3 Excellent Pilates Workouts – A Beginner’s Guide

Nearly everyone wants to be strong and lean, with glowing skin, a flat belly and graceful carriage (deportment in French, as well as ballet class). Not everyone can afford to join a gym or a dance class, but if you can read a book or watch a video, you can do Pilates!

You don’t really need equipment (though a yoga or Pilates mat would be beneficial, and there are other, optional pieces of equipment available for purchase) and you don’t need to leave the comfort of your home or dorm room to do it!

Read on for more about what it is, how it’s done, and how you can benefit from this calming, graceful form of exercise!


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What Is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of stretching exercise that was first introduced to the world by Joseph Pilates (1883-1967), a German physical trainer. Pilates was a sickly child, suffering from asthma and rickets.

After taking up gymnastics, his health and physique improved to the point in which he could be used as a model for anatomical posters and textbooks.Joseph Pilates

As a young man, Pilates was primarily a gymnast and bodybuilder. He relocated to England in the early 1910s, and in 1912, he began earning a living as a professional boxer.

Upon the outbreak of World War I, Pilates and other Germans living in England were interned in internment camps, and it was here that Pilates began to train others in what he then termed “Contrology,” in which one could manipulate and further control physical movements in somewhat confined spaces, as well as studying breath work and stretching from yoga.

Upon returning to Germany at the end of the war, he began working and collaborating with dancers and others within the performing arts community of Hamburg.

Though he had trained some of the local police in self-defense tactics in Hamburg, he was requested to train the German army. Pilates did not like the social and political climate that had cropped up in his beloved homeland, so he decided to immigrate to the United States in 1925.

While travelling to America, he met his wife Clara. The Pilates’ opened a studio in New York City, attracting dancers and performance artists such as George Ballanchine and Martha Graham.

The Pilates’ began by teaching what they called Contrology, in which the mind was used to control muscle tension and relaxation. They also focused on lengthening and strengthening the spine, breath control, and how to relax into a stretch.

They taught well into the 1960s and commanded quite a following not only among former and current dancers, but other people who were interested in achieving a toned, relaxed, slender body and graceful deportment.

Where Do I Begin?

One of the best things about Pilates is that it can be done nearly anywhere, at any time, by anyone, with little to no equipment.

Though many choose to join a studio, Pilates has gained popularity in many health clubs and gyms, and some communities may even offer free or trial sessions if you aren’t sure if this is the workout for you.

If joining a group or studio is prohibitive for you, there are many excellent Pilates workout dvds and videos available that may help with your decision.

The Workout—What Does Pilates Do?

Pilates is a series of stretches, muscle tension, and breathing exercises that are best performed in loose, comfortable clothing, preferably with bare feet, socks, or, if shoes must be worn, make sure they are light and have a thin, flexible sole.

Much like with kettlebell workouts or yoga, the feet must be free to move quickly and gain flexibility. Pilates conditions and strengthens everything.

Pilates is good for overall physical muscle and mind conditioning, with movements that tend to build upon and flow into one another. Pilates is best known for building a strong and stable “core,” which consists of the abdominal muscles, the pelvis and pelvic floor, spine, back muscles, and shoulder girdle.

Pilates also elongates the muscles, which in turn carves out a lean physique, much like that of a classically trained dancer. Pilates loosens the joints and ligaments, so pregnant women need to exercise caution.

Upon pregnancy, the hormone relaxing is much more abundant that usual, so pregnant women must be mindful not to overdo any ligament stretches, as this may damage ligaments and stretch them to the point they won’t “bounce back.”

Otherwise, Pilates is perfect as a core-stabilizing, overall muscle-toning and balance-enhancing form of exercise. Through a careful diet and some mild resistance training, Pilates may also help you lose weight.

Though you may not drop significant pounds with Pilates, the muscle strengthening, lengthening, and core-strengthening exercise will help you stand taller and more evenly, thus giving the appearance of a slender physique!

