How to Do Swimming in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Ben Goldstein

Targets: Back extension, core, and butt muscles

Equipment Needed: Exercise mat

Level: Intermediate

The Pilates mat swimming exercise is a fun exercise, but it is also quite challenging as it brings every part of the body into play. Luckily, swimming 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. In the classical order of Pilates exercises, it comes two-thirds of the way down the list, after hip twist and before leg pull.


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 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

You will perform this exercise on a Pilates mat.

  1. Lie on your stomach with the legs straight and together.
  2. Keeping your shoulder blades settled in your back and your shoulders away from your ears, stretch your arms straight overhead.
  3. Pull your abs in so that you lift your belly button up away from the floor.
  4. Reaching out from the center, extend your arms and legs so far in opposite directions that they naturally come up off the floor. At the same time, get so much length in your spine that your head moves up off the mat as an extension of the reach of your spine. Keep your face down toward the mat; don't crease your neck.
  5. Continue to reach your arms and legs out very long from your center as you alternate right arm/left leg, then left arm/right leg, pumping them up and down in small pulses.
  6. Coordinate your breath with the movement so that you are breathing in for a count of 5 kicks and reaches, and out for a count of 5. Hopefully, you feel like you are simulating swimming.
  7. Do 2 or 3 cycles of 5 counts of moving and breathing in, and 5 counts moving and breathing out.

    Common Mistakes

    Keep everything long, long, long, reaching from your center. Keep your head and neck working as extensions of your spine and don't break the line at the neck.

    Protect your lower back by keeping your tailbone moving down toward the mat. If the breathing pattern is too complicated at first, leave it out.

    Stop when you don't have the core support you need to continue and you begin to lose your proper form and alignment.

    Modifications and Variations

    • Try 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.
    • Try keeping your forehead on the mat and working just the legs. Reach each leg out long, one at a time, far enough that they raise just an inch or two off the mat. Once you are comfortable with that, try doing the alternating leg movements in quicker succession.
    • Decrease the range of motion and the speed of your beats.

    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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