Created in the 1920s to assist in rehabilitation and healing of wounded World War I soldiers, Pilates takes a mind-and-body approach and typically focuses on the core group muscles. Pilates exercises aim to improve flexibility, strength and posture without adding muscle bulk. This type of workout is popular with many levels of practitioners, from dancers and athletes to housewives and senior citizens. There are many different poses in this workout, but the main Pilates exercises focus on toning and shaping the abdomen, legs, upper body and buttocks.
There are several Pilates exercises that focus on the abdominal muscles, a common problem area for many people. One of the basic exercises is the roll up, which involves lying flat on the floor on the back and slowing rolling forward and up, peeling the back off the floor, vertebrae by vertebrae. The breath is involved in the exercise, with the inhale in conjunction with the upward movement and the exhale in conjunction with the release back to the ground.
Another popular stomach Pilates exercise begins in the same position, but with the hands, neck and head in the crunch position. The practitioner extends the straight legs and feet upward in the air, and moves them up and down slowly. The feet should never touch the ground.
Pilates exercises that focus on the legs include several seated poses. Leg circles are popular and help to strengthen and stretch the upper thigh muscles and hip joints. They are done by lying on the back, extending one leg up at a 90-degree angle and moving the leg in a circular motion, starting at the hip socket. The single leg stretch begins with the practitioner lying on his or her back with the head and shoulders lifted. He or she pulls in one knee to the chest, grabbing it with both hands, and then extends the other leg.
Upper body Pilates exercises help tone the arms, shoulders and chest. The plank exercise utilizes a popular yoga pose to work the upper arm muscles and shoulders, and it can be done on the floor or with an exercise ball. The practitioner begins in the push-up position on the floor or on an exercise ball, balancing on the toes with the arms extended straight. He or she then slowly lifts each leg up, one at a time, and extends the leg upward.
Seated basic arm raises begin in the cross-legged position and the hands on the ground at the practitioner's sides. The arms stretch slowly outward and over the head until the hands touch. The hands then return to the ground.
Many people do Pilates exercises to tone the buttocks, because this type of workout can be very effective in that area. The plie side lift exercise involves beginning in the bended knee squat position, straightening the legs and raising each leg to the side, one leg at a time. This helps to tone the glutes and hips.
The lying heel press begins with the practitioner lying on his or her stomach on a Pilates mat. Each leg is lifted up, one at a time, in a right angle. The foot is kept parallel to the floor.