Pilates Core Exercises

The 100

At the “core” of every Pilates core is “The 100”, in which the legs and chest draw closer together, almost like a crunch. Breathing is very important during this exercise, and rather than jump right into “The 100”, it may be best to start with “The 50”—in which you inhale for a count of five, and exhale for a count of five. Here’s how to do it:

  • Start on your back, on the floor, with your belly-button pulled in toward your spine, hips square, knees and feet in a “tabletop” position, shins together.
  • As you begin to curl “up” from the shoulders, begin pumping your arms near your abdominals, about 6-8 inches off the floor, inhaling and exhaling to a count of five (five in, five out). Do this 10 times. That’s “The 100”.

Another good core exercise is The Ball, which also helps massage back muscles.

The Ball

  • Start in a seated position, legs together, toes pointed and touching the floor.
  • Place hands on the backs of thighs. Engage the abdominals by pulling your belly button in toward your spine. Inhale.
  • Roll onto your back, stopping at the shoulders, and using your abs, push yourself back up into a seated position while you exhale. Repeat five times.


  • Similar to the old-fashioned bicycle leg rotation exercises from middle school gym class, the criss-cross is a gentler but much more effective core exercise. Start on your back, engage your abs, and lift your feet and knees into the “tabletop” position.
  • As you raise your left knee, bring your right elbow to meet it, breathe, straighten the opposite leg, and repeat on the other side. You may repeat for a count of ten on each side—bringing your total to twenty, and your abs will be smoked! Call your local fire department, no one will be able to handle those flames, you total hottie!

Digital Sources for Workouts

Nearly all Pilates exercises engage and work the core muscles. One of the best ways to truly master these workouts is in the comfort of your own home via a dvd. Here are some links to some of our favorites!

Element: Pilates Weight Loss for Beginners—available on Amazon; this is a good break-in dvd for nervous beginners who don’t know what to expect, or fear they may not be able to handle a workout (you can!)

Pop Pilates Total Workout with Cassey Ho—again available on Amazon; Pilates expert and workout enthusiast Cassey Ho cheers you through a full-body workout that focuses on core strength and flexibility.

Pilates for Beginners and Beyond Boxed Set is well worth the price. This dvd is an excellent starting point, focusing especially on people with flexibility and joint issues, then taking you through more rigorous workouts at your leisure.

Of course, the best part of any dvd workout is the fact that you can stop, pause, go back, go forward, and freeze-frame any portion you deem necessary, either for review or to get a closer look at positions, foot placement, etc.

Mats, Rollers, Apps, and Others

Though Pilates really only uses the human body, muscle tension and breathing to strengthen muscles and loosen the joints, sometimes you just feel the need to punch up your workout a little, adding color as well as comfort.

Monster Fitness offers a great one, retailing on Amazon. It boasts a thick, spongy, comfortable material, carrying straps, it rolls up for easy storage, and it comes in great colors. Why not coordinate your mat to your gear for pops of color and contrast!

Those who are a bit tall and long might be interested in purchasing Thrive On Wellness’s thicker mat, retailing at Amazon for about $30 and available in blue and black.

This particular mat is also described as “extra-long,” which is extremely helpful for those of us who are tall or who happen to be long-limbed. This one also has a carrying strap.

Perhaps one of the most common pieces of Pilates equipment some people may be somewhat familiar with—or at least have seen—is a Pilates roller.

Rollers are used for support, but they can also be used to provide comfort and assist with balance that some beginners may not have the stamina for.

They may also be used to massage larger muscle groups after a strenuous Pilates session. One good one is made by ProSource, retailing for about $18.99 on Amazon.

Another good one is from contemporary Pilates pioneers Stott, who provide not just exercise and Pilates equipment, but also offer Pilates instructor certification as well. For more information on Stott, check out www.merrithew.com/stott-pilates.

Some Pilates students become so enamored with their workouts and so obsessed with the idea of improving their workouts at home that they go all-out and get an in-home Pilates reformer or rebounder machine.

