The Only 20-Minute Pilates Workout You'll Ever Need

fit man doing a 20-minute pilates workout outdoors
This 20-minute Pilates workout improves your core strength and enhances your upper-body mobility.
Image Credit: Georgijevic/E+/GettyImages

Many people think that in order to get a great Pilates workout, it must be on the Reformer. While the Reformer has many benefits, you can also get an effective and efficient workout with nothing more than just your body weight and a mat. This 20-minute workout sets you up to do just that.

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"Pilates is a good form of exercise because it focuses on engaging your body and mind," Bee Duncan, CPT, a Pilates instructor and owner of Slam Duncan Wellness, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "These exercises were created to stimulate your whole body with attention to your breath, proper form and alignment and body awareness."

This 20-minute Pilates workout, created and demonstrated by Duncan, improves your core strength, enhances your upper-body mobility and increases your overall flexibility. Plus, it's low-impact, so it's safe for many people with achy joints.

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Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here — we’ve got something for everyone.

The Ultimate 20-Minute Pilates Workout

Duncan recommends doing this workout two to three times per week for maximum benefits. Do the exercises in order for the suggested number of reps. From exercises 11 (single-leg circle) to 15 (side-lying leg kick), focus on just one leg. Then, repeat 11 through 15 on the other leg before continuing the rest of the exercises in the workout.

Try not to rest in between; instead, think of it sort of like a yoga flow where you seamlessly transition from one exercise into the next.

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Tip

Here are a few suggestions for how to incorporate this workout into your routine:

  • Do it on a light mobility day.
  • Use it as a warm-up before a gym day, cardio workout, running, biking or swimming.
  • Use portions of it to supplement your lifting. For example, do exercises 7 through 15 on leg day.
  • Do exercises 16 through 22, which can be utilized as a warm-up to increase torso mobility, decrease shoulder tension and develop shoulder stability.
  • For your full-body day, try this entire workout sequence as your warm-up.

1. The Hundred

Reps 10
Region Core
  1. Lie on your back with your arms down by your side, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Curl your head, neck and shoulders off the floor as you lift your legs into a tabletop position with your knees over your hips and your shins parallel to the ceiling.
  3. Pulse your arms by your sides for 5 counts as you inhale and then 5 counts as you exhale.
  4. Continue this breathing cycle until you have reached 100 pulses.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​If holding your legs up is difficult, keep your feet on the floor.

Progression: ​To make it more challenging, stretch your legs forward on a diagonal and lower your legs until they hover about 6 inches from the floor.

2. Roll Up

Reps 6
Region Core
  1. Lie on your back with your arms down by your sides.
  2. Inhale as you reach your arms overhead only to where your ribcage doesn’t lift off the mat.
  3. Exhale and reach your arms forward as you engage your abdominals and curl your head, neck and shoulders off the floor.
  4. Inhale when you reach the top. Exhale as you return to the starting position.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Only roll up as far as you can without your feet coming off the ground or using upper-body momentum.

Progression: ​Start with your legs extended straight and together, and keep them in this position, planted on the floor, the entire time.

3. Roll Back

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Reps 6
Region Core
  1. Sit upright with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart on the floor. Look straight ahead.
  2. Reach your arms forward as you exhale to engage your core and then roll back to the floor one vertebrae at a time.
  3. Inhale and round your torso forward and engage your core as you curl yourself back off the floor. Reach your arms forward toward your knees and return to the starting position.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Stop when your lower back reaches the floor, and then roll back up from there.

Progression: ​Interlock your hands behind your head and roll back to your lower back. As you get stronger, go lower, eventually touching your shoulders to the floor.

4. Roll Back With Twist

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Reps 12
Region Core
  1. Sit upright with knees bent and feet hip-width apart on the floor. Look straight ahead.
  2. Reach your arms forward as you exhale to engage your core and then roll back to the floor one vertebrae at a time.
  3. Stop when your lower back touches your mat. Inhale and twist your torso to the left as you reach your left arm behind you.
  4. Exhale and twist your arm and torso back forward, and then roll back up to your starting position.
  5. Do 6 reps on each side for a total of 12 reps.

