A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

You know me – I am a big fan of my Pilates workout. I never want to skip any of my exercises – if you skip them they don't get better right?

I love all the fun advanced tricky moves – they jazz me up!

However, my understanding and my Pilates practice have matured.

So let's take a little Pilates Field Trip back to where it all began.

The Basic System!

Great power resides in the fundamental exercises you've been doing for years decades. 

I've documented my progress in my Another One Bites the Dust series here and here.

The Another One Bites the Dust series takes a look at a few exercises I hated at first and I now adore. It includes some basics and a couple doozies. Despite our newfound love affair, Snake/Twist and the BreastStroke are NOT basic exercises.

Why bother with the Basics?

A client/colleague of mine suggests the basic exercises are actually the hardest to do well and that's why we learn them first. These things take time…

Kinda true.

Who really feels they excel at the Hundred?

Does anyone have a perfect Elephant?

The Pilates method is skill-based. Like any sport or movement discipline we learn fundamental skills to serve us throughout our Pilates career. Akin to a martial art, Pilates sets us on a path to mastery.

Oh and CONTROL (that old thing?).

Complete control of our body and mind.

Our modus operandi in all things Pilates. Who's in charge here anyway? You or the exercise?

Here's a little test: examine the exercises you find to be extremely difficult.

What fundamental exercises lie within? And how good are you at them? 

More questions to ask yourself:

In Snake/Twist on the Reformer, do you struggle to return the carriage with control?

More. Elephant.

Are you unable to lift your hips off the mat for Corkscrew, JackKnife and Overhead?

More. Roll Like a Ball.

Are you wobbly when you do the Mountain Climb on the Wunda Chair?

More. Kneeling Knee Stretches. More. 2×4 exercises.

Get Cozy with 3 Basics

In today's post we'll revisit 3 basic exercises on 3 different apparatus.

As we explore each of these basics keep in mind a few questions:

  • How does this exercise serve the body I am now?
  • What have I figured out? What is still a mystery?
  • How does perfecting one basic skill translate across the greater Pilates System?

If you enjoy this post and would like to see other basics featured in future posts, just leave me a comment below. I thank you already…

1. Pelvic Lift on the Reformer

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

We learn Pelvic Lift on the Reformer in our very first lesson.

But what's really going on here?

Pelvic Lift brings our workout full circle. It echoes our Footwork series at the top of our Reformer workout with the added element of holding your hips up off the mat. At a certain point I learned (and perhaps you did too) to place my hands underneath my tailbone as a guide to keep the pelvis level.

Okay my pelvis is level but what am I doing?

First let's examine the order of the universe.

Pelvic Lift is our last exercise done lying down before our Control Push Up series and our Splits. Here we strive to have one more moment of length in the low back and low body before getting up onto the Reformer never to lie down again until we finish.

More complex versions of the Pelvic Lift – and where we'll need this skill – include Short Spine Massage, Long Spine Massage and Shoulder Bridge on the Mat. I could name a few more, but you see how this goes, we only have one exercise…blah-ty-blah-ty-blah-ty…


Think about the length we cultivate in the Short Spine Massage:

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

The tailbone reaches long and away from our ribs as we make our way slowly – deliciously – to the carriage.

The Pelvic Lift is a tiny version of this same stretch.

Pelvic Lift has our rib cage/middle back anchored to the carriage as our belly scoops in and our tailbone reaches long and away toward the footbar.

Finding my Pelvic Lift skill was so satisfying. It's one I'd been doing for years of course, but yet it remained shrouded in mystery for a while.

2. Pull Up on the Wunda Chair

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

The Pull Up is one of our basic exercises on the Wunda Chair. Every exercise on the Wunda is a challenge even the first ones we learn.

The Pull Up is pure powerhouse.

Find your lift deep in your center or the pedal is reluctant to move. Sure you can cheat and shift your weight off the pedal and onto your arms, but you'll only regret it later.

Where might your Pull Up skills come in handy?

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

Yes the Kneeling Knee Stretch series is a basic exercise but perhaps the most complex and formidable of our fundamentals.

The Pull Up skill will help to address the shape of the back in the Knees Off which often suffers.

How about more advanced exercises served by the Pull Up?

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

Tendon Stretch anyone?

Although a strong Elephant is also essential for success in the Tendon Stretch, your Pull Up skill will create the lift and rhythm for this exercise. Oh and that gorgeous back shape!

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

When you first learn Snake/Twist on the Reformer, you may only learn the very first bit:

Getting up into the starting position with control and the carriage in.

Not easy.

This is a pure Pull Up/Powerhouse move. With a bit of Elephant thrown in for style!

And now our Pull Up is not straightforward – arms on different levels, one one leg, etc…

Oh dear…

3. One Leg Circle on the Mat

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

Oh gosh, I've hated the One Leg Circle on the Mat for years…

In my first ever beginning mat class years ago I was just so thankful to have survived the Roll Up. The One Leg Circle was my exercise to rest up before Roll Like a Ball.

I've noticed a common theme with me and the Mat exercises. Ones in which my first thought was “What's so hard about this exercise?” have become my MOST challenging exercises to do properly. One Leg Circle, Single Leg Kick, Leg Pull – ooh I see a little theme here – I must beware the one-sided exercises!

If only I'd known…

One Leg Circle is the first exercise we learn that is one side at a time. And it's a nice one. We get to lie down. In the studio you may get a strap on your foot and some handles.

But what's really going on here?

The One Leg Circle is a shining example of choreographic distraction. Our circling leg is so flashy and right in front of us it's hard to focus on anything else right?

But you must focus on EVERYTHING else.

Pilates Mantra: The part of your body that is just lying/sitting there doing nothing should actually be doing all the work.

