"With Pilates, we do our work eccentrically, which is a fancy way of saying, 'working in length,'" says Amy Jordan, founder of Wundabar Pilates. "In Pilates, you elongate your muscles as you sculpt them." With this type of workout, you're recruiting your stabilizer muscles as opposed to your more-commonly engaged "primary mover" muscles, like your biceps, quads, and glutes. This is universally beneficial for how you move in general, and boosts your performance in other workouts. "You can think of 'mover muscles' as muscles you can activate with thought, like turning on a light switch," explains Jordan. "The 'stabilizers' that Pilates focuses on, like the transverse abdominus [a deep core muscle] or multifidus [in the spine] are like a dimmer switch, because it takes a little time and focus to light them up."
These "dimmer switch" moves, she says, can help people protect their bodies from injury, and teach them to use their stabilizing muscles to carry out larger movements. One example, plucked straight from Jordan's Pilates class? Using your inner thigh to lift your heel off the floor (rather than just picking up the back of the foot), which works muscles spanning the pelvic floor to the transverse abdominus. Think of Pilates as the secret to getting your entire body activated at once, from deep within. And who wouldn't want a little bit more of that in every move they make?
Here, the 5 most basic Pilates moves that everyone should be doing, according to Jordan
1. Plank: Surely you aren't surprised about this one, since the plank is one of the most trusty exercises out there. Set up with your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor and feet parallel, creating your best diagonal from your head to the tips of your heels. Draw your navel up and in at a diagonal between your shoulder blades, broaden your collar bones on every inhale, and lift your heart to broaden space between your shoulder blades without rounding. Narrow your outer hip bones without gripping your booty to activate your lower core. Hold up to one minute.
2. Lunge + arm raises: Stand with your feet four to six inches apart and parallel. Inhale, step your left foot forward and shift weight into all four corners of the left foot. The right heel will be raised. Exhale, then bend both knees as your torso lowers straight down. Allow your left knee to glide just in front of your ankle, aligning it with your first and second toes. Inhale lifting your torso up off of the hips to return to standing with two straight legs at the top. Exhale and lower into the lunge thinking of having your inner thighs "resisting away" from each other like two strong magnets to slow it down. Inhale to lift your ribs off of the pelvis and think of your inner thighs closing like a pair of scissors to stand. Do 12 on each side. Jordan adds that you can add small dumbbells in each hand to lift out into a wide "T" as you lower down to pump up the cardio.
3. Downhill ski: Start in a plank position, then exhale to shift your torso back behind your arms as your knees bend to the left. Inhale as you shift back, then exhale to shift your torso behind your arms, knees bending to the right. "Pro tip is to place a small ball between your legs a few inches above the knee to really target the inner thighs," says Jordan. Do 12 on each side.
4. Criss-cross: Lay on your back with your legs in tabletop position, hands interlaced below the base of your skull. Slowly lift your head, neck, and shoulders into a shallow curl, keeping lots of length on all sides of your spine. Inhale as your right shoulder blade peels off the floor and ribs rotate toward the left. As you rotate, the right leg extends at a diagonal. Exhale to return to center keeping your head and shoulders raised. Inhale as the left shoulder blade peels off the floor, ribs rotate towards the right, and the left leg extends at a diagonal. Don't touch your elbow to your knee—think "long front of body" instead, says Jordan. Do 12 on each side.
5. Single leg bridges: Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor with the outer thighs magnetized together. Take one small weight into each hand with your arms reaching straight up. Exhale to roll the pelvis like a gear wheel toward your navel to peel your hips off the floor, slowly following with the rest of the spine. Lift with length until you're in a bridge with no creases in the front of your hips, lengthening throughout the low back. Inhale, keeping knees together, and extend the right leg at a 45-degree angle. Hold and exhale as both arms open to the sides with a soft bend in the elbows until the hands hover over the floor. Inhale as arms bend to a 90-degree angle with elbows hovering over the floor and arms sweep back to start position. Exhale to slowly roll down from behind the heart to the pelvis. "Lower down the spaces between your vertebrae rather than the bones themselves to really find length," says Jordan, noting a modification can involve keeping both feet flat on the floor. Do four on each side.
If you want to move on to some more advanced pilates work, try this full-body series:
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