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Pilates is about more than just your core — try this full-body Pilates workout

Think Pilates is just about core? This full-body Pilates workout will have you thinking again.

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Pilates is a renowned core workout, but the celebrity-loved routine is more than burn the mid-section. The misconception that Pilates is “just an ab” workout is understandable. One of the six principles of Pilates is “centering,” and the exercise routine considers the core the body’s “powerhouse.” (The other five principles are breath, concentration, control, precision, and flow.)

However, a Pilates workout can engage numerous muscles, including the upper and lower body. Keeping these groups involved will help you prevent injury and build all-over strength. What’s more, the low-impact, weight-free nature of many Pilates exercises makes them a good fit for people just coming back from injury (with a green light from a care provider), beginners, and people experienced in strength training looking to mix up their routine. These seven moves will give you a full-body Pilates workout.

What is Pilates?

man and woman doing planks studio fitness class
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Before we get into a full-body Pilates workout, let’s discuss what the exercise is. Joseph Pilates, a German physical trainer, developed Pilates in the 20th century. The exercises combine mind, body, and breath, requiring precision and focus. Pilates isn’t cardio, but the exercises will help you build strength through small, controlled movements. People will also gain core stability, flexibility, body awareness, and improved posture in the process. The last one may be particularly attractive if you spend time hunched over a computer.

The core stays active throughout. However, people work different muscles during Pilates. In other words, you can absolutely engage in a full-body Pilates workout, with each move engaging the core whether you feel like you’re targeting those muscles or not. Also, the focus on breathwork can be a stress reliever.

A full-body Pilates workout you can do at home

a man doing a plank on a yoga mat
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One of the many benefits of Pilates is that it can be done without equipment in the comfort of your home. Sure, studios may have fancy gadgets like a Reformer, but they aren’t required. All you need is your body. Though Pilates may be a favorite of the rich and the famous, the exercises are accessible to the everyman, too.

Glute bridges

Glute bridges target the glutes (of course), core, back, and hamstrings.

How to:

  1. Lie flat on your back with your feet on the floor and knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Pull your naval into your spine.
  2. Inhale. Push through your feet, keeping weight evenly distributed, as you peel your hips off the floor.
  3. Squeeze your glutes at the top. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
  4. Exhale as you bring your hips back to the starting position slowly and with control.

Sidekick front-to-back

This move works the hips, thighs, core, and glutes. You’ll also improve balance.

  1. Lie on your side with your hips and legs stacked on top of one another. Prop up your head with your hand.
  2. Lift the top leg to hip height, about an inch or two, and flex the foot.
  3. Inhale. Swing (but with control) the foot in front of you, making a 90-degree angle with the torso. Pulse twice.
  4. Exhale as you point your toes and swing your leg behind you as if trying to touch the corner of the room with your big toe.
  5. Return to start.
  6. Repeat 8-10 times.
  7. Switch sides and repeat.

Side-lying leg lifts

Stay in the same position as above for a move that works the hips, glutes, tights, and core.

  1. If you’re not in the above position, assume it by lying on your side. Your hips and legs should be stacked on top of one another, and your hand can prop up your head.
  2. Inhale. Engage the core and pretend the mid-section is pulling the top leg up past hip height. Squeeze the glutes as you go.
  3. Lower the leg.
  4. Repeat 8-10 times.
  5. Switch sides and repeat.

Pilates pushup

Yes, Pilates has a pushup variation. This version targets the triceps rather than the large muscles in the chest.

  1. Assume a high plank position with wrists and shoulders aligned. Spread the fingers wide. The feet should be touching.
  2. Inhale as you squeeze the legs together (and the glute). The back should remain flat the entire time.
  3. Inhale, pull the belly button toward the spine as you slowly lower yourself to the floor.
  4. Stop when you are nearly touching the floor. Exhale.
  5. Inhale as you slowly return to start.
  6. Repeat 10 times.

Arm circles

Often used in warm-ups or cool-downs of traditional upper-body workouts, arm circles can also be a move all their own. Do them long enough, and you’ll see.

  1. Stand straight on a mat with feet hip-width distance apart.
  2. Inhale, pulling the belly button in toward the spine as you lift the arms to shoulder height.
  3. Make tiny forward circles with the arms for one minute.
  4. Make tiny backward circles for one minute.

Tricep dips

You can use a bench or step to increase the range of motion, but a floor or mat is all you need. Tricep dips work the core and triceps, which are found in the back of your upper arm.

  1. Get into a reverse tabletop position with your hips lifted off the mat and elbows straight but not locked. The fingers should be shooting toward the heels.
  2. Shift the weight to your hands and feet as you inhale and slowly lower down, bending at the elbow.
  3. Continue to lower until just before your butt hits the ground.
  4. Push yourself back up to start.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times.

Four-point kneeling double-knee tap

This move is a true burner for the shoulders and arms.

  1. Get into a tabletop position with the wrists in line with the shoulders and knees directly under the hips.
  2. Inhale as you press into the hands and balls of the feet to lift your knees one to two inches off the mat.
  3. Exhale, lowering the knees down. Let them tap the floor.
  4. As soon as the knees hit the floor, quickly lift back up.
  5. Repeat 10 times.


man stretching glutes
Kampus Productions / Pexels

Pilates engages the core muscles but is more than a workout for the abs. Many moves target multiple muscle groups, like the glutes, triceps, and shoulders. Think glute bridges, tricep dips, and arm circles. While having a toned mid-section may be a goal, targeting multiple muscle groups will help you build all-over strength, reduce the risk of injury, and help you feel stronger and more able to perform daily tasks. Pilates is a low-impact workout and accessible for beginners and advanced types alike. You’ll also get a side helping of stress relief courtesy of Pilates’s focus and breathing elements — prepare to have your mind taken off your daily to-dos as you hone in on feeling physically and mentally stronger through precise, controlled movements.

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