10 Essential Pilates Warm-Up Exercises

Jumping right into a workout routine without warming up is like heading out into a storm without an umbrella. In other words, you're unprepared. A proper warm-up before exercise makes your muscles and joints more mobile, gets your circulation going and improves your body's neuromuscular communication and control.

Hip rolls open up your hip flexors and chest as part of a Pilates warm-up. (Image: vadimguzhva/iStock/Getty Images)

Although a Pilates workout may seem lower in intensity — compared to a run or game of soccer — it still asks a lot of your body (especially your core). That's exactly why it's important for you to take the time to warm up.

Granted, this warm-up may look different from the one you'd use before a run or high-intensity interval class. For this type of workout, focus your pregame efforts on the core — or as creator Joseph Pilates deemed it, your "powerhouse." The core spans from your hips to your shoulders and includes all the major and minor muscles in between.

Start With Your 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, according to the American Council on Exercise.

Feel the breath along with the proper positioning and activation of your spine and core muscles through a process called imprinting. This involves a slight movement that plays a role in many Pilates moves, allowing the hip points to be lower that your pelvic bone.

Imprinting

  1. 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.
  2. Inhale through the nose and fell your rib cage expand.
  3. Exhale through pursed lips and consciously draw the muscles in your lower spine down towards the floor, thus imprinting the spine.

Spine Mobility

After two-to-three minutes of imprinting warm-ups, 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.

Spinal Twist

  1. Inhale with your back in the mat, arms reaching out in a T shape, knees bent and feet planted.
  2. 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.
  3. Inhale, bring the knees back to center. Exhale, then consciously lower them to the left side.
  4. Perform 10 to 20 reps, alternating between each.

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

Spinal Rotation

  1. Assume the position for spinal twists, but let your knees stay fallen to the right side.
  2. Inhale. As you exhale, sweep your left arm above your head, then bring it down to touch your right hand. You will feel as though you're closing like a clam shell.
  3. Your left shoulder will peel up off the floor. Inhale return to start.
  4. Do four times total; repeat on opposite side.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Do four times total; repeat on opposite side.

Hip Roll

  1. 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.
  2. 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, moving up onto your toes.
  3. Exhale and slowly, intentionally roll each vertebrae back down.
  4. Repeat five times.

Back Flexion and Extension

Turn onto your abdomen to prepare the spine to bend forward and backward. These dynamic stretches feel extra good for 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

  1. Start on all fours. Inhale and feel your back's natural position.
  2. Exhale and arch the spine dramatically, pulling the belly button in toward the spine and the spine up to the ceiling.
  3. Inhale and hold the stretch, trying to expand even further as you tuck your chin and round your tailbone.
  4. Exhale back to the natural back position.
  5. Repeat five times.

Cobra

  1. Lay belly-down on a mat. Place your hands under your shoulders; allow the elbows to point up toward the ceiling and keep the arms close to your ribs.
  2. Inhale and slowly peel your face and chest up off the mat.
  3. Exhale and lower back down. Consciously keep your hands light, use your back to lengthen and lift.
  4. Repeat five times.

Upper-Body Warm-up

Finish your Pilates warm-up 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 Nod

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted at hip-distance apart. Relax your back so you're neither arching or imprinting — keeping it neutral. Let your arms rest alongside your hips on the mat.
  2. 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.
  3. Repeat five times.

Shoulder Shrug

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted at hip-distance apart. Keep your head and back neutral as you elevate your shoulders up toward your ears with an inhale.
  2. Exhale and let them release. Avoid rounding the shoulders. Focus on lifting them up and down only.
  3. Repeat five times.

Arm Circle

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted at hip-distance apart. Inhale and reach your arms up over your chest, then overhead past your ears.
  2. Exhale and sweep them alongside your hips.
  3. Repeat three to five times, then reverse direction, circling out to the sides and overhead first.
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