Pilates Workout: Finding the One That’s Right For You

Written by: Holly Smith, M.D.,

B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer

Writer, The Fit Mother Project

Written by: Holly Smith, M.D.,

B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer

Writer, The Fit Mother Project

Pilates workout

You've probably heard of Pilates, but do you actually know what a Pilates workout encompasses? It's not just yoga and stretching!

A Pilates workout includes so much more — it's a low-impact exercise that aims to improve posture, flexibility, and core strength, as yoga does.

However, the movements tend to be more dynamic than the static poses done in yoga.

Pilates can be added to any of your workout routines, especially on days where you are looking to do a full-body circuit.

While Pilates definitely focuses on core muscles, don’t forget that core doesn’t just mean abs.

During Pilates routines, all of the stabilizing muscles are strengthened, including your hips, the inner and outer thighs, and the lower back.

Plus, most workouts also include moves that work your arms, shoulders, glutes, and legs.

One of the big aims of Pilates is to maintain control throughout the movements.

Quality over quantity is the idea here.

The goal is to target specific muscles while engaging your core and focusing on your breathing.

Keep reading and learn how to find the right Pilates workout for YOU!

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The Benefits of a Pilates Workout

Pilates is an excellent way to strengthen your core muscles.

These stabilizing muscles are the foundation of all of your movements, whether in exercise or just day-to-day activities.

Workouts that incorporate Pilates will improve your posture, flexibility, mobility, and overall strength.

Plus, by targeting your core muscles you will not only feel great, but you'll also get a great-looking physique in the process.

Improve Mobility and Balance

As mentioned above, Pilates is a great way to improve your overall strength and mobility so that you are more efficient in all of your daily activities.

In fact, one study even found that Pilates was better at improving functional movement than yoga!

Researchers from the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that participants who performed Pilates exercises three times a week for eight weeks improved their balance, stability, and mobility.

This was even more so than individuals who did yoga or who didn’t exercise.

Learn how to have better balance as you age with these 5 exercises!

Build Muscular Strength and Endurance

Most women don’t equate Pilates with muscle building.

However, while it may not be on the same level as weight training, engaging in Pilates exercises on a regular basis has been found to improve muscle strength and endurance.

One 2010 study found that for active middle-aged men and women, exposure to a Pilates workout twice a week for 12 weeks promoted significant increases in abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility, and upper-body muscular endurance (2).

This makes Pilates a great low impact option for strengthening and toning your muscles while improving posture and flexibility at the same time!

Pilates and Mental Fitness

Exercise is key in improving not just your physical health, but also your mental health.

Since Pilates promotes a high level of the mind-body connection, these workouts definitely check this box as well.

Research has shown that women who incorporate Pilates into their fitness routine not only have higher energy levels, but also experience less depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

On top of this, women who do Pilates tend to have a better quality of life and self-image.

In a study from Women and Health, numerous quality of life markers were improved in women who engaged in Pilates exercises for a six-month period.

This included life satisfaction, perception of physical appearance, perception of functionality, total physical self-concept, and perception of health status.

Find out how to make your mind happy by training your mental health!

Types of Pilates Workouts

There are actually two different ways to start doing Pilates workouts.

The most common form that is typically offered for at-home or gym workouts is mat Pilates.

However, there is also a machine called a reformer that can be used to do Pilates exercises as well.

Mat Pilates

This is typically the type of workout that most women think of when they hear Pilates.

The exercises are simply done on the ground on a padded mat.

Mat Pilates uses body-weight exercises in smooth, fluid movements.

These low-impact workouts are easy on the joints, but provide excellent fitness benefits as noted above.

Reformer Pilates

Pilates workouts can also be done on a machine called a reformer.

This is a sliding platform that has a bar for your feet along with spring and pulleys that act as resistance.

Many of the exercises on the reformer are the same as mat exercises.

However, the reformer provides some added resistance with the springs and pulleys.

In either form of Pilates, one of the big focuses is on breathing techniques.

Pilates teaches you to inhale and exhale in coordination with your movements.

This breathing pattern not only makes the exercises more effective, but also enhances the mind-body connection of Pilates.

