On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises…

On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises...


Click here for a list of all the exercises in this post!

I find it hard to imagine the Pilates Mat exercises without Joe Pilates' structure. As someone who enjoys following a good rule or two, the structure and prescribed order of the exercises have always appealed to me.

Sans Joe's order my focus would wane as I deliberated on which exercise to do next. I would surely omit an exercise or two that I don't like, much to my own detriment. We need them all, really.

What we hear from Joe on the subject:

Study carefully. Do not sacrifice knowledge to speed in building your solid exercise regime on the foundation of Contrology. Follow instructions exactly as indicated down to the very smallest detail. There IS a reason!

Joe Pilates toiled his entire lifetime of 80+ years indefatigably tinkering with and perfecting his method.

Jay Grimes insists no detail was left to chance or done by accident in the entire body of Pilates' work.

Like an actor mining his script for clues to construct the heart and soul of a character I feel it's my job as a Pilates instructor to look closely at the evidence and investigate fully with body and mind.

Why the Corkscrew now?

Or in an especially challenging exercise that maybe I don't like, why must I slow my steady pace to the Teaser with the Side Kick Series?

It is my belief that by using Joe's set order of the exercises on both the Mat and the Reformer I can experience in 2013 the full genius of Joe Pilates who died in 1967.

So my workouts include a lot of asking questions – investigating internally what the previous exercise has provided as a help for the bear of an exercise I must now tackle – and on a good day, the occasional revelation.


If you learn one new thing every day you will be a genius.


Thanks Romana, I need a good workout that will make me – albeit briefly – a genius.

Romana Kryzanowska!

I should mention that the order I learned from Romana's Pilates differs somewhat from Joe's original order. Circa late 1990s I am told Romana moved a few things around and added the mermaid to the Mat. The Side Bend was taken out around then too. I can't speculate on why she felt these changes to be necessary, but she is, of course, Romana.

Now my study of the Pilates Method focuses exclusively on the order Joe lays out for us.

So I thought I would articulate why I think the Mat exercises are arranged in the order presented in JP's Return to Life Through Contrology.  It will be a good exercise to attempt this ‘out loud', shall we say, and hopefully I just might learn something.

Who doesn't want to be a genius?

Please note that this examination is solely about the order and the exercises themselves…not about who should be doing them or if one is ready to do them, etc… That's a subject for another post. I'll be lucky if I can finish this one 🙂

My experience of the Pilates exercises in my own body will of course differ from every other person. But Joe Pilates has a way of distilling us into the humanity that we are: the same body systems and parts that probably need a similar kind of maintenance.

Am I the only sway-backed, blogger with a weaker side out there?


The Hundred

No matter how much you dislike this exercise, you cannot dispute its effectiveness as a warmup. It gets the blood and the air moving. Boom. You have arrived.

The Roll Up, The Roll Over, Single Leg Circles

These 3 exercises I am grouping together as they are the first stretches of your entire system that you get in the Mat repertoire. The Roll Up gives you a top-to-toe stretch of the entire back of the body, The Roll Over gives the opposite – a toe-to-top stretch of the very same thing. The Single Leg Circles is my favorite ‘stomach exercise in disguise' exercise and I believe it is a stretch of the entire system again now one side at a time…in any case, it's not really about your leg. We are a human! Not just a leg.

After all these initial stretches of our system – and hang on, cause they're gonna happen for a while, we are only 4 exercises in and still climbing in our intensity – we get something nice:

Roll Like a Ball

A nice massage of all the stuff we just stretched out. Now back to work.

Single Leg Pull and Double Leg Pull

These are the 2 exercises in the famed “Series of 5” that come from Joe Pilates. Romana added the other 3 (to which Jay Grimes says: “Because they're good”) in my understanding because she saw too many poochy bellies and Romana did not like poochy bellies.

And they are good. They never disappoint.

