What are “essential” Pilates exercises?

While I was studying to become a Pilates instructor and feeling insecure about how to teach the beginning student I had an instructor tell me how she thought of each new student as a tiny flower bud.  Just like with the nourishment of just the right amount of water, food and care a newly formed bud will blossom into a beautiful flower, so will your client blossom into a flexible, supple, moving body.  I loved this analogy and it is one that has definitely stuck with me throughout my career. My current clients probably don’t realize I think of them as growing flowers! The essential nutrients necessary for the growth of that flower never really change over the course of it’s life, they are equally important in the beginning as young buds, during the growth period, and just as much as it matures.

The progressive nature of the Pilates method gives us a set of exercises that are named essential and often it is these exercise with which we begin our Pilates journey. These essential exercises may vary slightly from instructor to instructor but they should generally address the components of breath, range of motion, stability, correct muscle recruitment, form, and alignment. They are the foundation for the rest of your practice, either for a single workout or going forward longterm.

I have about 20 essential Pilates mat exercises that I teach to almost every new student, depending of course on their own individual body, in which case I may be modifying, adding or subtracting from those exercises. What is essential for one body might not be completely essential for another, but they are still all based on the same principles.  These exercises were taught to me as a new student 20 years ago and I still do many of them today and everyday (if I’m lucky!). 

Even after all these years, I still start my own Pilates practice with many of the essentials. I also happen to be very routine and my practice always starts with breath, then moves into spinal rotations,  toe taps, and bridging.  Whether I am on the mat, Pilates Reformer, or Pilates Cadillac, it is these exercises that give me a sense of beginning and centering. They bring my focus inward and allow me to have a more mindful experience from the very start. It is a challenge in todays incredibly busy world to not be distracted, but taking the time to find your center is an important first step.

Like a ballerina will always and forever start her class with plies at the barre, there is something to be said for the routine of the essential Pilates exercises. Functionally they will warm up your body and prepare your muscles to move in more expanded ways.  At Pilates Defined we offer an Essential Pilates Reformer group class. This class, although great for the beginning student because of it’s slower and more deliberate tempo, does not exclude those with more experience. Even an advanced equipment user will benefit from taking a class that focuses on the essential exercises. Essential does not mean beginners only! It just means that it will be more basic in choreography, but as any advanced Pilates practitioner will tell you, the more advanced you are and the more you know, the more difficult even the essential exercises will become!

When considering the definition of essential, it implies that it is critical and has to be done, so don’t forget to appreciate those essential exercises. They are essential for a reason, and not be missed or forgotten about!

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