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5 Basic Pilates Exercises

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

The Pilates Method was designed to strengthen the core, improve posture, increase endurance, improve sleep, relieve back pain, and give the body a sleeker, lengthened look. These benefits can be gained immediately through the basic Pilates exercises.

In this post, I will guide you through 5 basic exercises that can be performed anytime, anywhere without equipment. If you’ve been wondering what Pilates is like or you’re up for a new challenge, give these exercises a try.

And if you’re an experienced practitioner, try looking at them from a fresh perspective. Read every direction like it’s your first time and pay attention to the details. Each exercise outlined below is perfect for beginners and fundamentally great for experts to practice and improve upon too!

5 Basic Pilates Exercises

The Roll Up

Some have said this exercise is like doing 6 crunches in one. Perhaps that’s because it is so challenging to do correctly or maybe it’s because it requires the full use of your rectus abdominus, from top to bottom, including upper and lower abdominals.

The articulation of the spine while working against gravity is extremely difficult to do yet, such a simple task. It requires patience and persistence. Luckily, for the novice practitioner, there are ways to modify this exercise to accommodate physical limitations or injuries(see: *1/2 Roll Down). The goal however, should always be to ‘roll up’. Good luck my friends!


• Starting position: Lie down on your back with your legs extended and with your heels together. Reach your arms overhead with your palms facing up. (Your back should remain flat to the mat)

• Arms shoulder width apart.

• Fingers together, thumbs with the fingers.

Option: Try your legs in parallel and together or in Pilates stance(heels together, toes apart)

• While taking a deep breath in, lift your arms to the ceiling then lift your head in between the arms. Pull your belly button towards the spine.

• While exhaling slowly, continue rolling up off the floor, reaching your arms forward, parallel to the ground. Stretch forward over the legs.

• Grab onto your legs and use your arms as assistance if you cannot come up.

- Option: Try coming up with the feet flexed.

• Inhale to roll back down in the same way you came up, keeping the arms at shoulder height.

- Option: Try going down with the feet pointed

- For a greater challenge, keep your arms next to your ears.

• Exhale to lift the arms toward the ceiling and back over your head, getting all the air out of your lungs and pulling your bellybutton towards the ground.

• Repeat 4-6x

*1/2 Roll Down

If the Roll Up is too far out of reach or cannot be done properly, beginners can start with the 1/2 Roll Down instead.

Traditionally, this exercise is done with the feet hooked under a strap(attached to the Gratz high mat). If you do not own a mat with a strap then this exercise should be done by hooking the feet under a sofa or bed frame. I cannot emphasize this enough. I have seen clients taking mat classes for years(15+ years!), never using a strap, and never being able to do a Roll Up with good articulation. And as soon as they started using a Gratz high mat, after a very short period of time they were able to roll up smoothly off the mat. So please, hook your feet on something at home!


• Starting position: Sitting, bend your knees, with your feet hooked under the strap with your hands holding onto the back of the thighs.

• Heels together, toes apart in your Pilates stance.

• Inhale, pull the lower back towards the mat, touching the lower back if you can. Your arms should be straight.

- Try to move the pelvis first as you go backwards.

• Exhale and round forward, head diving down between the knees. Use your arms to help you round the spine as you come forward.

- Try to hold the pelvis in place for as long as possible as you go forward.

• Repeat 4-6x

- As you get stronger, try using your arms less and less without sacrificing the articulation of your spine.

Chest Expansion

The goal of this exercise is to expand the lungs and open the chest. Good posture will allow you to take a deep breath, so be sure to stand tall and pull your abdominals in toward your spine.

I especially like to perform this exercise if I’m feeling sluggish in the morning and need some energy or after a cardiovascular workout and I’m working on breath control.


• Starting position: Standing in Pilates stance, heels together with the toes a fist distance apart.

- Option to stand with toes only two fingers apart.

• Inhale deeply while sweeping your arms back behind your hips, opening your chest. It’s as if the opening of the chest actually encourages your arms to go further back. Pull your shoulder blades towards each other.

- For more challenge, lift your heels slightly on your inhale.

• Hold your breath in while you look to the right, to the left and back to center.

• Exhale while your arms travel forward, in line with your shoulders.

- If they were lifted, lower your heels as you exhale.

TV Exercises

This a series of exercises meant to be done while sitting in a chair and can even be done while watching TV! These are simple, therapeutic exercises from the “Pre-Pilates” system, designed for those who are injured or who have physical limitations. Like all basic Pilates exercises, they are simple yet deeply effective.

The goal of this series is to feel the connection between the abdominals and the leg. Deepen the abdominals as you lift the leg and you’ll feel this connection which is designed to strengthen your core muscles and of course the leg muscles. This is a great series to do postpartum when you are also focusing on engaging the pelvic floor.


• Starting position: Sitting at the very edge of a chair, bend your knees, legs in parallel position, feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart. Hands can rest on the chair next to your hips.

-Option: Sit straight up or in a very high C-curve(looking downward with your ribs and upper abdominals pulled in).

• Exhale and lift your right knee up towards your nose, pulling your abdominals in to your spine. Inhale to lower back down. Repeat 3x. Switch to left knee, repeat 3x.

- Try to keep your hips very still.

• Straighten your right leg out along the floor, lift it up 3x, exhaling to lift, inhaling to lower. On the last time, hold it for 3 counts. Pull your abdominals in!

• Switch to the left leg, repeat.

• Bicycle the right leg: lift the knee, straighten the leg, lower it down, place the foot on the ground. Repeat 3x then reverse and repeat again 3x. Switch to the left leg.

• Extend your left leg straight, lift it up, bend the knee and lift it a bit higher then lower the foot down.

- Option: Repeat everything through in a Pilates stance, heels together and toes apart.

Single Leg Stretch

Meant to challenge your abdominals in a stable position, this exercise is completely malleable to challenge even the most advanced practitioner. In the beginner version of this exercise, we keep the head down and legs point towards the ceiling but as you get stronger, the head will lift and the legs will lower.

The goal of this exercise is to strengthen the powerhouse, stretch the legs and lengthen the lower back.


• Starting position: Lying on your back, bend your right knee into the chest, holding on behind the thigh. Your left leg will be straight up towards the ceiling. Head down on the mat.

- For more challenge, pick your head up and point your chin towards your chest.

- It’s important to lift up to the tips of your shoulder blades here, no higher and no lower.

• Inhaling slowly, pull the right knee towards your right shoulder then switch legs and pull the left knee to your left shoulder.

• Exhaling slowly, switch back to the right leg and again to the left leg.

• Repeat. 5-10x each leg.

Note: as your legs are moving, make sure to keep your rib cage anchored to your mat, with your lower back also making contact with the mat.

For a complete basic workout, check out our series of videos titled, “Basics” and be sure to watch the Tutorial video!

In addition, if you are just getting started with Pilates here at Empowerhouse, refer to our beginner calendar of suggested videos to complete over 1 month’s time. If you need the link to this calendar, please contact us!

If you’re worried about using proper form, we are also available for virtual private sessions. Email

Flow Mat tutorial - Basic Pilates Exercises

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