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Basic Exercises for Pilates

by Faith Watson

About Faith Watson

Faith Watson owns Exercise In Disguise Alternative Fitness Studio in Gilberts, Ill., is a PMA-certified Pilates teacher, an NSCA-certified personal trainer, and an official Zumba instructor. She also specializes in non-diet weight management and wellness lifestyle coaching. Previously, Watson was a copywriter and brand strategist for large clients in health care and technology.



When Joseph Pilates first published his system of body conditioning exercises in 1945, simple instructions and photos illustrated a series of basic exercises he felt almost anyone could learn to do. Contrology, now known as the Pilates Method, was devised as a progressive exercise plan using your body weight and gravity as the only resistance. These exercises are still being performed today in Pilates matwork classes all over the world.

Preparatory Exercises

Early instruction in Pilates will focus on breathing, holding the abdominals, moving through the spine in a controlled manner and releasing areas of tightness or grip that are not intended to be part of the exercise. There are multiple terms favored by different training schools to describe the exercises that teach Pilates principles, but the basic element of form is a universal starting point. Pilates principles include flow, concentration and precision. The abdominal and back relationship will be strong whether you are learning to “draw navel to spine” or “hollow and zip.”

Beginning Exercises

The most basic exercises for beginners are often referred to as ab prep, bridge, single bent leg stretch and modified versions of the hundred and swimming. "The Pilates Body" by Brooke Siler is an excellent text describing a complete series of modified and beginning Pilates exercises and how they progress into the more integrated, tougher moves of advancing Pilates. To modify the basic Pilates exercises, such as the hundred, simple adjustments are needed, including bending of the knees and/or keeping the head flat on the mat instead of elevated in a crunch position. Swimming is a more advanced exercise in traditional Pilates; however, a basic version is created when the body position is modified. For beginning swimming, you’ll be on your hands and your knees, instead of face-down on the mat in back extension.

Pilates and the Classics

Push-ups and sit-ups are basic gym exercises you have probably experienced at some point in your life, and versions of them are included in Pilates classes, too. In the original sequence of Pilates exercises, push-ups were included near the end of the session. The main differences between Pilates push-ups and standard military push-up are the position of the upper arms and the approach to getting into and out of the push-up plank. Pilates push-ups call for the elbows to point back toward the ankles and the upper arms to be held right next to the rib cage. Before push-ups begin in Pilates class, you will be standing, then rolling down through the spine and walking your hands out in front of you into your push-up plank. Walking the hands back and returning onto standing legs is also included at the end of the set of Pilates push-ups. Sit-ups done Pilates-style are called roll-ups. Pilates instructors use specific instructions to encourage you to support the full flexion of your spine and to allow your abdominals to do the work instead of your hip flexors.

References (2)

  • "Return to Life Through Contrology"; Joseph H. Pilates and William J. Miller; 1945
  • "The Pilates Body"; Brooke Siler; 2000

Photo Credits:

This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.