Single Leg Pull and Double Leg Pull are in my opinion ‘wind-relieving' exercises to help to stimulate digestion and ultimately rid the body of toxins. They are a great strengthener of the entire trunk and the deep breaths of the Double Leg Pull again lead to a stretch and a wringing out of the entire system: stretch out and lengthen, and then fold up completely. Just what we need to be doing.


Spine Stretch Forward

We now return to the stretching out of the entire system in a seated position, lengthening in both a Rounded and Tall position. I know, don't forget about the Tall. It's not easy to sit up tall. We are preparing for another massage of the entire system which will come next and take Roll Like a Ball to a whole new level.

The Rocker with Open Legs

A more challenging massage – if you can get it – requiring even more length along the entire back of the body. Oh and some balance and control aspects upping the ante as well.

The Corkscrew and The Saw

These 2 exercises I combine as they are the same exercise for both the lower and upper body. Stretching the back of the body in a new way, along the sides and with rotation. In a sense I feel that every exercise up to and including the Saw is warming up, stretching out and preparing the back of the body for the next 3 extension exercises. Soon the back must fight to keep it's length and integrity while it's made to do some hard work.

The Swan Dive, Single Leg Kicks and Double Leg Kicks

Now we have arrived at the extension exercises – a lot of tough work for the back – but now it's all ready to go, thanks to the previous 11-14 exercises. The Swan Dive is a big full move to get the juices flowing, followed by the Single Leg Kicks and Double Leg Kicks which aid in the stretching of the front of the lower body – and furthermore strengthen the buttocks and hamstrings for the tasks ahead.

Thigh Stretch

This is the first ‘task ahead' for which you strengthened the buttocks and entire lower body in the previous 3 exercises. Thigh Stretch is a hard exercise to do well and the name pretty much says it all.

The Neck Pull

Now we return to where we started with the Roll Up, but some rules have changed: Legs apart and arms all tied up behind the head. I see the Neck Pull as a counter stretch after the extension exercises as well as a test of the stability of the lower body which was strengthened with the Single and Double Leg Kicks and Thigh Stretch.

High Scissors, High Bicycle and Shoulder Bridge

An advancement of the extension exercises, these 3 exercises build upon what was started with the Single and Double Leg Kicks. Now the front of the entire body gets a stretch, but it's gonna cost you. Try not to topple over. Aren't you glad you got in all that strengthening of the upper stomach earlier in the workout?

The use of the seat and the back of the lower body will also be a help in the exercises that follow.

Spine Twist and Jackknife

These 2 exercises prepare the sides of the body and the entire back line of the body for the challenge of the Side Kick Series. In the Spine Twist the back is striving to stay tall in a seated position, nearly as hard a feat as staying ‘tall' and not getting lounge-y when you lie on your side for the Side Kicks.


No sexy on the Beach!   Romana Kryzanowska


The Jackknife warms up the entire lower body system in a straightforward way before you get to do it one side at a time in the Side Kick Series. Can you connect your lower body into the trunk? Great!

Now can you do it one side at a time?

Side Kick Series

Time for some multitasking! You must control one side as an anchor while you control the other side as it moves in various patterns. So much to keep track of. Ready? Switch!

The Teaser and the Hip Twist (Hip Circles)

Lower Body? Check.

Remember way back at the top of the workout from the Roll up to the Spine Stretch and Rocker with Open Legs when we lengthened the Upper Body primarily? Good.

Let's put it together with the lower body skills you learned in all the exercises thus far.

It's the Teaser and it's most infamous variation, The Hip Twist (Hip Circles). Basically these 2 exercises are a lengthening and stretching of the entire system, including a challenging spin at the end. Another shot at multitasking and a concept prevalent (relentless) throughout the Pilates system: Something anchoring combined with something else moving.

Not the first or last time this is gonna cross our paths, why aren't we used to it by now?


And now we bend the other way…oh and let's do it one side at a time while we're at it, cause we've been here before, right?

Leg Pull and Leg Pull Front

We've done our stretches of the front of the body before we get to this exercise, but now there's a little more at stake. Gone is the luxury of lying down, and my God, we still have to work each side separately.

