How to Do the Essential Pilates Mat Exercise: The Saw

the saw
Photo: Ben Goldstein / Model: Melissa Castro Schmidt

The Saw is an intricate back and hamstring stretch that is essential to all beginners of Pilates exercise. It strengthens the muscles of the spine, stretches the hamstrings and hips, and deep abdominal muscles. This exercise can also help improve your posture and promote a more stable body with controlled movement throughout.

I like it a lot because it is a wonderful way to experience oppositional stretch, where the chest and upper back are pulled open by the front and back arms reaching in opposite directions. As you become more familiar with the exercise, the oppositional dynamic between the front shoulder and the opposite hip becomes very interesting.


Watch Now: The Pilates Saw is the Ultimate Stretch

The Saw is an important lesson in pelvic stability as well. While there is a lot of activity in the upper body, the abdominals keep the hips still and even throughout the exercise.

The Saw - Prepare

Saw Preparation

  • Sit up straight on your sit bones. Send energy down through the mat and up through the top of your head.
  • Extend your legs in front of you, feet about shoulder width apart. Stretch your feet and spread your toes and then relax them. If you have tight hamstrings you may need to prop your hips up on a small lift, like a folded towel. Or, you may sit with legs crossed.
  • Arms are stretched out to the side, even with your shoulders, palms facing forward.

If you have shoulder pain or issues, you can try a variation of the Saw. It follows the same motion, but the arms are up to the chest or out to the sides with your hands resting on your shoulders.

Turn and Reach

  1. Inhale and twist to the right. Get taller as you turn your whole torso, but use your abs to keep your hips steady and even with each other. As you turn, keep your pelvis steady and make sure your torso does not lean.
  2. Exhale: Let your gaze follow your back hand into the turn, spiraling your upper torso so that you are almost curling into yourself. Imagine you are wringing the stale air out of your body as you twist. This takes a lot of support from your abs and the action will lift your back arm further.
  3. Allow the stretch to take you forward as you reach the pinky finger of your front hand across the outside of the opposite foot to touch your little toe if you can. Do not tilt forward in an effort to reach the foot. Twist as far as you can, but always keep your sit bones against the mat.
  4. Exhale a little more as you reach a little further.

The Return

  1. Once your reach extends to its furthest point, maintain your turned position as you inhale and return to sitting.
  2. Exhale and undo your turn, coming back to the starting position.
  3. Repeat this exercise 3 times on each side.

In the classic Pilates mat sequence, the saw is preceded by the Corkscrew and followed by the Swan.

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