By Benjamin Degenhardt • Edited by Amanda Altman
“How can we have world peace? Not one man in the United Nations can do my first five exercises!” —Joseph H. Pilates (1883–1967)
When it comes to finding inspiration for my practice and teaching, I typically look to the founding father of the Pilates method, Joe Pilates. Known for his eccentric personality and outspoken desire to improve the health and physical fitness of his contemporaries, his writings are a collection of many meaningful quotes, like the one above.
A clever quote and a head-turning claim, for sure, but what’s really written between the lines is Joe’s firm belief that if we’re in complete ownership of our physical fitness, we are not just in better shape, but we wind up being better people and making better decisions—for ourselves, as well as in interaction with the world. This is a common philosophy of 20th century physical culture, which largely influenced the evolution of the historical Pilates method.
On more than one occasion, Joe mentions the difficulty of his “first five exercises,” referencing the beginning movements of his original matwork. And indeed, they make for a vigorous challenge, as they require full control over the entire length of our spine and include some advanced progressions. They serve to prime the body for the rest of Joe’s movement sequence, but also make for a quick, energizing routine all on their own.
Try them for yourself with my instruction here! All you need is a bit of floor space, a well-padded mat to protect your spine and joints, and the desire to move and feel better in a matter of minutes. A couple of pointers before you begin practicing:
Breathe normally. Note that not every movement comes with a specific, synchronized breathing pattern. Allow yourself to explore your natural breathing rhythm as you move: Observe when you are inclined to hold your breath, and simply practice inhaling and exhaling fully throughout all portions of movement.
Have a tight or injured back? Work with the introductory exercise instructions to familiarize yourself with the movements. Only attempt the full expression under the supervision of a certified instructor.
Quality first. Take your time to truly master these movements before playing with different rhythms, speeds and the more advanced progressions. The entire sequence shouldn’t take you more than five minutes and can be done every single day.
World peace—or at least peace within yourself—here you come! PS
Introduction to The Roll- Over: The Double-Leg Circle
Purpose: serves as a stepping stone and/or an alternative for The Roll-Over; increases hip mobility under dynamic core control
Setup: Lie flat on your back, with your arms by your sides, and legs long and pressed together.
1. Lift your legs to 90 degrees.
2. Open your legs to mat width, just a little wider than hip distance.
3. Lower your legs as much as possible while maintaining core control, keeping your back flat, not arched.
4. Bring your legs back together and up to 90 degrees. Do 3 reps, then reverse the direction and repeat.
Tip: Press your arms firmly into the mat, and your legs together as they meet.
Modification: Place your hands underneath your pelvis to relieve any pressure on your hamstrings, hips and/or lower back.
Advanced: Add a small lift (1 inch) of your pelvis at the end of each circle.
The First Five, #3: The Roll-Over
1. Lift your legs to 90 degrees.
2. Lift your hips and, without using momentum, roll your lower body overhead.
3. Open your legs to mat width, a little wider than hip distance.
4. Roll your spine and hips back to the mat.
5. Lower your legs as much as possible while maintaining core control—your back shouldn’t arch.
6. Bring your legs back together and then up to 90 degrees. Do 3 reps, then reverse the direction of the leg movement for another 3.
Tips: Make sure that your arms—wrists included—remain actively pressed into the mat. If you can’t keep your wrists planted, that means that your trunk is not yet flexible enough to safely perform the full movement!
Modification: Perform just the Double-Leg Circle.
Advanced: Touch your toes to the mat in the overhead position.
The First Five, #5: Rolling Back
1. Roll your spine up as you simultaneously tuck your knees into your chest, holding your shins by your ankles.
2. Maintaining the shape, roll onto your shoulders to lift your bottom overhead.
3. Maintaining the shape, roll back to the seated position. Do 5 reps.
Tip: Think of the actions of The Roll-Up and The Roll-Over as you move your spine back and forth over your mat.
Modification: Just hold the balance, and shift your weight back and forth by only an inch or 2 to simulate the challenge.
Advanced: On the last rep, land on your feet (side by side or crossed), and reach your arms forward as you roll up to come to standing.