Joe Pilates, have you no mercy??!

Side Kicks Kneeling

Evidently the answer to our plea is a big fat NO in the form of the Side Kicks Kneeling.

JP could not be reached for comment. Frownie face…

So we had our fun lying down in the Side Kick Series for some sexy on the beach…well evidently there is more to be had now that we'll be doing the same work of the lower body AGAIN and we have to hold ourselves up while we do it. Gaaawwwwd, FINE!

The Side Bend

As much as I personally struggle with this exercise, it is a nice big stretch like a cat. Joe Pilates' version of a treat after all that precedes it. A big wringing out of the sides that you just trashed in the Side Kicks Kneeling. And some time to breathe and collect yourselves for the big finish.

Boomerang, Seal, Crab

Initially I did not learn these exercises in this order. So 3 rolling exercises in a row was news to me. But I have come to adore it and I'm gonna tell you why. Pilates builds integrity in motion and 3 rolling exercises in a row really puts that to the test. Each of the 3 has their own rhythm and shape to the body. In the midst of tackling these exercises you can clearly see when you are a rolling stone and when you're not. By the time you get to The Crab you can challenge yourself to be a solid rolling machine.

The Rocking

The ultimate in front-of-the-body stretching and why not take a cue from the previous rolling exercises and rock around on the front of you for a while? You'll need all that strength of the back and buttocks for the next exercises anyway.

Control Balance

Is it not the ultimate goal? Control. And what do you have when you are in control? Balance. I think of this exercise as an extremely challenging lower body exercise. You are working against gravity, your greatest foe in the workout, and odds are in its favor. Reminiscent of The Hundred, Double Leg Pull (of course) and the Jackknife amongst others, this exercise is clearly all those exercises put together and more.

The Push Ups

I am sure Joe Pilates did not invent the Push Up, but at the end of the workout it is a perfect example of stretch and strength and control. You must roll down and place your hands onto the mat in front of your feet, you must take 4 precise steps out with your hands to your push up position and you must lower and lift the entire weight of your body several times.

Oh, and then you've got to walk back in, hands to feet, roll yourself up and do it all over again.


You can say what Pilates is in 3 words: stretch with strength and control. And the control part is the most important because that makes you use your mind.   Romana Kryzanowska

Another zinger from JP:

On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises...

Love the order of the exercises? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Not a fan of the order? I'd love to hear about that too.

Really prefer the Reformer? Check out this post.

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  1. Wonderful riff on the order. I often vary the exercises for a change of pace, but I’ve noticed (as u have) that Joe seems to place the hardest exercises in the middle when I’m most stretched, warm, aware, and energized and thus less likely to injure myself. U may find this as interesting as I do: the pumping of the arms in the 100 stimulates the lymph system which is a great way to create energy in the body. According to a Pilates Elder Joe never spoke of the lymph which confirms for me how intuitive he was – the Einstein of fitness…

    • Thank you so much Bob, and I love that you refer to Joe as the ‘Einstein of fitness’! Thank you for sharing info on the 100 – one of my favorites – it’s doing so many good things for us 🙂

  2. Love it, Andrea! Follow the order so we can continue to experience Joe’s brilliance in 2013 and beyond…Just for nerdiness I’m going to quote from Bulletin One, Contrology Practice and Theory by the American Foundation of Physical Fitness 1957,
    “Finally, all is done under the insistently alerted control of the electrically re-charged brain cells in their marshalled ten billions of separate lives: these are compelled into co-ordinated endeavor. In fact, the very essence of Contrologic philosophy is that each brain cell is trained to cooperate with others.”

  3. Thanks so much Arlene! Plus you get extra nerd points for sharing the awesome quote. Thank you again for reading and joining the conversation 🙂

  4. Andrea, loved it – and you – as always. Please help! Thigh Stretch on the Mat?? Threw me. Help?!

  5. Hi Gina,

    Thanks so much for reading and sharing your kind words 🙂

    Thigh Stretch on the mat was new to me. Jay Grimes taught it to me and it is the same as when you do it on the Cadillac or the Reformer except without any help. I know, gotta love the mat! The arms reach forward in front of you as you stay long and strong and tip back.

