Pilates is well known for its abs-sculpting power, but it can also tone every part of your body, including your back. Here are seven moves from the Women's Health Big Book of Pilates that you can follow to achieve a strong, sculpted back.
Sit tall with a straight back and long waist. Open your arms straight out to your sides at shoulder-height and “crack a walnut” between your blades. Open your legs wider than your shoulders, flex your feet from the ankles, and anchor your bottom to the mat (A). Inhale as you rotate your trunk to the left and round over your left knee; pressing your right hand against the outer edge of your left foot and lifting your back arm as high as possible, palm down (B). Exhale as you slide your right hand along your outer foot in three progressive forward “sawing” motions while drawing back in your right hip to create diagonal opposition for your oblique abs (keep the weight of your lower body even on the mat no matter what the upper body is doing) (C). Inhale and return to start. Repeat the sequence, twisting right. Perform three sets.
Lie with your forehead down, pubic bone anchored to the mat, and inner thighs pressed tightly together. Place your palms down under your shoulders and press your elbows into your sides. Inhale with control as you lift your head and chest searching for a stretch from the pubic bone up through your chest and out from your chin (A). Hold for one count, then lift both arms upward and out to your sides—palms faceup—as you begin to rock back and forth on your belly (B). Rocking forward "presses" the air from your lungs as an exhalation, while rocking back allows for a fuller expansion of your chest (C). Rock six times.
Lie on your stomach with your forehead down, the pubis anchored to the mat, and the inner thighs pressed tightly together. Your arms are stretched forward with the palms down, and your feet are pointed. Lift your arms, legs, chest, and head up on one count and hold (A). Inhale and exhale normally as you alternate lifting right arm/left leg (B) and left arm/right leg (C) without touching them down to the mat. Count slowly from 1 to 10 as you swim, lifting higher and reaching longer with each progressive count. Sit back to your heels for a counterstretch in your lower back, if needed.
Lie flat with your legs squeezed together, your feet pointed, and long, sturdy arms held tightly to your sides. (The backs of your arms, palms, and shoulders are anchored to the mat.) (A). Inhale with control as you roll your legs overhead, one vertebra at a time, until you can place your palms flat against the back of your lower back (your hands are above your hip bones, like a supported Jackknife) (B). Balance evenly on the backs of your shoulders and inhale with control as you reach your right leg forward on a high diagonal and your left leg back in opposition. Split your legs as far as you are able while maintaining the lift in your hips (do not allow the weight of your body to fall into your wrists) (C). Exhale with control as you switch legs, keeping the legs firm and the hips lifted. Alternate legs six times.
Double Leg Kicks
Lie facedown with one cheek on the mat and your hands behind your back, grasping the fingers of one hand with the other. Your hands can be as high up on the back as the elbows can comfortably remain on the mat (A). Inhale slowly as you lift both legs 2 inches off the mat and, with inner thighs glued together, "kick" your bottom three times with your heels as you exhale (B). Inhale with control as you stretch your legs back and lift your chest high, reaching your hands (still grasping one another) back toward the heels and hovering a few inches from your bottom (C). Exhale with control as you turn your face and place the opposite cheek on the mat. The elbows bend, the hands return to your back, and your knees are still lifted. Repeat two sets.
Sit on one hip, propped up on one hand, with your legs nearly extended (slightly bent) to the side and stacked ankle over ankle. The palm of the top hand is pressing onto your outer thigh (A). Inhale with control as you lift your hip away from the mat and reach your arm overhead, creating a high, lifted arc in the torso (B). Bring the hand from overhead back to your outer thigh and turn your chin to your outer shoulder (C). Exhale slowly as you lower the side of your calf to the mat. Inhale slowly as you return to your high arc. Repeat three cycles.
Lie on your stomach with your forehead down, the pubis anchored to the mat, and the inner thighs pressed tightly together. Bend your knees and reach both arms back evenly, taking hold of each foot with its corresponding hand and bringing your heels to your bottom for a stretch across your knees (A). Inhale with control as you lift your thighs and chest high off the mat (like you did for Swan Dive and Swimming). Exhale slowly as you press your feet back into your hands to create muscular tension (the good kind) from the tips of your toes, around the front of your body, up through the crown of your head, and back at your fingertips, effectively completing an energetic circle. Keep this muscular "lock" on the position throughout the Rocking movements (B). Inhale slowly as you rock forward until your chest touches the mat. Exhale slowly as you rock back over your thighs, massaging the front of your body (C). Rock back and forth five times.