Progression

Do the exercise with your hands interlocked behind your head.

5. Single-Leg Stretch

Reps 10
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back and pull both legs into your chest, holding your shins. Curl your head, neck and shoulders forward toward your knees.
  2. Exhale and extend one leg forward. Inhale as you pull the leg back in and then exhale as you extend the opposite leg.
  3. Keep your torso as still as possible and focus on pulling your bent knee to your nose each time.
  4. Do 10 reps on each leg.

Modifications

  • If you feel any strain in your neck or upper back, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your upper back.
  • If you have a tight lower back or hips, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your low back to decrease tension and strain.

6. Double-Leg Stretch

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Reps 10
Region Core
  1. Lie on your back and pull both legs into your chest, holding your shins. Curl your head, neck and shoulders forward toward your knees.
  2. Exhale as you extend both legs forward and straighten your arms overhead, using your core to keep your head, neck and shoulders curled off the mat.
  3. Inhale as you draw your legs into your chest and your arms sweep in a circle to grab your shins.

Modifications

  • Keep your head on the floor and only move your legs.
  • Interlock your hands behind your head for support.
  • If you feel any strain in your neck or upper back, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your upper back.
  • If you have a tight lower back or hips, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your low back to decrease tension and strain.

7. Hamstring Stretch

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Reps 8
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back with your legs extended. Bend one knee and grab the back of your quad to pull it into your chest. Flex your foot.
  2. Exhale and straighten your leg to the ceiling while maintaining a flexed foot.
  3. Inhale and bend your leg back in toward your chest with a pointed foot.
  4. Do 8 reps on each leg.

Modifications

  • If your hips are too tight to keep your non-working leg extended straight, bend that knee and put your foot flat on the floor.
  • If you have a tight lower back or hips, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your low back to decrease tension and strain.
  • Place a pillow, towel or bolster under your upper back if you have difficulty pulling your leg into your chest.

8. Single-Leg Lift

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Reps 8
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back with your legs extended straight and toes flexed.
  2. Exhale as you lift one leg into the air. Inhale as you bring it back down to the floor.
  3. Do 8 reps on each side.

Modifications and Progression

Modifications:

  • Keep your moving leg slightly bent if your hamstrings are super tight.
  • If your hips are too tight to keep your non-working leg extended straight, bend that knee and put your foot flat on the floor.

Progression: ​Flex and point your foot as you lower and lift your leg.

9. Single-Leg Straight Stretch

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Reps 10
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back and pull your legs into your chest. Inhale, curl your torso forward and straighten your legs to the ceiling. Reach your arms forward and grab one leg.
  2. Exhale as you pull one leg toward your chest and lower the other leg toward the floor, stopping when it's a few inches above the ground.
  3. Inhale to switch to the other side and exhale as you pull the other leg in.
  4. Do 10 reps on each leg.

Modifications and Progression

Modifications:

  • If you have a tight lower back or hips, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your low back to decrease tension and strain.
  • Place a pillow, towel or bolster under your upper back if you feel strain in your neck. You can also try interlocking your hands under the base of your head for support.

Progression: ​Keep your arms down by your torso, hovering a few inches off the floor, as your legs move.

10. Double-Leg Straight Stretch

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Reps 10
Region Core
  1. Lie on your back and pull your legs into your chest. Inhale, curl your torso forward and straighten your legs to the ceiling. Extend your arms by your sides, planting your palms on the floor.
  2. Exhale as you lower both legs toward the floor. Stop lowering if you start to feel your low back pop off the floor.
  3. Inhale as you bring both legs back up toward the ceiling.
  4. Do 10 reps.

Modifications and Progression

Modifications:

  • If you have a tight lower back or hips, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your low back to decrease tension and strain.
  • Place a pillow, towel or bolster under your upper back if you feel strain in your neck. You can also try interlocking your hands under the base of your head for support.

Progression: ​Keep your arms down by your torso, hovering a few inches off the floor, as your legs move.

