top of page

What are the Pilates Movement Principles?

Pilates is a method of exercises that teaches key movement and alignment principles used in everyday and athletic activities. The Pilates System is recommended for all age groups, all walks of life to practice the right way of developing the body uniformly, correct body posture and connecting the mind and body to help elevate one's spirit.

In a previous post about What are the 9 Pilates Principles? here we go further as to how the principles work, how the principles are broken down into key categories and exercises, and how to progress a basic Pilates exercise into their most advanced expression.

The principles will be briefly discussed and are the following:

Breathing- is the first movement principle and most important one of all because it is essentially the first and last act we do as humans and is the foundation of our existence. In Pilates, we learn to breath optimally and is essential for overall health and well being.

Breathing techniques can be used to decrease stress, lower or raise blood pressure, improve aerobic capacity and calm the mind and spirit. Pilates breathing exercises are the following: Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, Lateral (rib) breathing, One lung breathing, and sniffing breath.

Breathing techniques can be used to facilitate movement, increase strength and mobility, improve lung capacity and focus the mind.

As a general rule; inhaling facilitates spinal extension, exhaling facilitates spinal flexion, either inhaling and or exhaling can facilitate lateral flexion, either inhaling or exhaling can facilitate spinal rotation. These are great rules for a beginner to know and follow. For the more advanced student, try reversing the usual breathing pattern to focus the mind and bring awareness back to the exercise.

Lower Core Activation- the lower core, or powerhouse, is the foundation of every exercise in Pilates and in real life. Learning to use the powerhouse correctly and treat is as a dynamic center is the key to the 3 E's: ease, economy and efficiency.

The elements of the core include: Transversus abdominals, Pelvic Floor, Multifidi, Diaphragm, Anterior fibers of the Psoas major and Quadratus Lumborum.

Basic exercises to activate the core include: Fingertip abdominals, All Fours Abdominals, Pelvic Floor engagement, Standing Multifidi engagement.

Neutral Spine: Finding the optimum starting position- according to current biomechanics research, the core or "inner unit" works best as a spinal stabilizer when the pelvis is in a neutral position. To create this balance, the ASIS which are the two bony protrusions in the pelvis area and the public bone are leveled. Please reference a previous blog post about What is a neutral pelvis, why a neutral pelvis is important, and how to identify neutral?

Finding the right starting position for each exercise provides a solid foundation to move from and creates more comfortable and efficient movement patterns. A very effective and easy way to show new students how to identify a neutral pelvis is with a Pilates exercise called Pelvic Clock.

When performing many Pilates exercises, having a neutral pelvis is not always the best position for students who don't have the abdominal strength to support the low back completely during the exercises.

Teaching that a supported neutral spine for new students is essential when helping them strengthen their abominals and maintain a stable low back. Other conditions generally prefer an imprinted spine or a posteriorly tilted pelvis such as: Spondylolisthesis, Spinal stenosis, Spinal arthritis, some sacroiliac joint dysfunctions and some disc injuries.

Abdominal Strengthening- having abdominal strength is critical to complete basic daily tasks and important for generating power in one's sport such as people who practice rotational sports like golf, tennis, swimming and or dancing however the core does not move the torso.

In order to create rotation in the torso, the remaining abdominals must be engage. These muscles are: Internal oblique abominals, External oblique abdominals, and Rectus abdominals. Exercises to help develop abdominal strength are: Abdominal Curls and Oblique Abdominals.

Lumbopelvic Stability- is related to the core and abdominal strength but includes all of the muscles that attach to the pelvis and the spine through the action of the four outer units which plays some role in virtually every Pilates exercise and in functional movement.

Maintaining balance and strength in the four outer unites is essential for preventing low back dysfunctions and for creating efficient and graceful movement patterns. The four outer unites are: the anterior oblique sling system (AOS), the posterior oblique system (POS), the deep longitudinal system, and the lateral system.

Basic Pilates that teach lumbopelvic stability are: Marching, Toe Taps, and Opposite arm/leg reach.

Strengthening and Mobilizing the Spine- Any activity that we as humans are engaged in, from walking, swimming, picking up our kids/grand kids, gardening, traveling, dancing, cleaning our homes, driving our cars to playing sports involves movement of the spine.

The spine has the capacity to absorb shock, is designed to protect the delicate spinal cord and has the capacity to support the weight of the body through various ranges of motion. Optimizing spinal mobility and to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine is key to minimizing joint stress and maximizing overall health.

Basic Pilates exercises to strengthen and mobilize the spine are: Cat/Cow, Hip Circles (Poodle Tail), Tail Wag.

Basic bridging exercises include: flat and or articulated back bridge, bridge marching, typewriter/Hip Dips) Figure Eights.

Basic back extension exercises include: Prone arm reaches (Rockets) and mini swan

The lower body- is the second heart of our mobility. It provides strength and endurance for many daily activities and athletic activities. A well trained lower body will need to be aligned properly and train for optimum leg alignment, balance range of motion, balance muscular strength, create strength and endurance and trained for agility, balance, and coordination. Having a proper, well functioning lower body will ensure a lifetime of unrestricted, pain free movement.