The One Leg Circle is about stability. One leg is “resting” on the mat? Imagine you are standing on that leg.

Yes. treat the One Leg Circle like you are standing on one leg with the other one reaching out in front of you. Wowza – how hard would that be? Stay tuned, if you're disciplined and consistent, it's bound to happen and soon.

Let's see where else we'll find our One Leg Circle skill:

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

Not too long after learning your One Leg Circle you'll be introduced to its unstable cousin, the Side Kick Series. Another exercise I loathed for years…which I dearly love now. Unbelievable.

Now lying on your side, your support is minimal but your body must be controlled and strong as you move your leg not only in front of you but eventually LOTS of places.

In our Reformer workout, our beloved Tree will turn into not only the One Leg Circle (with a box underneath) but also our first taste of the High Bridge.

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

Now you'll need your stomach and your stability of that standing leg!

Later in our Pilates career we'll confront our One Leg Circle in the Star with minimal support and a reaching leg that also eventually behaves very fancily…

A Pilates Field Trip: Revisiting the Basics

Note my “deer in the headlights” expression no less. Clearly I'm surprised to find myself in this position…

Thanks Joe Pilates! You never leave us unprepared.

Want to see your favorite Basic featured in this series? 

Let's have a look! Leave me a comment below.


 And here's where to find me in 2017.

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  1. Oooo this was a meat-n-potatoes post! Loved it!

    Funny you should say…“What’s so hard about this exercise…have become my MOST challenging exercises to do properly.” This, on a body psyo-logical-type platform, is really interesting? Like the body is tricking us (by not engaging) to not change cuz it’s hard. CHANGE is HARD.

    “The part of your body that is just lying/sitting there doing nothing should actually be doing all the work.” I wonder if this applies to everything in life, like snow shoveling…you know, like the things you find easy are actually really hard and you aren’t doing it right… like when i shovel snow I always tweek something cuz I’m not committed but just busting through it. (Pilates can help this 😉

    Game Changer: “Treat the One Leg Circle like you are standing on one leg with the other one reaching out in front of you.” For some reason, this vertical visualization really just kicked (ha!) things up a notch! THANKS!!!

    (Sorry if it was annoying that I kept re-quoting you)

    • Corrie –
      You just made me literally LOL. You are so funny to quote me – and sometimes I think some things are silly to write or not necessary, but those sentences seem to always be the memorable ones to others.

      And yes, yo, Change is HARD.

      I have finally stopped trying to do all the lower body exercises with my upper body ha ha. No wonder they were so hard.

      More meat and potatoes posts to come in this series – Footwork, Frog and ???
      Thank you so much for being an awesome subscriber and Pilates enthusiast extraordinaire 🙂 xox

  2. Hi Andrea,
    Welcome back from your travels! Missed you! This blog is amazing! I have been working on back to basics with my trainer. She is Romana’s student, works with and trained on Gratz, my training is PCI, Eve’s linage, trained on Stott. Back to basics is sooo hard. I love every bit of it, I am finding my powerhouse. Loving Gratz! Thank you for your wonderful insights.

    • Hey there –

      LOL I missed me too ha ha – Isn’t Pilates wonderful that continually on our journey we find more and more of our powerhouse? Just got some more of mine in the last few months – and boy did I not know what I was missing! Thank you so much for charing your thoughts here and for your kind words on my posts. Have a lovely weekend and Pilates workouts 🙂 xox

  3. Hi Andrea, single leg circles on the mat is also my least favourite mat exercise, I still bend my supporting leg in this exercise just slightly, I feel it giving more length to my (tight) upper back when I do this. But stability I am improving with. I used to just focus on my powerhouse in this exercise, then realised I was lazy in my seat while doing this. I asked myself how this translates to my everyday life – where else am I being lazy and can actually do more? Then I noticed I was ‘lazy in my seat’ in the hundred and teaser particularly – even rolling like a ball, but things are improving now as I draw more attention to this area, I just couldn’t believe how much I was avoiding this area. Thanks for the lovely post.

    • You are so welcome Talia – I am comforted that I am not the only one who is not fond of the Single Leg Circles haha. Isn’t it funny how we kind of avoid the things we need the most? I am guilty of this too. Better, but still guilty LOL.
      So glad you found this post to be helpful. Some exercises need constant attention and re-attention as we go.
      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts here 🙂 So happy to hear from you!

  4. Alessandra Niccolai says

    Hmm..???? Another thought provoking post…I’m starting to think that maybe there aren’t any basics in The Pilates Method ????????!! The more I practice them myself and then attempt to teach them, the more nuances I seem to encounter!! But this is what makes it all sooo fascinating!! Or has my geekism run away with itself ????????????????…. my favourite ‘basic’ is probably always footwork ???? But it sometimes changes to circles and frogs ???? and more recently elephant ????… oh and Cor I totally agree about the one leg circle standing up vibe????????
    Looking forward to seeing you both later this summer ????????????????????
    #rockon #pilatesgeeks????

    • Alessandra,

      You said this beautifully “The more I practice them myself and then attempt to teach them, the more nuances I seem to encounter!” And this is why we must practice to learn our craft – the method is seemingly endless!
      I will note your request for Footwork, Frog and Elephant to be featured in another Pilates Field Trip post – those are all endless exercises that need constant cultivation for me! Yes, we will have such fun this summer…hmmm… could Pilates Field Trip work as a theme for our workshop? Everyone could pick their favorite Basic to examine and find elsewhere in the land of crazy Pilates exercises too? Just a thought. Looking forward to it! xox

      • Alessandra Niccolai says

        Hmm.. that could be cool ????.. interesting to see if we each have different favourite ‘basic’ moves… and if not if we each like them for different reasons…????

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