‘Pre-Pilates’ Exercises: What are they and who does them?

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

For Lali

When one is new to the Pilates Method it is customary to begin at the beginning.

Often we can assume that our new student is unfamiliar in every way with exercises and concepts. Thusly, we begin to lay in the foundation.

As an apprentice, I asked one of my first teachers, Kerry DeVivo of Excel Pilates Annapolis, to show me the pre-Pilates exercises. I had heard of them but I wasn't sure if I had ever done them myself.

What I really wanted was the cold, hard facts: a list of pre-Pilates exercises.

Silly, Andrea…

Kerry provided her sound advice per usual:

Pre-Pilates exercises are designed to help a client gain the tools needed to properly perform the exercises, not in terms of choreography, but rather in terms of reaching the purpose of each exercise.

She urged me to think about the skills necessary to achieve any given exercise.

What needs to be in place to find success in the Hundred, the Teaser, Short Box, the Roll Up?

The Roll Up is a good example. One of the most concrete examples of what I consider to be pre-Pilates is the Half Roll Down, which some students must master before moving to the full Roll Up on the Mat.

The Half Roll Down is just one moment in the midst of the entire Roll Up exercise that one can tackle first. It is a skill inherent in the Roll Up that we can examine all by itself for a while.

Kerry further emphasized that pre-Pilates exercises are merely a teaching tool: a stepping stone on the Pilates path meant to empower the client and maintain the intention of the exercise.

That's on a need to know basis…

Back in the day – even back in my own day, it was a gift to receive a new exercise. You had worked hard for it and now you shall have your reward: Snake/Twist on the Reformer.

There. You. Go.

If you weren't a teacher, you may not have known this exercise even existed. There you were Arm-Circling your little heart out in perfect bliss…

I like to watch Chris Robinson each week when he has a lesson with Jay Grimes. He does a manly version of the Horseback that I have never done before. I don't need to know about that one just yet.

That's on a need to know basis…

Right now I've got my hands full just wrangling the standard version of the Horseback.

And that is just fine.

And Pre-Pilates?

I feel the same way about exercises that we often label ‘pre-Pilates.' If you don't need them, you may not have learned them in your workout. Teacher training programs will most likely include them, but I find pre-Pilates exercises to be in the realm of the Pilates grey area.

Oh yes, the Pilates grey area.

I know it well.

I am a very literal and direct person. I enjoy succinct and clear guidelines.

I adore order.

Pre-Pilates can be a murky, grey place in the Pilates Universe so I've got some examples of how to find your our way.

Know where to look

The need for pre-Pilates exercises generally arises when you're confronted with an individual's unique set of circumstances. Perhaps numerous pathologies all wrapped up together in one personality lead you to seek a basic preparatory exercise.

It is your fervent hope that the pre-Pilates will strengthen/enliven said individual and solve your Pilates problem du jour.

This line of thinking is based on “Mrs. X. should not do a, b, or c because she has this, that and the next thing.” And of course you must be aware of contraindications.

First, do no harm.

However, flip that around and ask yourself “What can this body in front of me do?” You may be surprised by the answers to this question.

Oh and by the way, there's a reason we call it the Magic circle… more on that in a bit.

Okay, so you've got the “why-you-may-need-pre-Pilates,” now let's talk about the “what-we're-gonna-do-about-it.”

“The Magic is in the System.”

Pilates is a systematic method of exercise: one exercise builds off another, much like laying bricks to build a chimney.

At times, foundational work needs to be done prior to “building the chimney.”

For these cases we use what is commonly referred to as pre-Pilates. Kerry DeVivo

Chances are there is a fantastic exercise already on your radar that will fill that pre-Pilates need.

Real World Scenario #1

You guessed it, we'll look at an old favorite: the Hundred.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Joe Pilates says you must do the Hundred with your feet 2″ from the floor.

This is true.

However, if you've got a 70-something loosey-goosey lady with multiple joint replacements, a delicate neck, back and shoulders, you may adopt a different approach.

What's to be done?

You could choose to leave out the Hundred entirely. That is one option.

And maybe you do that for now…while you plan your approach.

Or you could choose to work each component of the Hundred one by one. In this way you'll eventually build a version of the Hundred that is appropriate for a particular individual.

The process will not be speedy, but think of the skills you'll build along the way.

Back to 70-something loosey-goosey lady with multiple joint replacements, a delicate neck, back and shoulders…

  • One element of the Hundred that's just fine with this case study is the breathing part. She's certainly breathing or she wouldn't be having a Pilates lesson.
  • She can lie onto her back just fine as well.


Let's leave her head down for now. Still a great exercise without lifting your head.

How about that arm pumping?

Here's where we can work on our first component for a successful Hundred.

If shoulders are delicate, I'll bet that to pump the arms up and down, our Mrs. X may default to her shoulders and possibly aggravate them. Especially on the Reformer with straps and a moving carriage.

So on the Reformer you could lose the straps, that's one option.

Or, you've got that spacious and sturdy Cadillac you could use to build strength in her stomach and back with simple Arm Springs lying down.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Save pumping the arms until a little bit later on after she's built up some strength in the center so she doesn't bother her shoulders. If necessary you could use a lighter spring.

The Arm Chair may be a great option as well. A bit more challenging with the whole sitting up thing…

So in this scenario we are using the Arm Springs (lying down) on Cadillac and/or the Arm Chair exercises to build the strength and connection of the arms into the center.