    It is not in Return to Life, but that was published in the 40s I think, so the Thigh Stretch must have made it into the order by the time Jay got to Joe in 1964.

  6. Cool and right in line with my thoughts these days! I’m feeling the need to really dig into the order and make sure that I’m very clear on the when and why. But as you’ve demonstrated, it’s a large undertaking and so I haven’t tucked in yet. To everything a season, yes? Thanks for getting me started!

    • You are so welcome Eliza! Pilates is enough information to uncover and challenge to execute that will last a lifetime right? You’ve got plenty of time 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  7. Loved your analysis of the order. I have taken many “modern” Pilates classes where the order is thrown out the window- it loses some of it’s magic!! There is a reason for the order and even if your brain doesn’t grasp it- your body will!!!
    -thanks for sharing!!

    • Sally,

      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to share your comments. I agree, the order of the exercises on both the Mat and Reformer are magical gifts to us from Joe Pilates! Your statement “There is a reason for the order and even if your brain doesn’t grasp it- your body will!!!” speaks volumes – TRUST the Work!

      Have a wonderful Pilates week 🙂

  8. Thank you! Matwork has always been my favorite group of exercises. I so enjoyed your witty, fundamental breakdown of the series. Great read!

    • Kelly,

      The Mat was really my first love in Pilates – and I still am nuts about it. Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words about the post! Maybe some Mat exercises in your future today? 🙂

  9. loved this post. I couldn’t work out how to share to my wordpress blog so I have copied and pasted and acknowledged you- hope that is ok – thought was a fun way to look at it. Well written

    • Thanks Juliet – I appreciate you wanting to share this post on your blog. I am not sure how to share a post to another blog either…I wonder if that is possible…I may look into it. Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words about the post:)

  10. yes yes definitely do able. I have shared before. I will also look into the set up. Thank you

  11. so now my latest question is: When did the thigh stretch get added to the repertoire? It’s not in RTL!! Who knew?!

    • Cyndi this is a good question. RTL was published in the 40s – and I learned the Thigh Stretch in this order from Jay Grimes who got to Joe in the 1960s. I know that is a big window of time…but Thigh Stretch existed on other apparatus…so I am assuming that at some point between the 40s and the early 60s it made its way into the Mat exercise order. This is my educated deduction 🙂

  12. Hey Andrea,

    I’m so excited I came into this post! I think it’s time i’ll up my game and move on with the basic 5 and enjoy this one 🙂
    Your resources are amazing Andrea, that pdf file is super! Keep up the amazing job. Now i’m off to stretch+strength+control 🙂


  13. Rebekah le magny says

    Hi Andrea! I greatly enjoy your articles. I do have a question. Why do you refer to Single and Double Leg Stretch as “pull”? Thanks.

    • Hi Rebekah,

      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts and questions here 🙂

      I originally learned these 2 exercises from Romana trained teachers as ‘Single Leg Stretch’ and ‘Double Leg Stretch.’

      It wasn’t until I began my study with Jay Grimes that I learned the other – I’m going to call them ‘old school’ – names for them: ‘Single Leg Pull’ and ‘Double Leg Pull.’ I still use both names, but I tend to gravitate more toward using the ‘pull’ names as I feel they are more descriptive and communicative when teaching students. People understand and remember they pull on their leg(s).

      I also remember years ago wondering why the word ‘stretch’ was in the name… as I didn’t yet realize what exactly we were stretching. Now I know the answer is everything! LOL.

      So really I use the names Single Leg Pull and Double Leg Pull as a personal preference. Both names are absolutely correct. We should also check Return to Life for the names JP uses…let me get on that I don’t have my copy at the ready ha ha right now…

      Again thank you for watching 🙂

      • Rebekah le magny says

        Thanks! Actually, when I heard some people using the term “pull”, i thought maybe that was the original word. But when I checked in RTL, he uses the term stretch. That is why I was curious….

