Pilates is more likely to be associated with performing arts than martial ones, but the popular exercise method owes almost as much to its founder’s background in combat sports as it does to his association with the New York theater scene in the 1930s. As a child, Joseph Pilates took lessons in jiu-jitsu and boxing, both of which helped to influence his interest in physical fitness. In addition to his famous work with dancers, Pilates also trained boxers as he began to develop the unique set of exercises that would come to bear his name.

The connection between martial arts and Pilates doesn’t end with these origins, either. The method has evolved into an excellent form of cross-training for any martial arts discipline thanks to its emphasis on developing a solid mind/body connection, precise movements, good posture, and a strong core. Here are five examples of Pilates exercises that can benefit the martial artist who is interested in preventing injuries and improving their fitness and performance.

5 Pilates Exercises

Pilates Exercise#1 The Hundred

No Pilates mat routine is complete without the Hundred, which helps to improve circulation and warm up your body for the rest of the workout. It’s also perfect for the martial artist looking to improve their breath control, coordination, and core strength.

Lying on your back in imprinted position (using your abdominal muscles to gently tilt your pelvis and lengthen your lower back against the mat), flex your upper body and extend your legs to a 45 degree angle from the mat (or bend your knees and bring your thighs to a 90 degree angle if the straight-leg version causes pain or tension in your hips flexors). With your arms long at your sides and hovering above the mat, inhale for five counts and exhale for five counts, beating your arms in time with each count, keeping the rest of your body steady against this movement. Repeat ten times.

Pilates Exercise#2 Breast Stroke Prep

For the martial artist interest in improving their posture, Pilates offers a number of exercises that strengthen the erector spinae that run along and support the spine without putting unnecessary pressure on the lower back. One of those spinal extension-based moves is the Breast Stroke Prep.

Lying face with arms along your sides, your palms facing your body, and the tip of your nose touching the mat, gently engage your abdominal muscles to support your lower back and keep your pelvis neutral. On the inhale, draw your shoulder blades closer together and lift the front of your shoulders off the matt, bringing your arms parallel to the floor. Exhale to lift your upper body off the mat, in line with your arms. Inhale to stay. Imagine reaching your fingertips toward your toes and reaching the crown of your head away from them to lengthen your spine. Exhale to lower back to the starting position. Repeat three to five times. Follow with a shell stretch.

Pilates Exercise#3 Spine Twist

In both grappling and striking, many of martial arts’ most powerful moves are executed in a way that involves at least some manner of twisting from the core. This makes the Spine Twist, which develops the obliques through spinal rotation, a great choice for anyone looking to make their core both stronger and more effective.

Sitting tall on your sit bones, with your legs together and straight in front of you (or crossed if you feel any pain or tension in your hips in the straight-legged position), lift your arms long out to your sides, parallel to the floor. Inhale to prepare. On the exhale, rotate your upper body to one side, keeping your spine neutral (your lower back might naturally want to round as you twist – use your body awareness and core muscles to resist that urge), and gently pulse three times Release a little in between each pulse and try to increase your rotation each time. Inhale to return to the start position and exhale to do the same series of movements on the other side. Repeat three to five times.

Pilates Exercise#4 Side Leg Circles

With Side Kicks and the Side Leg Lift series, Pilates offers a number of exercises that strengthen the muscles surrounding the hip while encouraging good posture and core control, all of which can make throwing kicks both more effective and safer. The Side Leg Circles from that series is particularly great for working all of the gluteal muscles.

Lying on your side, with your head resting on your bottom arm, your spine neutral (don’t let your waist sag into the mat), your hips stacked on top of each other and the palm of your top arm resting in front of your chest for support, lift your top leg to hip height and point your toes. Inhale to prepare. Exhale to rotate your leg from the hip (imagine drawing a small circle with your toes), using your core and body awareness to keep the rest of your body stable and resist the movement. Repeat five to ten times. Switch directions for the same number of reps. Then repeat on the other side.

Pilates Exercise#5 Swimming Prep

The Swimming Prep is beneficial for martial artists in a number of ways. It works on stability and mobility in the shoulder girdle, which is important for strikers and wrestlers. It also improves core strength, posture, and balance, all necessary components of almost every martial art.

In the four point (hands and knees) position, with your palms directly under your shoulders, knees under your hips, and a neutral spine from the top of your head to your tailbone, engage your core to support your lower back and maintain your good posture. Inhale to prepare. On the exhale, extend one arm forward and the opposite leg back, keeping the rest of your body balanced and stable against this movement. Inhale to stay. Exhale to return to the starting position. Repeat the movement on the other side. Repeat the entire exercise three to five times. Finish with a shell stretch.

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