How to Do Standing Side Bend in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Targets: Obliques, abdominals, back

Level: Beginner

If you have a moment and want to wake up your waist, fire your abdominals, and get a little stretch, try this standing side bend. You can perform it simply, without any props, or grab a set of light hand weights to add a little more intensity.

You may know Pilates as a series of moves done on your back or on medieval-looking equipment. However, there is a large repertoire of standing Pilates exercises that require little to no gear.


The standing side bend allows you to stretch your back and side muscles to help maintain good flexibility. You will also engage the abdominal muscles in stabilizing your torso.

In daily life, you probably don't do a lot of side bends. As a result, when you are called to do so, you might find you don't have the flexibility needed and feel a twinge of overextension. By doing side bends, you are helping to build that flexibility and learn to engage your abdominal muscles in daily tasks. By standing tall in this exercise, you also encourage good posture.

Step-by-Step Instructions

This move can be done up to three times a day for maximum effect. Try a morning, noon, and night approach and see how the effects pay off in a few days' time.

  1. Begin standing tall in Pilates stance. That means squeezing your gluteals and pressing the heels together. The toes are apart so that the feet are in the shape of the letter "V." The back of the legs should wrap together. Think of lightly rotating the backs of the legs so the heels, calves, thighs, and gluteal muscles all press together. Pull your abdominals in and up. At the same time, lengthen your lower back so that you stretch your torso up straight and tall.
  2. Extend one arm up alongside your head. Let the other arm hang down at your side. Stretch your hand open and long, unless you are holding a dumbbell. The action of lifting your arm has an impact on your posture, so re-scan your body from top to bottom and be sure the low back is as long as possible. Crunching in your lumbar spine will cause your abdominals to distend and weaken your belly muscles.
  3. Once you've lifted yourself up as high as possible, inhale to prepare, then reach your arm to the ceiling. Gradually arc up and over, exhaling as you reach. The key is to bend up, not down. Your entire body should lengthen upward as you bend without compressing or shortening any area of the torso. At the peak of your stretch, take another breath cycle, inhaling and exhaling to deepen the stretch.
  4. From the deepest point, lengthen out even longer and rise back up to vertical gradually. Return upright to your initial position.
  5. Bend one arm down and switch arms to begin on the other side.
  6. Complete the first set by performing one rep to each side. Then complete 2 to 3 more additional sets for a total of 6 to 8 individual repetitions.

Common Mistakes

Follow these points to prevent mistakes in form that will keep you from getting the most from the side bend.

Not Working Your Pilates Stance

No matter where you are in the movement, work the back side of the body by maintaining your Pilates stance. This stable position actually gives your torso more freedom to stretch further from a strong supportive position.

Not Drawing in Your Abs

In each and every Pilates move, the abdominals work inward and upward. In standing exercises, this is especially important. Even while reaching up and over, maintain this deep abdominal work.

Failing to Exhale Properly

Follow the Pilates breathing rule: Inhale to prepare for the move, then exhale as you execute. Breathe in and out through the nose.

Not Letting Your Bottom Arm Hang Heavy

Even though your upper body is reaching up and away, your lower body and bottom arm can provide a counterweight. Instead of allowing the lower arm to hug the body, let it drop.

Opposition is a key element in a good Pilates practice, and allowing your arm to hang loose during Side Bend gives your body something to work against.

Modifications and Variations

If you want more of a challenge, perform the side bend with light dumbbells in each hand.

Safety and Precautions

This stretch is not recommended if you have any injury or chronic condition involving your back or ribs.

Perform the side bends slowly and deliberately, paying attention to proper form. You will feel a stretch of the muscles, but if you feel any pain, carefully back out of the stretch.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

By Alycea Ungaro, PT, MS
Alycea Ungaro, PT, MS, holds a Pilates certification through the Pilates Method Alliance and a master's degree in clinical nutrition.