Take a Pilates class and you'll quickly learn that the "powerhouse," creator Joseph Pilates' name for the muscles of your abdominals, hips and back, is the focus of this exercise system. Pilates simultaneously strengthens and stretches your muscles so you stand taller and look leaner, without having to spend time heaving weights. No need to leave extra time for stretching, either -- flexibility exercises are built right into the classic routine.
The abdominal series consists of five different exercises which simultaneously strengthen your powerhouse while stretching the back and legs. The single leg stretch is the first in the series and is suitable for both beginners and more advanced practitioners. To do a single leg stretch, lie on your back and pull your right knee into your chest while you extend the left leg parallel to the floor. As you exhale, switch legs paying special attention to reaching the extended leg to maximize the stretch aspect of the move.
The double leg stretch, the second move, has you perform a similar movement by extending both arms and both legs at the same time. The straight-leg versions of these exercises further stretch the hamstrings, while the criss-cross, the final exercise in the ab series, emphasizes the obliques at the sides of the waist while still focusing on the extension and stretch of the legs.
Pilates can help improve your posture by strengthening and stretching the muscles of the back. The spine stretch is key in achieving these objectives and provides a significant stretch for the back of the thighs, or the hamstring muscles. To perform the move, you sit with your legs extended in front of you and open about mat width. You then pretend you are rolling slowly up and down an invisible wall, creating a letter "C" shape with your body to articulate the vertebrae.
The spine twist, in which you sit with your legs extended and together while you open your arms to a "T" shape and twist with control side to side, stretches your hamstrings, obliques and back extensors. Swimming, another strengthener for the erector spinae muscles of the back, also stretches the shoulders and thighs as you lie on your stomach and alternate lifting opposite arms and legs.
Certain exercises in Pilates help open up tight hips. Bridging, in which you lie on your back with your knees bent and lift your hips up to create a long line from your head to your knees, expands your hip flexors while strengthening your buttocks. The mermaid serves as a transition between leg-strengthening exercises and stretches your hips and obliques. You can extend the mermaid into side bends, which look like an arced side plank, to further encourage a hip and waist stretch.
Although other Pilates exercises do not use the word "stretch" in their titles, they still focus on stretching while strengthening. For example, the saw, which has you sit on the mat with your legs in a v-shape while you twist side to side bringing opposite pinky finger to opposite little toe, stretches the hamstrings and obliques. Single leg kicks work your hamstrings and arms while simultaneously stretching your thighs and abdominal muscles. Do this move from a forward-lying position, prop your chest up on your arms and bend one knee at a time to "kick" your buttocks. Advanced moves like scissor kicks, in which you lie on your back, prop up your hips and alternate slicing your legs back and forth, stretches the hip flexors, quadriceps and hamstrings. Almost any exercise you do in a Pilates mat session will stretch you out as it strengthens your powerhouse, creating a well-rounded workout.
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.