This is just one skill you'll need for the Hundred.

As a side effect – all the strengthening of the center will slowly facilitate the lift of the head without neck strain. Eventually.

Rome was not built in a day, yo.

3 Cheers for the TV exercises!

It is my understanding that the TV exercises come from Romana Kryzanowska.

Presumably one can easily do these exercises while sitting and watching TV.

I should really jump on this bandwagon…I have the most terrible TV-watching posture.

Take it away, DeVivo…!

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Distilled to their essence the TV Exercises are all about lift.

What a surprise.

You are seated in a safe (non-moving) place on the Cadillac with the feet supported on a stable box – either the box from the Reformer, or a box like I have in the photos below, created just for these simple exercises.

It is here that we can find the building blocks for the Short Box Series on the Reformer.

And of course, everything else…

50 Shades of Tree

The goal of the TV exercises is to find the muscles that allow you to lift one foot off the box yet still remain in a lifted and tall seated position.

Not an easy feat for some.

At first some individuals may need to use both feet firmly planted on the box to find lift in the back and seat. Just lifting up and sitting tall may be challenging.

For a little while.

As your student becomes stronger you can begin to lift one leg.

Eventually the lifting of one leg can become more elaborate:

  • Lift one foot up from the box.
  • Stay tall and extend the leg forward until it straightens.
  • Lower it with control.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Try it, it's not easy. No slouching!

Real World Scenario #2

I have found great success in using the premise of the TV exercises to prepare for the Short Box Series on the Reformer. This series is fundamental to the Pilates method.

It is vital to the system!

What if your student is unable to experience this necessary series??!

Enter 50-something loosey-goosey lady with back and knee issues that has not exercised before. She wears heels regularly and is a devoted equestrienne.

Ah, the plot thickens…

The Short Box can be a precarious place for some. There you are, stranded on the box without any support for your back and you've got your feet in 2 unstable straps.

It's no fun to do Pilates when you are apprehensive about what you'll be doing. No one wants to feel badly after their lesson. They want to feel successful and empowered.

The location of the TV exercises – on the Cadillac – is a safe and supportive option.

"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?"Pre-Pilates" Exercises: What are they and who does them?

  • Firmly plant your feet on the box.
  • Here you can work on lifting the back without feeling you'll fall back into the abyss.
  • A tiny version of the Reach and the Side-to-Side done here will find and strengthen your lift.
  • You'll build confidence as you build skills, eventually progressing to full-on Short Box (on the Reformer).
  • Your lift in the Reach will help you find a Round position that is lifted and not crunchy/bone-gnashing to the back.

The Magic is in the Circle!

Oh yes, now it's magic time…

I include the Magic Circle here as it moves between both worlds: the full Pilates exercises and the pre-Pilates arena. It's wonderful for so many people.

And did I mention it's magic?

In the last several years I have had 2 clear occasions to declare the Magic Circle sheer and utter MAGIC.

Occasion #1: I even gasped out loud

Male client, extremely chatty and distracted. Physically coordinated and capable, but super focus-challenged.

Oh and he really only wanted to do the Mat.

And for a bit he wanted me to kill him in every lesson. For a bit.

Divine Intervention

I believe he was sent to me directly from Jay Grimes as a challenge for me to not talk so much. Whenever I said anything the client would take the ball and run with it and the Pilates exercises would get wild and unfocused.

And so I spent the entire hour willing myself to say nothing. When I did speak inevitably it would lead to a discussion. Not about the exercises…

I used to imagine this client cooped up in an office alone all day long with no one to talk to only to finally come to Pilates and let his light shine!

Uhm, no.

In desperation I turned to the Magic Circle. He liked a challenge and the Mat – and I thought the Circle might help to collect him a bit physically. If he had to focus physically maybe it would help his mental focus…?

OMFG he got so quiet and focused the moment that I gave him the Magic Circle. It was truly miraculous!

His focus honed in like a laser on the Circle as he wrangled his new experience of the Hundred. I was amazed.

Clearly there is magic in that there Circle.

Occasion #2: The Magic Circle is in the System!

The Magic Circle is conducive to the entire Pilates system. Imagine that.

It's not just there to kick your ass, people.

Back to 50-something loosey-goosey lady with back and knee issues that has not exercised before. Remember she wears heels regularly and is a devoted equestrienne.

One of the standing exercises she loves to do is basically Tendon Stretch (from Footwork) done on the 2×4. She says it helps her to ‘post up' on her horse and I love it because it connects her lower body into the center – into her stomach.

'Pre-Pilates' Exercises: What are they and who does them?

Win – Win!

She likes the Magic Circle for a similar reason: she needs strong inner thigh muscles to hold onto her horse.

'Pre-Pilates' Exercises: What are they and who does them?

The magic time came when these 2 exercises combined into a glorious lying down version of full connection to the lower body. Her stomach was shaking.

She could use this feeling with the circle to make the Arm Springs (lying down) a full body exercise and get ease in her upper body.


So keep thinking of skill-building when you are in need of a pre-Pilates exercise. 

Got one that works like a charm?

Share it in a comment below – we'd all love to know about it!

Thank you so much for reading!

Subscribe to receive a Special Bonus Blogpost
How to Fall in Love with the Exercises you Hate
We respect your privacy and never share your information.