The Best Pilates Workouts for Every Body Part

A Pilates workout can target all of the major muscle groups. (Image: Vadym Petrochenko/iStock/GettyImages)

Think of workouts that really pack a punch, and your mind likely jumps to high-intensity interval training, running sprints or even boxing. A worthy candidate to add to the list? Pilates. Joseph Pilates' method may only require small movements, but don't discount its total-body burn.

Ashley Adams, a Maryland-based Pilates instructor, says that just about anyone can benefit from the centuries-old routine. "It's a low-impact workout that tones muscles and improves flexibility, balance and posture alignment," she says. "These are gains that can help prevent injury and that you can take into any other activity."

Classic moves like the hundred, roll up and one-leg circle all help deliver a strong core and overall bulletproof body. While Adams says it's not exactly a method for weight loss, Pilates can support those goals, too. A January 2014 study of 303 women published in Clinical Interventions in Aging showed that a weight-loss intervention consisting of aerobic exercise and Pilates decreased fat mass and added lean muscle mass. "That additional muscle strength will help you get the most of every type of exercise you do regularly," says Adams.

Want to get in on the goods? Plan on a few dedicated sessions each week, touching on every major area of your body — abs, legs, arms and glutes. You'll feel longer, leaner and more stable before you know it. Here are the basic moves that can give you the lean, healthy body you're after.

First, Warm Up

As with all exercise, the Pilates method recommends spending some time warming up before moving on to the full workout. "The purpose of a warm-up is to get the oxygen and blood flowing," says Adams. "This way, you're ready to go."

Your practice should include establishing a conscious style of breathing to help you relax and send oxygen to your muscles. Try to inhale through your nose and fill your rib cage. When you exhale, push the air back out through pursed lips and press your back into the floor. Adams recommends working through the classic Pilates "first five," which includes the hundred, the roll up, the roll over, rolling like a ball and the single-leg stretch.

Here's how to build the perfect Pilates warm-up.

Accentuate Your Abs

When most people think of Pilates, they think of the sculpted core it can deliver. This is thanks to the "powerhouse" moves that the method centers around. "Everything in Pilates involves the abdominals and the total core," says Adams. "However, most people don't know how to engage their deep abs, which is where these workouts come in."

This means engaging your back, your glutes and your thighs — your center of power. Try moves like the hundred, the roll up, the rollover and spine stretch to set your center on fire and create strength to carry you throughout your sweat session and entire day.

Get all the details on an ab-sculpting Pilates workout.

Lengthen Your Legs

Pilates mat work is excellent for toning and sculpting long, lean legs. In just about 15 minutes, you can do several leg-focused exercises multiple times per week and get a big bang for your buck. Adams likes the side kick series among others, as well as single- and double-leg kicks. "Expect to be sore afterward," she says. "You'll feel your inner and outer thighs, as well as your glutes."

Other challenging moves to try include bridges, swimmers and grasshopper. As usual, remember to engage your core!

Make the most of your Pilates leg routine.

Sculpt Your Arms

Dedicated, targeted Pilates exercises can help deliver serious tone to your arms. Add arm movements to your Pilates practice after mastering the basics, Adams says, and keep in mind that Pilates arm movements also, you guessed it, begin with the core. "You learn to move from the center and with control," she says. "Adding in light weights and using small movements will pay off."

Work your shoulders, triceps, biceps and forearms with arm circles or "shaving the head." You can even add weights to really challenge yourself with a Pilates version of biceps curls that's a departure from the way you've done this classic arm move before.

Build Your Butt

After a strong butt to propel you through your running or squatting workouts? Pilates can help, and it'll target all three muscles back there: the gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. Specific mat moves will activate glute muscles, which is key for lowering injury risk.

A solid Pilates butt regimen will include three specific moves: flutter kicks, one-legged pelvic tilt and side kicks. "The glutes stabilize the core, so it's important to give them some love," says Adams. "Glutes are hard to access, but anything that involves the legs will help turn these muscles on. Once you're more advanced, the side leg series will really help you focus on this."

Ease Pain

Knee, back or neck pain might mean certain workouts are off-limits, but Pilates exercises can help alleviate some of that discomfort.

Moves that strengthen your lower abs — like the lower lift — can support your pelvis and spine, easing the all-too-common low back pain. The T-pull, front pique taps and develope kicks all serve to bring pain levels down, and, Adams says, modifications are easy. "The good thing about Pilates is that it can be tailored to your needs," she explains.

Grab some resistance bands and get after this pain-relieving workout.

Quiet Your Mind

Of course, we can't forget to take care of the mental side of things. Exercise is a potent stress-buster, and Pilates workouts rise to the top in this regard. Make it a fast-paced, total-body approach and see how much better you feel after. "There's so much concentration on proper breathing in Pilates, and that in and of itself will help with stress management," says Adams.

With each move, careful breathing enhances form as well as the Zen-like benefits. "It's a total mind-body exercise routine," she says, "and can serve as a nice distraction just when you need it."

Our 20-minute Pilates session is just what the doctor ordered after a tough day.

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