A Pilates reformer is a bit like a home gym weight machine, and for some people they may be cost-prohibitive, if not downright intimidating. For those who may be interested and have decided that, much like Pilates itself, they just can’t live without it, feel free to feast your eyes (and your wallet) on this:

This is the Stamina AeroPilates XP 556 Reformer, with Cardio Rebounder. It retails on Amazon, and it also comes with a roller, dvds, and aforementioned cardio rebounder.

If you’ve got the money and you are serious about your Pilates, this may be just the machine for you!

Another good choice might be the Pilates Power Gym 3 mini-rebounder, which is smaller in size but also a bit more dynamic in regard to its ability to also be used as a strength training machine for weight-lifting and bodybuilding enthusiasts. It’s also about $100 cheaper than the Stamina AeroPilates XP.

Some people may also find good, gently used Pilates equipment on web sites such as Craigslist, The Pilates Guy, their local online newspaper’s buy-and-sell section, eBay, and other online retailers that specialize in used sports equipment.

Sometimes a simple Google or Bing search can produce a bevy of fruitful results. As always, when doing any sort of business online, be careful. Find out exactly what is sold, who is selling it, and if necessary, take a friend with you when you go to look at, try out, or purchase equipment from someone online.

Don’t make yourself a victim, and always take a protective, pro-active stance!

While you’re perusing some of this like-new or gently used equipment online, why not check out some of the top Pilates apps and download them to your iPhone or Android device.

Two excellent apps that are compatible with the iPhone are Perfect Pilates with Andrea Spier, which is free and boasts simple, step-by-step instructions and excellent visuals for form and breathing techniques.

If you like the basic version, you can always purchase in-app add-ons to satisfy your Pilates craving for more details and tougher workouts. Another good choice for iPhone users is Pilates Core by Method Yoga, which offers instant workouts and excellent graphics.

For Android users, Google Play’s app store offers Robert Burnt’s Pilates Workout Exercises, which features customizable workouts and clear visuals, as well as DSN Inc’s free Pilates app, which also allows you to play music, watch an entire workout video, and track your progress within the application.

Pilates class

Some Pilates devotees become so obsessed with their workouts that they begin to wonder what it might take to become an actual certified instructor in Pilates. If you’ve ever wondered this yourself, you’re in luck, because we’ve done some of the hard work of researching this topic for you!

One should first understand that teaching Pilates is a bit different from just doing Pilates. Yes, you will be doing Pilates, but as an instructor, you must also be watching the others in your class, assisting with balance issues, watching postures, and helping make corrections if and when it is necessary.

Many instructors suggest that, if a student is truly interested in becoming an instructor, that they take as many different kinds of Pilates classes as they can. The “average” sort of Pilates is also called mat Pilates, because it is done on a mat and it is often done within a gym or studio.

Certifications are different and comprise different types of coursework for those interested in reformer machines, rollers, and those who also look to incorporate physical therapy or yoga into their Pilates instruction.

Like any other form of instruction, there will be exams to complete and possibly even some fees to pay in order to gain certification or refresher certifications when the time comes for such action.

The student also needs to make sure that the certification they are seeking has been approved and is recognized via the Pilates Method Alliance, a professional organization that is also a certifying agency for those seeking to instruct.

The Pilates Method Alliance also suggests that prospective students have a minimum of 500 hours of practice, training, and certification if they seek comprehensive certifications, which are the most inclusive forms of study, practice and teaching.

This will also include a student teaching practicum module, as well as any fees for certification exams. Pilates educational modules should take place over months, not just a weekend or two.

Though this may be perfectly acceptable for a run-of-the-mill local fitness instructor, a comprehensive Pilates certification should involve much more work.

With comprehensive certification, one may also work as either a personal, one-on-one instructor or eventually do large group work in a studio. Some studios that have excellent reputations in the field of instructor readiness and certification include Power Pilates, Balanced Body University, Stott Pilates, and Body Arts and Science International.

Complete your certification to the best of your abilities in whatever Pilates certification you choose, and make sure you keep your license up to date so that you may not only gain strength and flexibility with your body, but also a burgeoning new career!

Pilates is good for everyone, and everyone can do it. See you on the mat!