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Insider's Guide to Pilates

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Try It Now

Try it now because: It's a confidence booster. Women of all shapes, sizes, and athletic ability love the grace and power they feel after just a single Pilates session.

Try it now because: It's a great boredom buster. "Almost every exercise requires a laser-like focus, so you don't have a chance to get distracted," says Alycea Ungaro, a FITNESS advisory board member, author of The Pilates Promise, and owner of Real Pilates in New York City.

Try it now because: It'll help your aching back. One recent study found that Pilates is just as effective at reducing lower-back pain in chronic sufferers as traditional physical-therapy strengthening exercises.

The Workout: These seven mat exercises, compiled by Ungaro, make up the foundation of a Pilates program. They'll strengthen your core while also working your upper and lower body.

What you'll need: A mat or piece of plush carpeting

Watch the video: Get the complete workout here

Get video demonstrations of exercises in the Intro to Pilates Workout

1. The Hundred

Works abs, inner thighs
Lie on floor with knees bent above hips (not shown), arms by sides, palms down. Exhale and raise head and shoulders off mat, curling chin toward chest while extending arms and legs; keep lower back pressed into floor and pull abs toward your spine (keep them engaged throughout the workout). Vigorously pump arms about 6 inches up and down, reaching through your fingertips. Inhale for 5 pumps, then exhale for 5. Do 100 pumps, or 10 full breaths.

2. Roll-Down

Works abs
Sit tall with knees bent and feet on the mat, legs hip-width apart. Place hands behind thighs, keeping elbows wide. Inhale and begin to roll back toward the mat, curling your pelvis under and pressing your lower back into the floor. Stop halfway down, when your arms are almost straight. Hold this position for 3 breaths (deepen your abs with each exhale), then roll back up to sitting position. Do 3 times.

3. Single-Leg Circle

Works abs, hips, inner and outer thighs, hamstrings
Lie with right leg on the mat and left leg extended toward ceiling; keep arms at sides with palms pressing down into mat. Point left foot, reaching out with toes, and rotate the leg slightly outward.
Inhale and trace a circle on the ceiling with your left leg, moving the entire leg but keeping hips still (don't lift left hip off floor).
Circle 5 times clockwise, then repeat in a counter-clockwise direction. Switch legs and repeat.

4. Rolling Like a Ball

Works abs
Sit toward the front of your mat with your legs hip-width apart and hands holding tops of ankles. Round your back, looking toward your navel, and tilt back slightly, balancing with your weight centered just behind your pelvic bones.
Inhale and rock back until the bottoms of your shoulder blades touch the mat, then exhale and come up to balance. Repeat 6 to 10 times, staying in a tight ball as you roll.

5. Single-Leg Stretch

Works abs, obliques
Lie on center of mat with knees bent toward chest. Lift head, neck and shoulders, curling chin toward chest. Inhale as you draw left knee toward chest, placing left hand on left ankle and right hand on left knee. Extend right leg about 45 degrees to floor. Continuing to inhale, switch legs and arms, extending left leg while hugging right leg toward chest. Repeat, exhaling for 2 counts. Do 5 to 10 reps per side.

6. Spine Stretch Forward

Works abs
Sit tall on the mat with legs extended, feet flexed and hip-width apart, and knees as straight as possible. Extend arms in front of shoulders, fingertips reaching forward. Without moving your hips or lower back, exhale and lower your head as if diving through your arms; round forward from upper back and curl chin toward chest. Pull your navel toward your spine and aim the top of your head toward the mat, reaching forward. Inhale and slowly return to starting position. Repeat 3 to 5 times.

7. Side Kicks Front

Works abs, butt
Lie on your left side at the back edge of the mat, cradling your head in your left hand with elbow bent. Keep right hand on the mat just in front of your waist. Bring your legs 45 degrees in front of your body. Lift right leg to hip height; inhale while kicking right foot forward, keeping foot flexed and hips stacked. Exhale as you bring right leg back, reaching through your toes and bringing it just slightly behind your body, as far as your hips will allow without rocking. Do 5 to 10 sets; switch sides and repeat.

Get It Right

To get results, you need to do each move using the correct alignment and breathing, says Ungaro. Keep these head-to-toe tips in mind during your next workout.

  • Scoop your abs as if trying on a pair of tight jeans, and keep them engaged through most of the exercises.
  • Exhale on the exertion — or the toughest part — of the exercise, then inhale when you're in the recovery phase.
  • Press your shoulders down and away from your ears, keeping your chest lifted.
  • Reach out through your hands and feet.
  • Keep a fist-distance space between your chin and chest when rounding your head forward.

Our Favorite Pilates DVDs

Best for Beginners

More Than Mat Pilates: Beginner Level (57 minutes)
Learn the basics of Pilates breathing, postures, and flow with these creative moves. The soft cues may seem a little too relaxed for some, but a bonus "Cardio Flow" section picks up the pace (pilatesforyou.com, $14.95).

Best Upper-Body Sculpter

Pilates Body Band Challenge (30 minutes)
The DVD comes with a resistance band to provide a strengthening component for the arms, chest, and shoulders — areas not often challenged in basic Pilates (gaiam.com, $20).

Best Fat-Burning Routine

Pick Your Level: Weight Loss Pilates (35 minutes)
Standing Pilates moves are mixed with mat work for a cardio/sculpting combo. Three variations are offered for each move, providing a challenge for all fitness levels (anchorbayentertainment.com, $14.98).

Best for Beating Back Pain

Classical Pilates Technique with Consideration of the Neck & Back (1 hour, 50 minutes)
Suffering from back problems? Ask your doctor about this workout, which provides gentle modifications that won't exacerbate your aches (classicalpilates.net, $19.95).

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, December 2006.

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