Basic Pilates exercises that address the lower body in hip flexion include: Marching supine, Marching seated, Marching standing.

Hip extension exercicses inclue: Prone hip extension, All Fours flexion into extension, Standing hip extension.

Hip abduction exercises include: Side lying lifts, Stepping out abduction, Standing Leg Lift Abduction.

Hip adduction exercises include: Side lying leg lift adduction, Seated adduction isometric with a Ring, Standing adduction, footwork (circling, pointing and flexing the ankle), Heel raises, Marching with Arm Swings, Knee Bends, Squats, and Lunges.

Practicing these basic exercises will strengthen the entire lower kinetic chain from the pelvis to the feet which will provide for better, functional movement patters such as running, dancing, playing sports and to keep up with our way of life.

Shoulder Stability and Mobility- the upper body is the most complex part of the body to properly train. The upper body gives action from fine motor skills of texting, drawing and sculpting to the power moves of throwing a ball or lifting heavy objects. When the upper body is not well coordinated, injury can easily happen.

Pilates provides training principles to successfully train for functional movement patterns such as: pulling, pushing, and lifting with both arms, one arm and in multiple directions to athletic activities such as throwing.

The upper body training protocol is used for creating balanced strength, mobility and endurance and sequencing the exercises in the following order is a must. Here is the sequence to follow:

Rotator cuff exercises for glenohumeral stability, Scapular mobility and stability exercises, Functional movements to activate the posterior shoulder, functional movements to activate the anterior shoulder, and functional movements to integrate the upper body with the torso, pelvis and lower limbs.

Basic Rotator cuff exercises for glenohumeral stability should be trained for endurance rather than strength and focusing on high repetitions and light resistance. Such basic exercises include: internal and external rotation. Once those two basic exercises have been establish, we then move on to the movements of the Glenohumeral Joint such as: Shoulder medial and lateral rotation, shoulder flexion, shoulder extension, and shoulder abduction and adduction.

Scapular stability and mobility- the scapula are relatively mobile islands of bone floating on the back of the rib cage and functions as platforms which the upper limbs use for support. The position, stability and strength of the scapulae are almost entirely dependent on the action of the muscles that surround them. This complex system is called scapulothoracic joint.

Basic Pilates exercises that teach the proper way of how the scapula move are as follows: Elevation and depression of the scapula, protraction and retraction of the scapula, Upward and downward rotations of the scapula. Exercises for scapular stability are: Sternum Drops, Wall Push Ups, and Plank Position and Push Ups.

Once these basic scapula exercises are establish, we then progress the movement in what is called Scapulohumeral Rhythem. Such basic Pilates exercises are: Arm raises together and alternation, Angles in the Snow, Telescope Arms and Pinwheel.

Functional movements to help activate the posterior shoulder with a resistance band are: Rows , Triceps Press, Triceps Dip (assuming a full or modified Back Plank), Overhead Press, Lateral Press, Pulling Down.

Functional movements to help activate the anterior shoulder with a resistance band are: chess press, biceps curl. Straight arm movements with the band include: Forward Raise, Side Raise, Pull Back.

The protocol for training the upper body will translate into functional movements that incorporate the full body such as lifting and or rotating a heavy object to athletes who's sport depend on a well coordinated upper body and how to best coordinate the upper body with the rest of the body.

Correcting Alignment- When a client comes in for their first appointment, it is the job of the Pilates instructor to look at their general posture, to note any alignment irregularities and to assess any limitations in flexibility. When observing the client, one is looking for where the body deviates from the plumb line. One is essentially a body detective.

Release Work- In our modern society, rest and relaxation are not always the priority. Stress affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which controls many of our life sustaining functions such as heart beat, thermoregulation, respiration and digestion.

The ANS also works with the mind, affecting our emotions and behavior. The ANS system can be overwhelmed and exhausted if there is continuous stressful stimuli. Relaxation can sooth the body and restores us to our natural state by maintaining a healthy endocrine system, slowing respiration rate and clearing the mind.

Teaching a new student the power of release work will relax certain chronically tight parts of the body including the neck and shoulders to the low back and hips. The series of release work will help anyone creating relaxation and correct tension patterns that limit movement. Such exercises include: skull clock, pelvic clock, knee stirs and knee folds. These exercises are also used in conjunction with stretching exercises and myofascial release work with the foam roller.

Incorporating movements of rest and breath creates a mindfulness and encourages anyone to take better care of themselves and respect their bodies need for recovery.

Stretching- Mat Pilates will help stretch several chronically tight areas of the body, particularly the hamstrings, low back, shoulders and hips. Such exercises are critical to help the body's ability to physically change for the better and to learn new movement patterns. Such basic mat stretches include: Kneeling Hip Flexor, Full straddle, Figure 4, Butterfly, Knees to chest, Psoas and hamstring stretch, Half straddle, and Torso twist.


bottom of page