How to Do a Single Leg Stretch in Pilates: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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Also Known As: One-leg stretch

Targets: Abdominals

Equipment Needed: Yoga or exercise mat

Level: Beginner

The single leg stretch is all about learning to move from the center. This stretch is one of the best Pilates mat exercises for working the lower abdominals. It also builds muscle stamina and stability.

Note that this exercise is different from a single straight leg stretch which stretches the hamstring muscles of the back of the thighs. The single leg stretch is an excellent exercise to start a stomach series or use as part of a warm-up.

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Watch Now: Build Ab Strength with a Single Leg Stretch

How to Do the Single Leg Stretch in Pilates

Before beginning, review and practice sequential breathing if you need to work on your breath. Set up your mat on a flat, hard surface.

  1. Start on your back with your knees bent, and your shins parallel to the floor. This is​ the tabletop position for the legs. Take a few moments to breathe deeply into the back and lower abs.
  2. Pull your abs in as you exhale, taking your belly button down toward your spine as you curl your head and shoulders up to the tips of the shoulder blades.
  3. Extend your left leg at a 45-degree angle as you curl up. The right leg remains in tabletop position with the right hand grasping the right ankle and the left hand moving to the right knee. You will maintain your upper-body curve throughout the exercise.
  4. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed, and your abdominals deeply scooped.
  5. Switch legs on a two-part inhale. Bring air in as the left knee comes in, and bring more air in as you gently pulse that knee toward you. The left hand is at the left ankle and the right hand at the left knee.
  6. Exhale and switch legs again. Bring the right leg in with a two-part exhale/pulse and extend the left leg. The hand-to-leg coordination continues with the outside hand of the bent leg going to the ankle and the other hand moving to the inside of the knee.
  7. Repeat, switching legs up to 10 times.

If you experience neck strain, you can leave your head on the floor instead of curling up.

Benefits of the Single Leg Stretch

The Pilates single leg stretch trains the abdominals to initiate movement and support and stabilize the trunk as the arms and legs move. A strong core helps develop stability in your torso, including your back. Pilates helps to alleviate and protect against back pain and strain.

The Pilates single leg stretch helps build mobility and flexibility, providing strength through a healthy range of motion, which is essential as you age. For those needing rehabilitation or modifications, Pilates is helpful and can help improve low back pain. The single leg stretch can be modified for physical therapy as needed.

There is an element of coordination to this exercise as well. Joint coordination developed through Pilates may help reduce fall risk.

Other Variations of the Single Leg Stretch

You can perform this exercise in different ways to meet your skill level and goals. Here is one way to vary this stretch, especially if you are hoping to mix things up.

Single Leg Stretch with Legs Up

If the small of your back is starting to come off the floor or you are feeling back strain, your legs are too low. Raise your legs to work your abs and not your back.

  1. Start on your back with your knees bent and your shins parallel to the floor in tabletop position.
  2. Engage your core and exhale, curling your head and shoulders off the floor.
  3. Extend your left leg at an 80 to 90-degree angle as you curl up. The right leg remains in tabletop position with the right hand grasping the right ankle and the left hand moving to the right knee.
  4. Switch legs on a two-part inhale. Breath in as the left knee comes in, and inhale more air while gently pulsing that knee toward you. The left hand is at the left ankle and the right hand at the left knee.
  5. Exhale and switch legs again. Bring the right leg in with a two-part exhale/pulse and extend the left leg to 80 to 90-degrees. The hand-to-leg coordination continues with the outside hand of the bent leg going to the ankle and the other hand moving to the inside of the knee.
  6. Repeat, switching legs up to 10 times.

As your core strength increases, experiment with lowering the legs and/or raising the head and shoulders. You can also move on to single-leg kick, double leg stretch, or criss cross.

Common Mistakes

Because the single leg stretch is a foundational exercise, be sure your form is correct. Here are some common mistakes that people make when doing the single leg stretch and how to correct them.

Movement in the Torso

Keep your torso still and stable. Movement should be in your arms and legs only. If your torso is moving with this exercise, stop and begin again, paying attention to engaging your core. Try switching legs with slower, more deliberate movements.

Bicycling the Legs

Keep your feet moving in a straight line rather than allowing them to go up and down in a bicycling motion. Focus on keeping your shins in a straight line parallel to the ground as you switch legs. This will allow the correct muscles to activate.

Up for a Challenge?

As your core strength increases, experiment with lowering your legs and/or raising your head and shoulders. This will make the single leg stretch more challenging.

Start with either lowering your legs or raising your chest, and as you get more comfortable, try doing both. You can also move on to single-leg kick, double leg stretch or criss cross.

Safety and Precautions

Release the exercise if you feel tension in your shoulders and neck. You can also do the single leg stretch with your head and shoulders resting on the floor. This can help alleviate tension in the neck or low back. If you have back or neck problems, talk to a healthcare provider or physical therapist about which exercises are best for you.

Try It Out

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

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4 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.
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