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3 Pilates power moves

“When I practice Pilates, I’m humbled and intrigued,” says Darryl Whiting. “Every time I take a class or private lesson, I learn something new about my body. It’s empowering, challenging, and tedious—but fun.” 

Whiting, a former NFL player and current group fitness instructor at Project by Equinox and Equinox locations in New York City, says the training method has made a pain-free lifestyle possible for him. “It has allowed me to do things like play a pick-up game of basketball and run up Vessel,” he says, activities that football-induced aches and injuries kept him from doing before.

That’s a common sentiment. When Taylor Phillips was a child, she had an accident while horseback riding that left her with severe back pain into adulthood. She tried to get relief through physical therapy, but nothing helped. Her doctors told her to steer clear of running, which would make it worse. 

Everything changed in 2001, when Phillips started taking Pilates. “Today, I’m able to run half marathons and practice the advanced Pilates repertoire, which has a great deal of gymnastics influence,” says Phillips, now the area Pilates manager for Equinox in New York City.

Speaking of the repertoire, it’s huge, with more than 500 moves to explore and perfect. To do them well, you’ll need three pillars of a well-rounded body: strength, stability, and flexibility, Phillips notes. “Many of the exercises require all three, making them unique challenges that demand a good amount of core activation.” 

As Ilaria Coletto can attest, the benefits extend beyond the gym. “The best surprise was seeing my posture get better and better, even after my first session,” says Coletto, a junior Pilates instructor at Equinox Hudson Yards in New York City. “It has brought balance to my body.”

There are beginner and intermediate exercises, of course, but the advanced moves require extra stability and total-body engagement to keep the carriage (the flat, wheeled platform) still. Below, the three experts share their Pilates power moves, each of which prioritizes one of the three elements, and two prep moves that will help you master them.

Stability: Single-leg knee stretches

“While there’s a certain amount of precision required in Pilates, it’s not all about slow movements,” Phillips says. This knee stretch series is a faster, more explosive exercise in the repertoire. Plus, it calls for a great deal of stability in the core and shoulders and flexibility in the spine and hips. Practice each prep move 2 to 3 times per week. Once you can maintain control through all reps, you’re ready to try the power move on the reformer. Do it as your last blast before you cool down, Phillips suggests.

Prep move: Modified single-leg knee stretches on mat

Rest on all fours on a mat with an io-ball under your left foot and both knees and the right foot hovering above the ground. Simultaneously tuck your right knee toward your right elbow, extend the left leg behind you, and drop your head. This is your start position. From there, lift your head, extend the right leg straight back so it’s parallel to the ground, and tuck your left leg in slightly until there's a 90-degree bend in the knee. Reverse the motion to return to start for one rep. Complete 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides and repeat.

Prep move: Single-leg knee stretch with full extension on mat

Rest on all fours on a mat with an io-ball under your left foot and both knees and the right foot hovering above the ground. Simultaneously tuck your right knee toward your right elbow, extend the left leg behind you, and drop your head. This is your start position. From there, lift your head, extend the right leg back and up as high as it can go, and tuck your left leg in slightly until there's a 90-degree bend in the knee. Reverse the motion to return to start for one rep. Complete 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides and repeat.

Power move: Single-leg knee stretches

Strength: Balance control front with marching push-ups 

“Performing the marching push-ups while keeping the carriage completely still is really hard and a great tricep workout,” Whiting says. To get there, perform the ab glide-out 3 to 4 times per week as part of your regular strength routine. Once you can reach maximum extension with good form, replace the move with the leg pull-down. After you’ve mastered it, practice it on a less stable surface (such as with gliding discs under the hands or an io-ball under the planted foot) before attempting the power move.

Prep move: Ab glide-out

Rest with your knees on a mat and a gliding disc under each hand. Keeping the core engaged, press the gliding discs forward as far as you can without dropping to the floor. Hold for 2 seconds at your farthest point, then pull the discs back toward you until shoulders are stacked over wrists. That’s one rep. Complete 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Prep move: Leg pull-down

Get in a high plank position on a mat with shoulders stacked over wrists and the left foot raised and hovering above the ground. Shift your weight forward, then back to return to start. That’s one rep. Complete 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps per leg. 

Power move: Balance control front with marching push-ups

Flexibility: High bridge

“You need flexibility to perform a full backbend and a strong core to extend the leg while inverted,” Coletto says. To build both, she suggests practicing the shoulder bridge on the mat 3 to 4 times per week, performing 3 reps per leg. Once you feel strong enough to complete more back-to-back reps, progress to the high bridge on the mat. When more reps feel within reach, give it a try on the reformer. 

Prep move: Shoulder bridge on mat

Lie face up on a mat with knees bent, feet planted on floor just as wide as hips, and arms at your sides. Press through your feet to lift the hips while keeping your feet, head, and shoulders firmly on the ground. Extend your right leg, lift the foot off the floor, and point the toes. This is your start position. From there, raise the right leg as high as it will go, keeping leg straight and toes pointed throughout. At your farthest position, flex the foot up and lower the leg back to start. That’s one rep. Complete 3 reps on this side, then switch sides and repeat.

Prep move: High bridge on mat 

From the shoulder bridge, plant both feet on the ground and place both hands at shoulder-width on either side of your head, with palms on the ground and fingers pointing toward shoulders. Press through the feet and hands to lift the hips and extend the arms until you’re in a full backbend. This is your start position. From there, raise the right leg until it’s perpendicular to the floor, first lifting the knee and keeping your toes pointed throughout. Reverse the motion to return to start for one rep. Complete 3 reps on this side, then switch sides and repeat.

Power move: High bridge

Photography by Mohamed Sadek. Art direction by Kathryn Marx. Styling by Jamie Frankel.

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