What is Mat Pilates

Side view of class stretching on mats at yoga class in fitness studio
Mat Pilates is usually offered in a classroom-style setting. (Image: Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images)

Dancers do it. So do swimmers and many other professional athletes. Maybe you should too — but what exactly is this workout called "Mat Pilates?"

Mat Pilates is a way to stretch and strengthen your body, primarily the muscles of the core, which span from your hips to your shoulders. Joseph Pilates developed this exercise methodology in the early 1900s to help fellow internees in a German national camp in England and, later, World War I veterans injured in the war. Later, Pilates brought his exercise system to the United States and opened a gym with his wife.

Mat Pilates borrows from disciplines such as dance, yoga and classic calisthenics. The standard Pilates system of exercise uses many different pieces of equipment, such as the reformer, cadillac and barrel. But, the mat Pilates series of exercise is performed equipment-free, with the moves adapted to work with just your body and a floor mat for cushioning and support.

Common Movements

The exercises included in a mat Pilates class vary from instructor to instructor. They also become progressively more difficult and complex as you practice over time. However, most classes based on the original teachings of Joseph Pilates begin with a warmup known as the hundred and move on to leg circles, roll-ups and a five-part “ab series.”

Hundred: Lie on your back on a mat and draw your navel in to press your spine toward the floor. Extend your arms alongside your hips. Lift your legs up straight up the ceiling and then lower them to create about a 45-degree angle with the floor. Raise your head, neck and backs of the shoulders off the floor and elevate your arms several inches. Inhale briskly through your nose and exhale through your mouth as you pump your arms in conjunction with the breath. Work your way up to 100 repetitions.

one caucasian woman exercising pilates exercises fitness in silhouette isolated on white backgound
The hundred is a common warmup. (Image: OSTILL/iStock/Getty Images)

Roll-up: Lie on your back on your mat. Extend your legs out in front of you, keeping them in contact with the floor and squeezed together. Reach your arms next to your hips and slowly roll your head, neck and shoulders up off the floor. Contract your abs as you continue to roll all the way up until you're draped over your thighs, your spine making the shape of a letter "c." Use control to roll back down to complete one repetition.

Leg Circles: Lie on your back with your arms planted in the floor alongside your hips. Reach your right leg up to the ceiling. Leave the left leg long on the mat, or bend your knee and plant your foot if your back arches when your leg is straight. Point your right toe and, pretending it's like the tip of a pencil, draw five to eight precise circles to the right. Switch directions and draw five to eight circles to the left. Repeat the circles on the left.

Ab Series: The ab series consists of the single-leg stretch, the double-leg stretch, the single straight-leg stretch, the double straight-leg stretch and the criss-cross.

one caucasian woman exercising pilates exercises fitness in silhouette isolated on white backgound
The single straight-leg stretch is part of the ab series. (Image: OSTILL/iStock/Getty Images)

Benefits of Mat Pilates

Mat Pilates focuses on the core, or the “powerhouse,” as Joseph Pilates called it. You’ve probably heard how essential the core is in maintaining the health of your body and deterring injury. For example, a strong core helps ward off back pain and makes daily chores more doable. A strong core is a must for athletes, from runners to football players, as it increases stamina and power. When your core is strong, it serves as the center of power so your limbs don’t have to bear as much of the brunt of movement.

Studies also show that mat pilates can help people who already suffer from back pain. Pilates was as effective, if not more so, in reducing pain and improving function in people with back pain, showed a study published in a 2014 issue of PLoS One.

Where to Find Mat Pilates

You can practice mat Pilates in a Pilates studio or in many fitness centers who offer classes as part of your membership. Videos and online classes allow you to practice in the comfort of your own home, especially if you don’t have easy access to a studio.

You will benefit from working with a trained teacher who can help ensure you’re doing the exercises correctly. Mat Pilates exercises are quite nuanced and require detailed understanding to achieve the most benefit.

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