Pilates is a great workout for toning muscles without creating extra bulk, as it works on strengthening small muscle groups while focusing on posture and alignment. Whether executed on a mat or reformer, the low-impact workout effectively trains the whole body, one group of muscles at a time.
While it may look easier than high-impact alternatives, expect to feel a major burn post-workout as its effects are sure to creep up on you the day following a session. So, which muscles does Pilates work, anyway? We asked the experts to break it down for us.
Meet the Expert
Strengthening your core is one of the key objectives of Pilates. “Technically, your core should be activated in all exercises throughout your workout so that you can give your target muscles the support they need to effectively train,” James Barnett, Solidcore instructor on Equinox+, tells Byrdie. To really fire up your core, Barnett suggests any exercise that uses a plank as its base will activate your core. However, he points out that technically your core should be activated in all exercises throughout your workout so that you can give your target muscles the support they need to effectively train. “To really fire up your core, any exercise that uses a plank as its base will activate your core,” he adds. One of these? A hollow-body hold.
Pilates Exercise: Hollow-Body Hold
- Lay on your back with your legs six inches above the ground, your hands hovering over the top of your legs, and shoulders off the ground. Engage your core so that your low back is flat to the ground
- Keeping everything still, move your arms overhead and then back to your thighs. As your hands go overhead, your core will activate more to keep your body stable.
- To continue activating through your core, lift your legs as you lower your hands back to your thighs for a full crunch range of motion.
Moxie instructor Christina Chin explains that transverse abs lay deep within your core muscles. “It is the deepest layer of our abdominal muscles, right below our rectus abs—aka six-pack muscle,” she explains. Transverse abs help to stabilize our pelvis and spine, maintain balance, and correct posture. “In Pilates, we utilize the transverse abs more so than other types of workouts. We strengthen from deep within.”
Pilates Exercise: Pilates 100-The Grandmaster Exercise
- Start by lying down on your back, bring your legs to a tabletop position. Knees are bent 90 degrees, directly above your hips, shins parallel to the floor. Raise your arms to the ceiling 90 degrees.
- Curl your head, neck, and shoulders off the mat as you press your arms down to your hips. Extend your legs to 45 degrees; you can open up your toes but keep your heels together (Pilates V stance).
- Start to pump your arms up and down like your splashing water. Make sure to keep your arms and wrists straight. As you pump your arms, you inhale for five counts and exhale for five counts. Repeat for 10 breath cycles.
- Through your breath work and pumping arms, you must engage your deep core muscles to stabilize your body. The lower your legs reach down, the harder the exercise will be. It is also important to keep your low back flat during this exercise. It takes a lot of core control to do this exercise correctly. If you’re new to Pilates or have lower back pains, there are modifications to this exercise that you can do until you gain enough core strength to do the full expression. I always include the Pilates 100 in every one of my sessions! It’s a great warm-up exercise to invigorate the body and get it ready for what’s to come.
There are three major glute muscles: Gluteus maximus (“which takes up the majority of the rear,” Chin explains), Gluteus medius and Gluteus minimus. The glutes are the largest muscles in your body, which means they play a big role. “Strong glutes equal improved posture, increased flexibility and mobility, injury prevention, and let’s be honest, a good look,” she says. They make it possible for us to sit, walk, run, climb and jump. “Pilates is great for toning the backside of one’s legs, as well as tightening and lifting glutes.”
Pilates Exercise: Shoulder Bridge (Glute Bridge)
- Lie down on a mat with knees bent; feet planted down on the mat, feet parallel hip-width apart. Drive through the feet as you push your hips up, squeezing your glutes, lower down to the mat, and repeat.
- A shoulder bridge is a great exercise to engage your glutes and hamstrings. There are so many variations one can add to this classic exercise to make it spicier, i.e., you can add a resistance band around thighs, elevate your feet up on a chair, or for my favorite, bring one knee to tabletop and do a single leg shoulder bridge to feel the extra burn.
Erector Spinae (Mid-to-Lower Back Muscles)
The erector spinae consists of three main muscle groups: iliocostalis lumborum, longissimus thoracis, and the spinalis. “In Pilates, we do a lot of forward flexion (curling forward), but it is also important to incorporate spinal extension to the mix,” says Chin. Therefore, back extensions are done when you want to strengthen the lower back. “Strong back muscles protect the spine, keep it upright and prevent back problems,” she says.
Pilates Exercise: Swan
- Lie down on your front side with your forehead down on the mat. Keep your legs hip-width apart. Hands are next to your shoulders, with the elbows bent and facing back.
- Lengthen and lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. Ensure you keep your hips glued to the mat and engage your core to protect your lower back. Slowly melt your upper body back down onto the mat.
- Back extensions are done slowly and with control. A lot is going on, so you would want to avoid overextending or fast movements. I would say engage your glutes as well as you perform this exercise. Back extension exercises like Swan will improve your spinal flexibility and posture.
Whenever you hold a plank—whether it’s a regular plank, twisted plank, or side plank—you will activate your shoulders and deltoids, Barnett explains. “They’re a main component in maintaining good form in plank variation exercises.” A bonus? They also work your core. You can also specifically target your deltoids more intensely in shoulder presses, rear deltoid presses, and external shoulder rotations.
Pilates Exercise: Planks
- Plank: Plant elbows and toes on your mat with your elbows directly under each shoulder. Flatten your back by drawing your hips into your ribcage to engage your abs.
- Plank Up-Down: While keeping your core engaged, replace each elbow with your hands, and then come back down to your elbows.
- High Plank Hold: Hands and toes on your mat, with your wrists directly under each shoulder. Flatten your back by drawing your hips into your ribcage to engage your abs.
- Shoulder Taps: While keeping your core engaged, touch each shoulder with the opposite hand, and then let that hand return to its starting position on your mat.