Getting Started

If you are looking to begin a Pilates routine but aren’t sure where to start, most gyms offer introductory courses.

The great thing about in-person classes is that you can have instructors actually show you the proper movements and exercises.

However, if you don’t have a gym membership, or prefer at-home workouts, there are tons of streaming classes and DVDs that can be a great introduction to Pilates as well.

Basic Pilates Moves To Try At Home

If you want to get a feel for what Pilates exercises are all about before committing to a specific program, here are some basic Pilates moves that form the foundation of most Pilates workouts.

You can create your own at-home workout with these Pilates exercises, or add them as warm-up for resistance or cardio workouts that you already have planned.

The Hundred

This Pilates classic is often one of the first exercises taught.

  • Start by lying on your mat with your knees bent.
  • Lift your feet off the floor so that your knees are above your hips and bent at a 90-degree angle.
  • This will put your legs in a tabletop position.
  • You can leave your legs here to start.
  • For more of a challenge, extend your legs straight so that they are hovering above the ground.
  • Lift your head and shoulders off the mat and extend your arms by your side while you maintain this position.
  • Keep your arms straight out by your sides and begin pumping your arms up and down.
  • Inhale through your nose for five pumps and exhale out of the mouth for five pumps a total of 10 times.
  • This will give you 100 reps, hence the name “The Hundred.”

Leg Circles

This move is great to strengthen the core and glutes.

  • Start by lying on your back with your arms by your sides and palms down.
  • Bend your left knee while keeping your left foot flat on the floor.
  • Extend your right leg so that it is pointing straight up.
  • Circle your right leg out to the right, down toward the ground, and then sweep it back around to the starting position.
  • Keep your lower back in contact with the mat throughout the circle.
  • Then reverse and make the circle in the opposite direction.
  • Complete 10 reps with the right leg, then repeat with the left leg.

Scissor Kick

This is another straightforward Pilates move that will strengthen your abs and lower back.

  • Start on your back and extend your right leg up so that it's pointing towards the ceiling.
  • Place your hands behind your right leg as you pull it in toward your face.
  • Keep your left leg hovering above the floor.
  • Then, switch legs and pull your left leg in toward you as you let your right go down to hover above the floor.
  • Continue switching your legs until you complete 10 reps on each side.


This move will improve flexibility and mobility in the spine and lower back.

  • Begin by lying on your back with your arms extended out to your sides.
  • Bend your knees over your hips so that your lower legs are parallel to the floor.
  • Let both knees fall down to the right, keeping your lower back on the floor.
  • Then bring your knees back up to the top.
  • Hold, and then lower both knees down to the left side.
  • Continue this in a slow controlled manner for 10 reps on each side.

Plank Leg Lift

This full-body move will engage your core, arms, glutes, and legs all at the same time.

  • Start in a high plank (push up position) with your hands directly below your shoulders.
  • Engage your core as you lift your left leg off the floor to about shoulder height.
  • Bring your foot back to the ground, and then repeat with your right foot.
  • Continue alternating for 10 reps on each side.
  • Be sure to keep your entire body stable and avoid rocking your hips to get the full benefits of this Pilates move.

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Expand Your Fitness Horizons with Pilates

These simple moves laid out above are a nice intro to Pilates and can get you acquainted with the types of exercises you would do in a full-length class.

Pilates workouts have numerous health benefits for any busy mom out there.

With Pilates, you will build muscular strength and endurance, improve flexibility and balance, and also enhance your mental health.

Plus, the low-impact nature of these workouts makes them perfect for any age or level of fitness.

No matter what your fitness goals are, Pilates is a great complement to any workout schedule.

It can be used on a rest day to add in some low-impact core work, or on a day where you want to do more of a full-body workout.

Either way, Pilates exercises can be tailored to your specific needs!

Holly Smith, M.D.
B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer

Writer, The Fit Mother Project

Holly is an osteopathic physician, runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast.

She is board certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelors degree in dietetics and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, olympic distance triathlons, half marathons and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

She has also recently qualified for the 2020 World Championships for Ironman 70.3, in New Zealand!

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*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on Pilates workouts

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