Pilates Warm-Up Exercises

Young attractive woman practicing yoga, stretching in asana paired with Cow Pose on the inhale exercise, Cat, Marjaryasana pose, working out, wearing sportswear, white t-shirt, pants, full length
An arched cat stretch wakes up your spine. (Image: fizkes/iStock/Getty Images)

A proper warmup before exercise makes your muscles and joints more mobile, getting your circulation going, increasing your metabolic rate and improving your body's neuromuscular communication and control. Although a Pilates workout seems lower in intensity as compared to a run or game of soccer, it still asks a lot of your body — especially your core — and you'll benefit from warming up.

An intelligent Pilates warmup targets your whole body, but emphasizes the core, or powerhouse, as Joseph Pilates called it. The core spans from your hips to your shoulders and includes all the major and minor muscles in between.

Establish the Breath

Warming up with the breath seems somewhat extraneous — after all, you breathe all day every day. In Pilates, though, you use conscious breathing to get more out of each exercise. It helps keep you relaxed and deliver oxygen most efficiently to working muscles.

Feel the breath along with the proper positioning and activation of your spine and core muscles. Imprinting is a fundamental movement that plays a role in many Pilates moves, including the entirety of the ab series. This combination of breathing and imprinting brings your awareness to how the two are connected.

Imprinting how to: Lie on your back and bend your knees to plant your feet in the floor. Place your hands lightly on your ribs and allow your fingers to touch at your belly button. Inhale through the nose and fell your rib cage expand. Exhale through pursed lips and consciously press your back towards to the floor.

Spine Mobility

After 2 to 3 minutes of imprinting warmups, start to bring mobility to the spine with spine twists and rotations. These moves helps you feel how the breath and action marry to enhance circulation and flexibility in your back.

Spine twist how to: Inhale with your back in the mat, arms reaching out in a T shape, knees bent and feet planted. Exhale, draw your belly button in toward the spine and slowly lower your knees to the right side. Keep your shoulders pressed into the floor. Inhale, bring the knees back to center and then exhale and consciously lower them to the left side. Perform five to 10 times each direction.

Progress into spine rotations, which add shoulder mobility to the exercise.

Spine rotation how to: Assume the position for spine twists, but let your knees stay fallen to the right side. Inhale, then, as you exhale, sweep your left arm and hand over your torso to touch your right hand and close like a clam shell. Your right shoulder will peel up off the floor. Inhale and open the right arm and then return it to the T shape. Repeat three times and switch sides.

Hip Looseners

Good hip mobility is intrinsic to Pilates exercises, including leg circles, leg pull-downs and kicks. Loosen the hips with hip releases and hip rolls.

Hip release how to: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted. Inhale as you drop the right knee out to the side, making half of a butterfly wing. Exhale and lengthen the right leg long into the mat. Inhale, keep the leg in the mat and direct the right toes to the ceiling. Exhale and drag the right leg back to a bent knee, flat-foot position. Repeat three times, then switch to the left side.

beautiful sporty woman doing exercise on the floor
Hip rolls open up your hip flexors and chest. (Image: vadimguzhva/iStock/Getty Images)

Hip rolls how to: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted about hip-distance apart. Inhale and fill your body with the breath, then exhale and imprint. Inhale and begin to roll your spine up off the floor starting at the tailbone. Move one vertebrae at a time until you form a bridge from your shoulders to your hips. Exhale and slowly, intentionally roll each vertebrae back down.

Back Flexion and Extension

Turn onto your abdomen to prepare the spine to bend forward and backward. These dynamic stretches feel good to a stiff body. The cat stretch expands the back, while the cobra stretches your chest and fronts of the shoulders, as well as wakes up the lumbar spine.

Cat stretch how to: Rise up to your hands and knees, an all-fours position. Inhale and feel your back's natural position. Exhale and arch the spine dramatically, pulling the belly button in toward the spine and the spine up to the ceiling. Inhale and hold the stretch, trying to expand even further as you tuck your chin and round your tailbone. Exhale back to the natural back position. Repeat about five times.

Cobra how to: Lower to your belly with your legs extended behind you with your toes pointed. Place your hands under your shoulders; allow the elbows to point up toward the ceiling and keep the arms close to your ribs. Inhale and slowly peel your face and chest up off the mat. Exhale and lower back down. Consciously keep your hands light, use your back to lengthen and lift. Repeat five times.

Upper-Body Warmups

Finish your Pilates warmup by loosening the muscles of the upper body. While your focus in Pilates is the core, tense and tight neck, shoulder and arm muscles take away from a quality session. Take a few final minutes to release these small muscles.

Head nods how to: Return to your back, bend your knees and plant your feet hip-distance apart. Relax your back so you're neither arching or imprinting -- keep it neutral. Let your arms rest alongside your hips on the mat. Inhale and reach your head back to lengthen the back of your neck; your chin will tuck slightly. Exhale and return to the neutral starting position. The movement is very slight, but brings awareness to the small muscles in the back of the neck. Repeat five times.

Shoulder shrugs how to: Assume the starting position from the head nods above. Keep your head and back neutral as you elevate your shoulders up toward your ears with an inhale. Exhale and let them release. Avoid rounding the shoulders, focus on lifting them up and down only. Repeat five times.

Arm circle how to: Continue in the same starting position as the above exercises. Inhale and reach your arms up over your chest, then overhead past your ears. Exhale and sweep them alongside your hips. Repeat three to five times, then reverse direction, circling out to the sides and overhead first.

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