The Pilates mat system has over 30 exercises, and many of them build off each other in a progressive way.
However, these five exercises from throughout the sequence embody the core elements of the Pilates method. Each exercise emphasises a different plane of motion in the body such as flexion, extension and rotation of the spine to ensure the body’s full movement potential.
The Hundred is a foundational exercise and there is no way getting around it when doing Pilates. It is one of the first exercises learned when beginning. This exercise embodies the concept of the Powerhouse in combination with its basic principles which include breath, concentration, precision, centering, control and flow. The breath is highly emphasised through the rhythmic 5 count inhale and 5 count exhales. The core is strongly activated through the set up of the body, which leads to centering. Precision and control are achieved through the movements of the arms and the stabilisation of the legs as an extension from the centre. To hold yourself in this position and focus on the core, breath and proper alignment requires a great deal of concentration. Finally, flow is emphasised through the movement of the arms and the connection of the breath performed during this exercise.
The Hundred is an excellent warm up exercise, which is why it is placed at the beginning of a Pilates session. It elevates the heart rate and activates the entire body, primarily strengthening the abdominal region. However, if you have any lower back injuries, it is recommended to practice a modified version by either keeping your legs in tabletop or even the feet on the floor with the knees bent. For any neck issues, keep the head down.
The Roll Up is another foundational exercise that introduces the concept of spinal articulation. It also emphasises abdominal control and strengthening. It is a great exercise for those suffering from low back pain. However, it is important to learn and perform the Roll Up with proper form. In the beginning, it is often taught with the knees bent and the feet on the mat. This helps to ground the feet on the way up and down so they don’t fly off. If rolling up is challenging, you could be at risk for injuring your back by powering through the move instead of taking your time. It is important to take this one slowly so as not to exacerbate any injuries, ensuring your core is strong enough to perform it fully as you advance. If you have a sensitive spine, it is recommended to use a thicker mat.
The Shoulder Bridge further emphasises the concept of spinal articulation. However, this particular exercise will strengthen the back muscles in addition to the abdominal muscles. It is also excellent for treating back injuries; however it is important to ensure that the abdominals also perform here to protect the strengthening action of the back. This exercise will show where you may be weak in the back. If you are unable to roll down through a certain area in the back, that is a good indication of weakness. Through time and effort, you can learn to strengthen that area in the Shoulder Bridge.
The Swan Dive is another great spine extension exercise that will help to strengthen the back muscles and even the hamstrings, glutes and inner thighs. Many of the previous exercises have been reclined on the back or seated; this one is on the front surface of the body. It is a more advanced exercise and not recommended for beginners. However, there are modified variations that break the exercise down to make it a safe progression to learn. Additionally, if you have any back or neck issues, it is recommended to stay at the precursor exercise called the Swan until they are relieved.
The Spine Twist is a seated exercise that emphasizes rotation of the spine. It will strengthen your oblique muscles and spine extensors. It helps to improve posture in a seated position and lengthen the spine against the pull of gravity. It will help to train the body to move from the centre when performing rotation actions, instead of the hips or shoulders. The Spine Twist is also an excellent exercise for increasing your lung capacity, as it teaches us to keep the breath expansive when wringing out the abdominal muscles. It is recommended to avoid deep twisting exercises if you have issues in your sacroiliac joint, severe back pain, or are pregnant.
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