        • Ah – that’s what I thought as well. Thanks for clarifying. My understanding is that when Jay studied with Joe Pilates that Joe called the exercises ‘Single Leg Pull’ and ‘Double Leg Pull.’ Just my speculation based on what Jay calls them 🙂

  14. Thanks so much for listing classical order! Question where did ab series of five come from? I noticed “lower lift” and “criss cross” are missing. I was trained at Power Pilates, but there was no mention of original order, nor when how and why it may have changed. I’m slightly confused

    • Hi Carolyn,
      In my understanding the infamous Stomach Suicide series mostly comes from Romana. In Joe Pilates’ manifesto Return to Life through Contrology we only have the Single Leg Pull (Single Leg Stretch) and the Double Leg Pull (Double Leg Stretch). The story I heard was that Romana saw too many “poochie bellies” and she didn’t like that so she added the Single Straight Leg Stretch (Scissors), Double Straight Leg Stretch (Lower-Lift), and the Criss Cross. And boy those 5 exercises never disappoint. All the stomach exercises you’ll ever need ha ha
      Thank you so much for watching and for sharing your question here with us. xox

  15. Denes Dreisziger says

    What a wonderful inspiring blog post! Makes me want to jump up from in front of my screen and do my mat! Thank you Andrea for the insights!

    • Thank you so much Denes – so glad to inspire you to move and explore our amazing Mat exercises. As much as I love the Reformer and all our fabulous apparatus, the Mat exercises are supremely challenging and satisfying and I thoroughly enjoy them every time I get my butt kicked by them LOL Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts here with us. xox

  16. As a contemporary teaching (currently considering to undergo the classical training)… let me thank you almost with tears in my eyes from the joy!
    F I N A L L Y I start seeing a red thread into the order!
    Trust the method… you’re right!
    Now I’m off to the mat… practicing practicing practicing!
    (Also – too bad that JG “The Work” is suspended… sigh!)

    • Hi Costanza 🙂 Wow thank you so much for your sweet message! Yes it is so satisfying to see how all the exercises relate to one another – it also moves me to tears LOL!I have to practice my Mat today too – every practice has the ability to lead us to a new discovery – it’s one of my favorite things about our beloved Pilates method. And the Work has changed it’s format but check out vintagepilates.com for their new plan for the Weekends with Jay in 2020. Here’s to always digging deeper into the Pilates Method! xox Cheers to you!

  17. thank you! I love matwork for all the reasons you’ve detailed above,I always teach the matwork as having an order for a reason, one exercise preps you for the next, preps you for the next, etc.its a lesson I impart to all of my students for all apparatus jn fact. the reformer order works the same way. and a good teacher will find the order on apparatus that doesnt have a prescribed order(chair, cadillac, spine corrector). there are so many exercises in these pieces if equipment but no laid out order. I think the sign if a good instructor who understands the method will find the order of all those exercises.
    one question, crisscross. doesn’t exist in the original order but as ive understood through my own practice as a doerand teacher of contrology, is that the “ab series” to the point where criscros would be has focused on frin and back of body, no side body yet. so to make the “ab series” a complete package we need side body. am I on track?
    thank you!

    • Hi Emily,

      Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts here. I love the way you are thinking. And TBH I had not considered these extra “ab 5” exercises in my thought process…I like what you suggest that Criss Cross addresses the side body. Yes, I always think of this one as the same as the Twist on the Short Box (only 5 times as hard as you are essentially lying down) which addresses the side and also the oblique muscles. Criss Cross also repeats the lower body action from Single Leg Pull except now without the use of your hands … let’s keep this kind of discussion going – I find it helps us get into the mind set – the thought process – of Joe Pilates – and how he thinks about training the body. Great detective work! Thank you and hope our Pilates paths will cross in the future. xox


  1. […] Here is a perfect example of an entertaining and informative post she wrote breaking down the order of the mat exercises while encouraging you to think about why they have been structured in this particular way: On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises […]

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