5 Underrated Pilates Exercises That Tone From Head to Toe

These underrated Pilates exercises focus on targeting your core, as well as the back of your body — an often forgotten area.
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If you've taken a Pilates class or are curious about the method, you might have heard of classic exercises like the hundred, teaser and single-leg circles. But there are plenty of underrated Pilates exercises that boast amazing benefits and also deserve a place in your workout routine.

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

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These underrated Pilates moves tone you up from head to toe, especially the back of your body — including your glutes, hamstrings and back. By incorporating these exercises into your routine, you'll see gains in your overall flexibility, strength and coordination.

And just like other Pilates exercises, they're low-impact, so they can help protect against injuries, decrease mental and muscular tension and improve your posture, Duncan says.

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1. Bridge

"We don't do enough bridging!" Duncan says. People often skip bridges, but they're one of the best moves to warm up your core, glutes and hips — all of which you use throughout a Pilates workout.

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The bridge strengthens your hamstrings, glutes, core and lower back, Duncan says. "When done right, this exercise decreases the recruitment of your quads, which will eventually reduce the tension in your knees."

Bridging is a great way to warm up at the beginning of a workout. "Add them in at the beginning of your leg day, throw it in to activate your glutes prior to going on a run or throw it in a finisher to your full-body workout for a last-minute burnout exercise before heading home," she says.

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Activity Pilates
Region Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, feet flat on the ground and knees bent.
  2. On an exhale, squeeze your glutes, press into your heels and drive your hips up toward the ceiling.
  3. Raise your hips until your body forms a diagonal line from your knees to your hips to your chest.
  4. Pause here for a moment.
  5. Reverse the motion to bring your hips back down to the ground, lowering from your mid-back to your tailbone.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Squeeze your thighs and feet together to focus on the inner-thigh connection.

Progression: ​Add an extra challenge to your hamstrings and glutes by lifting your toes and balancing on your heels as you bridge. This variation increases the challenge on your hamstrings and glutes.

2. Half Roll Back

Most Pilates workouts include the roll up, but the roll down? Not so much. "This exercise is gravely underutilized because it challenges your core and torso to descend to the floor, which is a precursor to many Pilates exercises like rolling like a ball, open leg rocker and mastering the roll up," Duncan says.

This exercise strengthens the transverse abdominis, the deepest core muscles that support the spine and entire torso, and helps with spinal mobility. "This is a great ab warm-up for any workout routine," Duncan says.

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Activity Pilates
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 curve your spine into a C as you roll back until your lower back touches the floor.
  3. Inhale as you engage your core to bring your torso forward back to an upright position and reach your arms forward toward your knees.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Only roll as far back as your core strengthen allows.

Progression: ​To make this exercise more challenging, interlock your hands behind your head and roll back to your lower back. As you get stronger, you can go lower, eventually touching your shoulders to the floor.

3. Hamstring Stretch

"The lengthening aspects of Pilates can often go overlooked for more dynamic exercises and flows," Duncan says. Hence why the humble — but effective — hamstring stretch is on this list.

Do it to loosen up before doing movements that require mobility in the back of the legs. Or, use it as a cooldown stretch after a lower-body workout or run. It can also help decrease tension in your low back and hips, Duncan says, which are chronic problem areas for many.

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Activity Pilates
Body Part Legs
  1. Lie on your back with your legs extended.
  2. Bend one knee and grab the back of your quad to pull it into your chest. Flex your foot.
  3. Exhale and straighten your leg to the ceiling while maintaining a flexed foot.
  4. Inhale and bend your leg back in toward your chest with a pointed foot.

Modifications

  • If your hips are too tight to keep one leg extended on the floor, bend your knee and put your foot flat on the ground.
  • If you have a tight lower back or hips, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your low back.
  • If you have difficulty pulling your leg into your chest, place a pillow, towel or bolster under your upper back.

4. Teaser Prep

The teaser is a classic Pilates exercise where you use your core to bring your body up into a V position and reach your arms out toward your feet. It's included in a lot of workouts, but the prep isn't.

"Teaser prep makes this exercise accessible to more people who may not have the strongest core and full-body strength to attempt the full version just yet," Duncan says.

The teaser prep helps you develop the core, hip and quad strength you need to do the full teaser. It also gets you working on the coordination and mind-body connection you need to do the full movement. "It also challenges your upper- and lower-body control," Duncan says.

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Activity Pilates
Region Core
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms resting by your sides.
  2. Straighten one leg, keeping your knees in line and pointing your toes.
  3. Curl your head and neck up and lift your arms.
  4. Using your abdominals, curl your torso up and reach your hands toward your extended foot. Your torso and your extended leg should form a V shape. Keep your shoulders back and down as you roll up so that you don’t use momentum from your upper body to get off the floor.
  5. Holding this position, bend your leg and place your foot back on the floor while you straighten the other leg.
  6. Roll your upper body back down to the floor, one vertebrae at a time.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Only roll up to the point that's most challenging for you.

Progression: ​Straighten both legs before switching sides.

5. Swimming

Pilates is super focused on strengthening your core and abdominals — which is a great thing. But it also means that the back of the body tends to get overlooked, Duncan says. Swimming is a great move to make sure you show this area some love.

"This exercise helps with coordinating your oppositional movement in your body and strengthening your postural muscles," Duncan says.

That includes your glutes, hamstrings and back, as well as your erector spinae — a group of deep back muscles that support the spine. The move also improves pelvic stability and can help correct your posture, Duncan says.

Use it as a warm-up to activate your back, hamstrings and glutes before deadlifts, before an upper-body workout or as part of a dynamic warm-up pre-run, Duncan says.

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Activity Pilates
Body Part Back, Legs and Butt
  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 isn't straining, and don't hunch your shoulders up toward your ears.
  3. Exhale and tap one hand and the opposite foot to the floor.
  4. Inhale and switch your arm and leg swiftly as if you were swimming in water.
  5. Exhale as you tap the other hand and foot to the floor.
  6. Focus on keeping your torso still and resisting the urge to shift side to side.

Modification and Progression

Modification: ​Lift just your arms and back or just your legs.

Progression: ​After you’ve finished all your reps, hold your arms and legs off the ground for 30 to 60 seconds for an isometric challenge.

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