How to Do Swimming in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

swimming pilates exercise

Photo: Ben Goldstein / Model: Melissa Castro Schmidt

Targets: Back extension, core, and butt muscles

Level: Intermediate

Pilates swimming is a fun mat exercise, but it is also quite challenging as it brings every part of the body into play. Luckily, it is also easy to modify. Swimming is a back extension exercise that makes a great counter stretch for the many Pilates mat exercises that require forward flexion.


This is a great exercise for your butt, lower back, and core. It uses the gluteus maximus muscle, and you'll often find this exercise in workouts geared to give more definition to your butt. The hamstrings at the back of your thighs are used to lift your legs from the mat as well.

Swimming also targets the back extensor muscles. Strong back extensors are needed to reduce the tension in your neck and shoulders. They are a key component of the long spine position typical of Pilates exercises and will help you maintain good posture in daily life.

You will also be keeping your abdominals engaged throughout the movement, especially the obliques. Your abs work together with your back muscles to support your spine and neck so you aren't trying to lift your upper body and head with your neck and shoulder muscles.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Lie on your stomach with the legs straight and together.
  2. Stretch your arms straight overhead, keeping your shoulder blades settled in your back and your shoulders away from your ears,
  3. Pull your abs in so that you lift your belly button away from the floor.
  4. Extend your arms and legs so far in opposite directions that they naturally come up off the floor. At the same time, lengthen your spine so that your head moves up off the mat as an extension of the reach of your spine.
  5. Pump your right arm and left leg up and down in a small pulse, continuing to reach out from your center. Alternate right arm/left leg and left arm/right leg pulses.
  6. Breathe in for a count of 5 kicks and reaches, and out for a count of 5. This should feel like swimming in a pool.
  7. Repeat for 2 or 3 cycles of 5 inhales and 5 exhales.

Common Mistakes

Always reach from your center, keeping your head and neck working as extensions of your spine. Watch out for these issues:

Raised Tailbone

Protect your lower back by keeping your tailbone moving down toward the mat.

Crunched Neck

Keep your face down toward the mat; don't crane or strain your neck by trying to look out or up.

Weak Core

Stop when you don't have the core support you need to continue and you begin to lose your proper form and alignment (for example, lifted tailbone or hunched shoulders).

Modifications and Variations

Adapt swimming to make it work best for you.

Need a Modification?

If the breathing pattern is too complicated at first, leave it out. You can also try decreasing the range of motion and the speed of your pulses, or working with just the top or bottom half of your body. Anchor your movement by keeping your belly lifted and tailbone moving down toward the mat.

Those with upper back and neck issues may want to work only the lower half of the body. Keep your forehead and arms on the mat. Reach each leg out long, one at a time, far enough that it's just an inch or two off the mat. Once you are comfortable with that, try doing the alternating leg movements in quicker succession.

The Pilates dart exercise is another similar back extension.

Up for a Challenge?

Move on to some of the advanced Pilates mat exercises, such as rocking.

Safety and Precautions

You want to feel your back working, but not straining. You should use caution or avoid this exercise if you have a back injury. If you have neck pain, try keeping your arms by your sides or use them for light support as in the half swan.

Try It Out

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

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