6 Fundamental Pilates Moves to Learn the Basics

Principles of core strength, pelvic stability, and more

Pilates is a functional exercise modality developed by Joseph Pilates. The Pilates method emphasizes core stability, which is fundamental to developing a balanced body. Pilates exercises work to strengthen the muscles, improve flexibility, and increase the range of motion in the joints.

Pilates is known as a "functional fitness" method, meaning that its basic principles work to establish more graceful, efficient movement in everyday life, such as better posture. In fact, Pilates is proven to be so effective that it is often used in physical therapy and rehabilitation settings.

Perhaps the most well-known Pilates exercise is the Pilates hundred, which works to strengthen and stabilize the abdominals, torso, shoulders, and more. It is often used as a warm-up before other fundamental Pilates exercises.

The following set of fundamental Pilates exercises teach the basic movement principles upon which the Pilates method is built, which utilize full-body awareness that begins with core strength. You can perform them on their own or as a warm-up to your regular workout routine.

Try these Pilates moves for core engagement and pelvic stability. Learn good form and proper alignment while improving your flexibility and increasing the range of motion in your joints.


Pilates Starting Position: Constructive Rest

Pilates constructive rest starting position

Ben Goldstein / Verywell

There's a lot more going on in constructive rest than meets the eye. In this unassuming exercise, the goal is to find your neutral spine. You can do this by pressing your lower back into the floor and then releasing the spine into a small natural arch or C-shape curve.

This will be the starting position from which you'll do the rest of the exercises.

  • Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, with your knees bent and legs and feet parallel, about hips-distance apart.
  • Take a deep breath in.
  • Exhale and use your abdominals to press your lower back into the floor.
  • Draw your navel into your spine as you gently tuck your tailbone under to round your spine (known as spinal flexion).
  • Inhale to release into a natural C-shape curve in your lower back.
  • Exhale to rock your pelvis slightly forward to create a larger curve in your lower back (known as spinal extension or the beginning of a backbend).
  • Inhale to release to your neutral spine and rest here for several deep breaths.

Tip: You'll know you've found your neutral spine when the three curves of your spine (lower back, thoracic spine, cervical spine) are resting in their natural position.


Pilates Head Nod

The Pilates head nod extends and lengthens the spine, a fundamental goal of the Pilates method. It is integral to many Pilates exercises that articulate the spine in both forward bends and rolling exercises.

  • Begin in constructive rest.
  • Inhale to lengthen the spine and tilt the chin down toward the chest (your head stays on the mat).
  • Exhale to return your neck to its neutral position.
  • Inhale to tip the head back just a little.
  • Exhale to return to your neutral position.

Tip: There's no need to force the movement of your neck. Articulate natural movements in your cervical spine to avoid straining your neck muscles.


Pilates Arms Over

The fundamental goal of Pilates arms over is to maintain alignment, even as the torso is challenged by the arms moving overhead. This move also helps increase the range of motion in the shoulders.

  • From constructive rest, inhale and bring your fingertips up to the ceiling.
  • Exhale and draw the arms overhead and down toward the floor behind you.
  • Inhale and bring the arms up to the ceiling again.
  • Exhale and release them back down toward the floor.
  • Remember to use controlled movements as you lift and lower the arms by keeping your abs engaged.

Tip: Try not to let the movement of your arms affect the alignment of your ribcage.


Pilates Angel Arms

Though this exercise engages different upper-body muscles, angel arms, like arms over, helps us understand how to use the arms and shoulders without losing the alignment of the spine and ribcage.

  • From constructive rest, on an inhale, sweep the arms out to the sides along the floor, as though you were making a snow angel.
  • The shoulders should not go up with the arms, however. Be sure to keep them down and away from your ears.
  • Exhale to return the arms to your sides.
  • Repeat for a few rounds as you breathe naturally.

Tip: The abs stay engaged and the ribs should stay down.


Pilates Pelvic Clock

A subtle yet insightful move, the Pilates pelvic clock increases awareness of pelvic position and strengthens the muscles needed for pelvic stability.

  • Imagine there is a clock placed flat on your lower abs. The 12 is at your belly button, the 3 is on your left hip, the 6 is at your pubic bone, and the 9 is on your right hip
  • Using your abdominal muscles to initiate and control the movement, sequentially move around the clock, first by pulling the 12 down, then rotate to the 3, then 6, and nine
  • Keep your movements small and controlled

Tip: Don't lift your hips off the floor. The idea is to move your pelvis without affecting the stability of the rest of the body.


Knee Folds

A fundamental goal of knee folds is to move your leg in its hip socket without affecting the stability of the pelvis. This kind of activity is important in all kinds of functional movements that we do in everyday life, such as sitting, walking, and lifting.

  • From constructive rest, on an inhale, lift one leg off the floor as you engage your core, and draw your navel in toward your spine
  • Allow for a deep fold at the hip
  • Exhale and return your foot back to the floor
  • As you lower, maintain control of the movement with your abs—don't let the leg muscles take over
  • Keep your tailbone anchored to the mat

Tip: This is about getting a deep fold at the hip, so try not to let your hip raise up with your leg. The key here is maintaining a stable, neutral pelvis.

What This Means for You

Many people benefit from Pilates exercises, and this set of six moves is a great way to learn the basics as you get started. While Pilates can improve range of motion in the joints and strength and flexibility in the muscles, this method may not be for everyone. If you have joint pain or musculoskeletal or spinal issues, consult with your doctor to find out if the Pilates method is right for you.

Once you're cleared for exercise, you could benefit from learning with a certified Pilates instructor or licensed physical therapist who incorporates Pilates into their rehabilitation program, in order to get the most out of this functional fitness modality.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kloubec J. Pilates: How does it work and who needs it? Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2011;1(2):61-66.

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.