11. Single-Leg Circle

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Reps 8
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back with your legs extended straight, arms down beside your torso and feet hip-width apart.
  2. Inhale and bend one knee into your chest. Stretch your leg toward the ceiling.
  3. Exhale as you draw a circle by reaching your leg across your body and down toward the opposite leg. Inhale as your leg continues to circle back to your starting position.
  4. Do this 4 times in each direction, for a total of 8 reps. Then do the same number of reps on the other leg.

Modification

If your hips are too tight to keep your non-working leg extended straight, bend that knee and put your foot flat on the floor. Instead of drawing a circle, you will make a D shape.

12. Side-Lying Leg Lift

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Reps 10
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie on your side with your hips and shoulders stacked, legs slightly diagonal in front of your body. Place your bottom elbow on the floor and prop your head up in your hand. Place your top hand on the ground in front of your body.
  2. Inhale and flex both feet. Exhale and lift your top leg to slightly above hip height.
  3. Inhale as you lower your leg back down.
  4. Do 10 reps on each leg.

Modification and Progressions

Modification: ​Lay your lower forearm on the floor and rest your head there instead of propping it up.

Progressions:

  • Turn out from your hips and make a V position with your feet while lifting your top leg.
  • Place your top hand behind your head with your elbow bent and pointing toward the ceiling.

13. Side-Lying Leg Circle

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Reps 20
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie on your side with your hips and shoulders stacked, legs slightly diagonal in front of your body. Place your bottom elbow on the floor and prop your head up in your hand. Place your top hand on the floor in front of your body.
  2. Inhale and flex both feet. Exhale and lift your top leg to slightly above hip height. Point your top foot and circle it forward for 10 reps.
  3. Then, circle backward for 10 reps.
  4. Repeat 20 reps on the other side.

Modification and Progressions

Modification: ​Lay your lower forearm on the floor and rest your head there instead of propping it up.

Progressions:

  • Place your top hand behind your head, elbow bent and pointing toward the ceiling.
  • As you gain more control and strength in your hips and torso, make your circles larger as long as your torso and hips remain stable.

14. Side-Lying Leg Kick (Forward)

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Reps 5
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie on your side with your hips and shoulders stacked, legs slightly diagonal in front of your body. Place your bottom elbow on the floor and prop your head up in your hand. Place your top hand on the floor in front of your body.
  2. Inhale and flex both feet. Exhale and lift your top leg to slightly above hip height.
  3. Kick your leg forward while flexing your foot. Double pulse your leg forward with a rhythmic exhale.
  4. Inhale as you point your foot and kick your leg behind you.
  5. Do 5 reps on each leg.

Modification and Progressions

Modification: ​Lay your lower forearm on the floor and rest your head there instead of propping it up.

Progressions:

  • Place your top hand behind your head with your elbow bent, and pointing toward the ceiling.
  • As you gain more control and strength in your hips and torso, make your kicks larger as long as your torso and hips remain stable and you can keep your lower back from aching.

15. Side-Lying Leg Kick (Side)

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Reps 5
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie on your side with your hips and shoulders stacked, legs slightly diagonal in front of your body. Place your bottom elbow on the floor and prop your head up in your hand. Place your top hand on the floor in front of your body.
  2. Inhale and flex both feet. Turn out your top leg. Your top foot and knee should face the ceiling.
  3. Exhale and kick your leg up toward the sky while pointing your foot. Inhale as you lower your leg back down, flexing your foot.
  4. Do 5 reps on each leg.

Modification and Progressions

Modification: ​Lay your lower forearm on the floor and rest your head there instead of propping it up.

Progressions:

  • Place your top hand behind your head with your elbow bent, and pointing toward the ceiling.
  • As you gain more control and strength in your hips and torso, make your kicks higher as long as your torso and hips remain stable, and you can keep your lower back from arching.

16. Cat-Cow

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Reps 6
Region Upper Body
  1. Start on all fours.
  2. Exhale and curl your chin to your chest as you round your spine, pulling your bellybutton in and pressing your pelvis forward.
  3. Inhale as you press your bellybutton to the floor while lifting your chest and head, creating an arch in your spine. This is 1 rep.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Lower down to your forearms.

