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Top 10 Pilates Exercises

author image Lorraine Shea
Lorraine Shea writes about yoga, fitness, nutrition, healing, philosophy, art, decorating and travel for magazines and websites including Fit Yoga, Pilates Style and Country Accents. She teaches Anusara-style yoga and specializes in breath technique, active relaxation and therapeutics. She has a B.A. in English from New York University.
Top 10 Pilates Exercises
The hundred is a popular Pilates warmup. Photo Credit UberImages/iStock/Getty Images

It may look easy, but Pilates provides a challenging workout as you strengthen core muscles, improve posture, build confidence, reduce low-back pain and sharpen your concentration. These 10 mat exercises, among the most popular during a Pilates session, all require engaging your transversus abdominis, your inner-core muscle that pulls in your belly. Take class with a qualified instructor to learn proper alignment and technique.

The Hundred

The hundred, often used as a warmup, tones your core, flattens your belly, works your arms and boosts circulation, according to Pilates instructor Mari Winsor. Lying on your back, lift your legs to a 75 degree angle; lift your head and shoulders and with your arms by your sides and off the floor, with palms facing down, pump your arms up and down, inhaling for five counts and exhaling for five counts until you reach 100 breaths.


The rollup stretches your muscles, massages your spine, stimulates circulation and promotes breathing. Similar to a situp, the rollup begins as you lie on your mat with your hands overhead and slowly roll up to sit and reach toward your feet.

Single-leg Circles

Single-leg circles work your abdominals, hips, thighs and hamstrings. Lying on your mat with both legs extended along the floor. Lift your left leg off the floor toward the ceiling. Point the toes of your left foot and then make clockwise circles with your left leg, without moving or lifting your hips. Do five counter-clockwise circles and then repeat with the right leg.

Single-leg Stretch

The single-leg stretch works your transversus abdominis. Begin by lying on your back. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor and extend your right leg into the air at a 45 degrees angle. Inhale and hug your left knee into your chest. Still inhaling, switch and extend your left leg as you hug your right knee. Exhale and hug the left and then the right knee. Perform five to 10 reps per side.

Spine Stretch

Spine stretch lengthens your back and hamstrings. From a seated position on the floor, with your legs spread hip-width and your feet flexed apart, stretch your arms in front of you. Exhale and lower your head in between your arms as if you were going to dive. Inhale and return to the start. Do three to five times.

Mermaid Side Bend

Mermaid side bend activates your transversus abdominis, which stabilizes your pelvis and spine. Sit on your left hip with your legs stacked and knees bent. With your left hand on the floor, straighten your legs. Lift your entire torso and legs supported by your one hand and both feet. Repeat on your right side.

Side Kick

Side kicks tone your abdominals and gluteus maximus. Lie on your right side with your hand supporting your head. Extend your legs and then move them to a 45 degree angle along the floor in front of you. Lift your left leg to hip level and kick it out in front of you and then swing it back behind you without rocking. Do five to ten and then switch sides.

Criss Cross

Criss cross works your abs and your obliques to better define your waist. Lying on your back with knees bent, shins parallel to the floor, hands behind your head and elbows wide, lift your head and shoulders, stretch one leg out and pull the other in as you rotate your upper body toward your bent knee and then twist to the other side.

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