Use Pilates Leg Circles to Tone Your Hips and Thighs

Pilates Hip Circles
Jackie Nieves

Pilates mat work is celebrated for its remarkable ability to sculpt long, lean dancer legs. Side leg circles accomplish exactly that, but also strengthen hip muscles, improve range of motion, and increase muscular control and stability.

How to Perform Small Circles

Lie on your side with your head propped up on your hand. Place your free hand on the mat in front of your abdominals. The legs jut out at a sharp 45-degree angle in front of you and begin stacked, one atop the other. Pull your waistline in and up and raise the top leg just above the bottom one.

Draw 10 small circles in front of your bottom leg. Rotate the leg as if you are brushing the heel just past the bottom ankle with each revolution. Keep the circles small and neat and consistent in size each time. Pause when finished and move the leg to behind the front leg. Repeat an additional 10 circles, brushing past the bottom heel this time.

Form check: Your circling leg should be externally rotated. That means the leg is turned out, with the knee and shin facing upwards towards the sky. The knee is long and loose, not locked, and the foot is also long and loose, not flexed.

Added challenge: Once you feel this is no longer a challenge you can kick up the difficulty by removing your hand from the mat in front of you and taking it behind your head. It will be much harder to keep your torso controlled in this position, but that's the challenge. Hold strong in your abdominals and avoid any shifting around.

Where should I feel it? If you are circling small and tight and brisk you should feel this in your hip and down the outside of your thigh. If 10 circles each way isn't enough, try 15 to 20 each way.

Performing Large Circles

Moving directly from the small circles you can graduate to the large circles, or what we call the Rond de Jambes.

Begin exactly as you did the small circles with one hand on the mat and the top leg elevated just above the bottom leg. In a sweeping motion carry the leg forward as though you were kicking the leg ahead of you in a high kick. Hold it there for a moment and then carefully carry it up to the side. Aim your entire leg up as high as you can towards the ceiling. Your foot should aim to land behind your top shoulder. Pause at your highest possible point—you will feel a stretch in the inner thigh.

Next, you carry the leg behind you reaching and lengthening it down low and long. Swing the leg forward to repeat this large circle three times in the same direction.

Form check: The leg movement isn't necessarily tricky here but it's very difficult to keep your torso still. You will be tempted to fall back when the leg is forward and forward when the leg is back. Work on stabilizing your trunk so you can free your leg to work harder and higher.

Added challenge: Once you feel steady, remove your hand from the mat and place it behind your head to challenge your balance and stability. As an additional challenge, you can reverse the leg circle. Begin at the back and raise the leg as high as possible to the side. Then slowly carry it forward as high as you can to the front. Repeat 3 times in this reverse direction.

Where should I feel it? You should feel this all the way up the top leg and specifically on the outside of your working gluteal muscle. It's not uncommon to feel a deep stretch in both inner thighs and muscular fatigue in the quadriceps muscle of the top leg.

Add Some Weight

If you want to kick up your resistance, increase your tone, and advance your technique, consider adding some ankle weights. We recommend 1 to 3 pounds per ankle.

Don't overdo the weight. The ankle is very far from the hip, making a small load extremely taxing to the joint. Test drive the above series with a pair of ankle weights and feel the Pilates burn.