Progression: ​To increase core activation, tuck your toes under, press your hands into the floor and lift your knees two inches off the floor. Hold them there while you arch and round your back.

17. Plank

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Reps 6
Region Full Body
  1. Start on all fours with your hands on the floor shoulder-width apart and your hips over your knees hip-width apart. Exhale and straighten your legs and press your body forward until you create a straight line from your head to your heels.
  2. Hold here for 10 seconds.
  3. Inhale and drop your knees to the floor. Then sit your hips back into your heels in child's pose, stretching your arms forward and lowering your chest toward the ground.
  4. Press back up into a plank and hold for another 10 seconds. Continue doing this 6 times.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Lower down to your forearms.

Progression: ​Move between a forearm plank and extended arm plank by stepping one hand/arm down at a time and then reversing the movement.

18. Swan

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Reps 6
Region Upper Body
  1. Lie face down with your palms on the mat, your elbows are bent and your hands aligned with your shoulders. Your legs are as wide as your mat.
  2. Exhale to brace your core, slide your shoulder blades down your back and then lift your upper body off the mat.
  3. Press your hips into the floor and bring your shoulders and sternum forward. Your chin is level with the ground, and your eyes should be looking forward.
  4. Inhale and return your torso to the floor with control to the starting position.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Lift your torso only to your forearms as opposed to fully straightening your arms.

Progression: ​Close your legs together as long as you have no lower back discomfort.

19. Swimming

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Reps 20
Region Full Body
  1. Lie face down on your mat with your legs and arms extended.
  2. Inhale and engage your glutes and upper back to lift your arms and legs off the floor. Keep your gaze on the floor so that your neck is not straining.
  3. Exhale and tap one hand and the opposite foot to the floor. Inhale and switch your arm and leg swiftly as if you were swimming in water. Exhale as you tap the other hand and foot to the floor. This is 1 rep.
  4. Focus on keeping your torso still and resisting the urge to shift side to side.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Move just your arms while your legs remain on the floor or keep your torso on the floor while just your legs move.

Progression: ​After your 20 reps, hold your arms and legs off the floor for 30 seconds.

20. Spine Stretch Forward

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Reps 4
Region Upper Body
  1. Sit upright with your shoulders over your hips and legs extended hip-width apart, feet flexed.
  2. Inhale and lift your arms to shoulder height.
  3. Exhale as you round your torso forward, making a C shape with your spine, and point your toes.
  4. Inhale and draw your shoulder blades down your back and return your shoulders back over your hips.

Modifications

  • If you struggle with staying upright, place your back up against a wall.
  • Place a pillow or bolster under your butt if you have tight hips.
  • Place a pillow or bolster under your knees or bend your knees, if you have tight hamstrings.

21. Saw

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Reps 4
Region Core and Upper Body
  1. Sit upright with your shoulders over your hips and legs extended hip-width apart.
  2. Inhale and lift your arms to shoulder height and your open arms out to the sides of your body.
  3. Twist your torso to the left and exhale as you hinge forward and reach your right hand to the outside of your left foot, letting your left arm extend behind you.
  4. Inhale as you reverse the motion so that you're sitting upright and then twisting back to the center.
  5. Exhale as you twist and reach to the other side.
  6. Do 2 reps on each side for 4 reps total.

Modifications

  • If you struggle with staying upright, place your back up against a wall.
  • Place a pillow or bolster under your butt if you have tight hips. Place a pillow or bolster under your knees or bend your knees, if you have tight hamstrings.

22. Roll Down

Reps 3
Region Full Body
  1. Stand with your feet flat on the floor, toes turned out into a V position or parallel with feet hip-width apart, arms down by your sides.
  2. Inhale and stretch your arms overhead. Exhale and roll down one vertebrae at a time.
  3. Roll all the way down to where your body allows, and then inhale and roll back up, stacking each vertebrae as you go.

Modification

If you have a tight back or hamstrings, keep your knees slightly bent.

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