a typical Pilates class? Follow along with this beginner Pilates workout created by Jordan, which requires no special equipment and requires less than 15 minutes.

15-Minute beginner’s Pilates workout

You’ll need: A yoga mat

How it works: Follow the written instructions underneath.

Circuit 1

Pilates lunge on left leg

A. Stand tall with feet parallel to one another, roughly 4 inches apart, and hands on hips. Step right foot back, keeping heel off the floor. Bend torso slightly forward from hips.

B. On an exhale, bend both knees, allowing the front knee to extend slightly over the ankle, and sink into a lunge. On an inhale, push off the floor to starting position.

Do 12 reps.

Pilates lunge pulse with left heel lifted

A. Stand tall with feet parallel to one another, roughly 4 inches apart. Step right foot back, keeping heel off the floor. Lift arms overhead, palms facing one another. Bend the torso slightly forward from the hips.

B. On an exhale, bend both knees, allowing the front knee to extend slightly over the ankle, and sink into a lunge. Lift left heel off the mat.

C. On an exhale, bend both knees and sink deeper into a lunge. On an inhale, push off the floor to starting position.

Do 8 reps.

Narrow Squat

A. Stand tall with feet together, knees touching, and hands on hips.

B. On an exhale, slowly sink into a squat, first moving from hips and then knees. On an inhale, press up to standing.

Do 8 reps.

Narrow squat hold with airplane rotation

A. Stand tall with feet together, knees touching, and hands on hips.

B. On an exhale, slowly sink into a squat, first moving from hips and then knees. Extend arms in front of body, then bring them out to sides, palms facing the floor.

C. While holding the squat, inhale, then rotate torso to right, gaze following arm. On an exhale, rotate torso to centre.

Do 10 reps, alternating sides.

Pilates lunge on right leg

A. Stand tall with feet parallel to one another, roughly 4 inches apart, and hands on hips. Step left foot back, keeping heel off floor. Bend torso slightly forward from hips.

B. On an exhale, bend both knees, allowing front knee to extend slightly over the ankle, and sink into a lunge. On an inhale, push off the floor to starting position.

Do 12 reps.

Pilates lunge pulse with right heel lifted

A. Stand tall with feet parallel to one another, roughly 4 inches apart. Step left foot back, keeping heel off floor. Lift arms overhead, palms facing one another. Bend torso slightly forward from hips.

B. On an exhale, bend both knees, allowing front knee to extend slightly over ankle, and sink into a lunge. Lift right heel off the mat.

C. On an exhale, bend both knees and sink deeper into a lunge. On an inhale, push off the floor to starting position.

Do 8 reps.

Circuit 2

Forearm, kneeling left side Plank with arm extension

A. Start in a kneeling side plank position with left forearm resting on floor, knees and hips stacked, and knees bent at a 45 degree angle.

B. Extend right arm up toward the ceiling with palm facing forward. On an inhale, reach arm over head, lengthening the torso. On an exhale, bring arm back to centre.

Do 8 reps

Pilates downhill ski

A. Start in a high plank position, with feet touching and hands shoulder-width apart.

B. On an exhale, swivel toes and knees to the right as hips reach back to the left. On an inhale, swivel toes, knees, and hips back to centre.

Do 10 reps, alternating sides

Forearm, kneeling right side Plank with arm extension

A. Start in a kneeling side plank position with right forearm resting on floor, knees and hips stacked, and knees bent at a 45 degree angle.

B. Extend left arm up toward the ceiling with palm facing forward. On an inhale, reach arm over head, lengthening the torso. On an exhale, bring arm back to centre.

Do 8 reps

Single leg reach

A. Lie on the floor with head lifted, hands behind neck, and legs in a table-top position, shins parallel with ceiling.

B. On an inhale, extend right leg as close to floor as possible without touching it. On an exhale, lift leg back to start.

Do 16 reps, alternating legs

This story first appeared on www.shape.com

Hero and Feature Image Credit: Getty Images

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