Pilates Exercises to Improve Balance and Flexibility

The original work of Joseph Pilates has developed significantly since its inception in the early 20th century. While modern interpretations, Stott, Body Control Method, Integrative Approach et al, have brought in a more scientific approach to exercise and training, they still retain the core tenants of Pilates’ original ‘Contrology’.

A plank being performed in Pilates class


Pilates felt that his work was decades ahead of his time, implying that the modern way of living, poor postures and inefficient patterns of breathing were all factors that impaired a person’s health. Today, poor diet, sedentary lifestyles, and a culture of sitting down, particularly at work, impact our health – so there may be truth in his claim.

Traditional (mat) Pilates has several principles including control, centring, precision and breathing, and with the exercises, he laid out, a range of benefits can be gained:

  • Improved balance and posture
  • Greater core strength/stability
  • Improved coordination
  • Reduced lower back pain
  • Improved flexibility
  • Greater kinaesthetic awareness

As well as the average Pilates student, improved balance and flexibility has also been proven to be greatly beneficial for older adults, particularly when it comes to preventing falls. A 2014 study by Daegu University in South Korea examined the effects of mat-based Pilates on the balance ability of elderly women. Participants in the study exercised three times a week for 12 weeks, 40 minutes at a time. It was concluded that Pilates exercise has a significant effect on the static and dynamic balance of the women, as well as an increased performed in the Timed Up and Go (TUG) test.

In Pilates’ original work ‘Contrology’, he devised 34 exercises. As they have proved so effective they still to this day remain largely unchanged. While each of the exercises below has a wide range of benefits, they are particularly useful for improving balance and flexibility. It’s worth noting however that Joseph Pilates primarily worked with dancers, namely the New York School of Ballet, and individuals who would be considered fitter than the average person. Therefore, these exercises can be modified or adapted as necessary for those less capable.

The Corkscrew

A Pilates instructor performing a Corkscrew exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to promote sequential mobilisation of the hips and spine. It also serves to benefit the development of whole-body balance from a supine position. To perform this exercise correctly and safely, it’s important that you try not to rotate the spine, instead allow the hips to lead the movement. Engage the abdominals throughout and avoid straining the neck area, this is best achieved by using the core to control the movement. Typically this exercise involves 3-5 repetitions.

An important point to note is that this exercise is not appropriate for those with osteoporosis. Should you need to modify then the hips can be kept on the mat with just the legs circling.

If you want to see the Corkscrew in motion, click here to watch a demonstration by our expert tutor.

The Saw

A Pilates instructor performing the Saw exercise
Flexibility in the hips, spine and shoulder regions can all be promoted with this exercise. It also serves to develop scapular and pelvic stability. To ensure you get the most out of this movement, begin by sitting tall with a neutral spine and pelvis with the legs stretched out to the front. The pelvis should remain fixed throughout and you should ensure that coccyx remains in contact with the mat. Perform 3-5 reps on each side.

This exercise provides an alternative to spine twists and it can be modified with the use of a block for those with a tight lower back or hamstring.

Click here to watch Saw being performed by our tutor.


The Scissors

A Pilates instructor performing the Scissors exercise
This exercise is not suitable for participants with osteoporosis, though it does bring a wealth of benefits for those able to perform it. These include: developing pelvic and spinal stability; increasing the flexibility of the hamstrings and hip flexor, and promoting overall bodily awareness, balance and control.

Begin by adopting a supine position with the legs and place the arms by the side, palms facing down. With the legs lifted upwards, support the hips with your hands. Exhale as you split the legs in a scissor motion and reach further on the second breath. It’s best to avoid letting the leg move too far or drop in front of the face. Both legs should move through the same range of motion. A foam roller can be placed under the hips as a means of support.

If you’re more of a visual person then take a look at our expert instructor performing this exercise.

The Bicycle

A Pilates instructor performing a Bicycle exercise
An alternative to Scissors, this exercise serves to mobilise the hips and knees. It also aids the development of pelvic and spinal stability. As with the previous exercise, this should not be performed by those with osteoporosis. It can, however, be modified by lying on your side for those that find it too difficult. While performing this advanced movement, avoid loading weight directly into the neck and ensure that the torso and shoulders remained fixed – as ever, the abdominals should be engaged throughout.

Perform the exercise 5-10 times on each side and then reverse the action.

Click here to watch our expert instructor break down exactly how this exercise should be performed.


A Pilates instructor performing the Swimming exercise
This exercise is designed to mobilise the hip and shoulder joints and promote upper and lower body coordination on reciprocal sides. With a neutral spine, adopt a prone position keeping the legs abducted to hip-distance apart. While this movement is performed, the legs should be kept long and together, without bending the knees. With every count, squeeze the gluteals and switch sides. Ideally, repeat three to six reps on each side.

To modify, this exercise can be performed lying prone lifting one leg or one arm at a time. The speed of the movement can also be increased should you wish to add a progression.

Discover how to perform this exercise correctly by clicking here to watch an expert demonstration.

If you love Pilates and you’re interested in turning that passion into a career, your journey starts with our industry-leading Pilates instructor courses and online Pilates teacher training. If you are already a qualified Pilates teacher and you are looking to upskill, why not consider taking our Level 4 Advanced Pilates Course.


Josh Douglas-Walton

Josh Douglas-Walton

Health and Fitness Writer

Josh is passionate about all things health and fitness, and in his spare time he's a keen marathon and ultramarathon runner....
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