For anyone who isn’t familiar with the Pilates reformer, it can intimidate even the most well-versed fitness fans. With a variety of straps overhead, a moving bed and metal springs beneath you, who wouldn’t be afraid to use the muscle-burning contraption? Created by Joseph Pilates, the reformer is designed to provide resistance to what he calls your body’s powerhouse: your abs, lower back, hips and abdomen. With about 500 exercises, the Pilates reformer is equipped with flexible lightweight bands, a carriage (at the foot of the reformer), which is attached by a set of springs that have different levels of resistance and shoulder blocks to keep you from sliding when you push and pull off the carriage.
But Pilates-via-reformer isn’t the only way to reap the benefits of this core-focused workout method. What’s great about Pilates is that you can do many of the reformer exercises with just a mat and little or no equipment. Here, Sylvia Ostrowska, founder of Pilates by Sylvia, shows us how to reap the benefits of the reformer with these basic Pilates mat exercises inspired by some of nature’s fiercest animals. Think: Floating like an elegant swan but attacking like an agile snake. Trust us, after this workout, no one will want to mess with you.
5 Pilates Exercises (No Reformer Needed!)
1. The Elephant
“This exercise specifically targets the hamstrings and calves. Some abdominals are working as well because you’re pulling your legs. It’s also great for someone who wants to improve their flexibility and mobility,” Ostrowska says. Depending on your flexibility, you can keep your entire hands down or your fingertips touching the floor. Ostrowska recommends using yoga blocks (or books) if you’re not able to touch the floor.
How to: Stand tall on a mat with your feet close together and toes pointing towards the front of the room (a). Bend forward so your hands are flat on the mat and fingers face the same direction as your toes. If you need to adjust your stance so your lower back feels more comfortable, you can place your feet farther away from your upper body (b). Slowly move each foot back and away from your hands so you form a downward dog. Then, move each foot back to the starting position (c). Do 12 reps (moving both feet back is one rep).
2. The Clam
This Pilates move may sound gentle and easy, but don’t be fooled by its innocuous-sounding name. While lunges, squats and leg raises aren’t to be skipped, adding the clam to our lower-body workouts will bring the heat to your lower half. “This movement strengthens the gluteus medius, which enables a steady walking gait,” Ostrowska says. Remember form is key to get the maximum calorie burn from this exercise. And once you’re ready for more resistance, you can place a band or tie a towel around your thighs.
How to: Lay on your right side and press up so your forearm anchors you to the floor and raises your upper body. Straighten your hips and align them with your back (a). Place your left hand on your waist. Keep your knees bent in front of you and feet slightly raised off the floor (b). Using your thigh muscles and glutes pulse your legs open and closed, while keeping your feet off the ground. Your hips shouldn’t be moving (c). Do 12 reps before switching sides
“Even though the 100s are an abdominals exercise, the lats and triceps are engaged while your muscles are beating rapidly. Your inner thighs and quads are also working as you squeeze your legs together,” Ostrowska says. This classic Pilates move makes a great exercise for improving your cardio endurance. Pumping your arms up and down rapidly five counts while inhaling and five counts while exhaling trains your core and lungs to work harder. “Additionally, for those that need extra athletic training, it’s possible to pump your arms and inhaling for five counts and exhaling seven to eight counts. This is a great way to improve lung capacity,” Ostrowska says.
How to: Lay flat on your back with your hands at your sides and feet straight in front of you (a). Raise your legs about 45 degrees off the floor and lift your head up so your shoulders are off the ground (b). Engage your abdominals and start pumping your arms at your sides, inhaling and exhaling for five counts each (c). Count up to 100 and repeat the exercise for two more sets.
4. Swan with T
If you’re familiar with the superman pose, the swan with T engages some of the same muscles but packs an extra punch to your shoulders and arms. Pro tip: Ostrowska says you should keep your eyes looking down, then you lift your chest as much as you can. Your neck shouldn’t be arched, which is what most people tend to do. “The neck is the extension of your spine and it should move with it. As you peel yourself away from the floor, your sternum should be coming up as well. This is a back exercise,” Ostrowska explains.
How to: With or without weights, lay on your stomach with your face touching the mat. Extend your arms at your sides in a straight line to form a “T” with your body (a). Engaging your upper-back muscles, slowly lift your chest off the floor, while your arms remain lifted at your sides (b). If you can, try to left if your lower body off the mat, too, slightly raising your thighs and toes off the ground. Remember to keep your gaze down (c). Lower your chest back to the mat to the starting position and repeat the movement 12 times.
5. The Snake
This pose is one of the most challenging Pilates exercises, according to Ostrowska, because there is a lot of spinal articulation and shifting your weight from your arms to your feet. “This exercise is reminiscent of the Chaturunga in yoga, where the triceps are the emphasis. But with the snake, you’re working your shoulders, back and oblique muscles,” Ostrowska says.
How to: Get into a plank position with your hands on the mat and your arms straight to lift your body off the ground (a). Cross one leg under the other with your bottom knee slightly bent, and your top leg straight (b). Using your arm muscles and core, arch your back so your chin meets your chest, and your upper body moves towards the back of the mat. Keep your body lifted throughout the entire movement (c). Peel your upper body back up to starting position so your back and neck are super extended into a Chaturunga pose (d). Do 12 reps.
Bonus: Short spine massage
This Pilates exercise is a great way to end your workout because it helps massage your spine and the muscles in your upper- and lower-back. “This exercise is mostly a stretch for your back. The dismount should be slow and thorough,” Ostrowska says. That means engaging your abdominal muscles and triceps to keep your body stable and send your legs over your head.
How to: Lay on your back on a mat with your feet and legs together and your hands at your sides with your palms facing down (a). Inhale to prepare while you lift your legs 45 degrees off the mat (b). Exhale, slowly rolling your body as you bring your heels over your head (c). Once your feet and back can’t extend any farther, slowly bring your feet back, bending your knees, and then extending your legs back to 45 degrees (d). Do 12 reps.
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