Pilates Progressions

Once you have a good understanding of the six Pilates principles you can reinvent traditional exercises to suit your clients and your environment, explains Taryn Polovin.


Traditional Pilates is an amazing method of exercise. It has six basic principles (centering, concentration, control, precision, breath and flow) with a set repertoire and a very specific style of teaching. Unfortunately, in its traditional form it is not always appropriate for gyms or bigger group training classes.

One of my favourite things about teaching Pilates is that once you understand the basic principles you can ‘reinvent’ most of the exercises. By breaking down the movements you can create ‘pre-Pilates’ exercises (which are great for beginners or rehabilitation work) or progress the basic exercises into more creative and dynamic sequences. These exercises can then be used in a ‘Pilates-style’ class in any setting.

Transitioning basic Pilates moves into more complex sequences can be challenging. You need the movements to flow seamlessly, and to be able to teach the progressions in a fluid and concise manner. The sequence illustrated here (and demonstrated on video in the online version of this article) provides a good introduction to making this transition.

The sequence

The following movement sequence features four basic exercises which are progressed by adding additional movements, rotation, change of direction, base of support or lever length. They are really fun sequences and can be built up slowly over a series of sessions. The progressions outlined here are the final product, but they will almost certainly need to be broken down into smaller components initially, unless you are working exclusively with more advanced clients.

Following each sequence below is a suggestion for how the progressions can be taught. These suggestions are not necessarily the only way, however: judge your participants and decide how much you need to break down each sequence and how far you will actually be able to progress them.

Plank progression

Start in a basic plank (front support) position
Inhale: prepare
Exhale: draw right knee to right elbow (photo 1)
Inhale: extend right leg back without touching the ground
Exhale: draw right knee across body to left elbow (photo 2)
Inhale: extend right leg back without touching the ground
Exhale: lift right arm off the floor and open into star position (photo 3)
Repeat with left leg.

You can layer this sequence by first teaching the plank with alternating unilateral knee to elbow (photo 1), and then teaching alternating knee to opposite elbow (photo 2).

Once participants are comfortable with these exercises, individually link them together, finally adding the star if their technique is strong enough.

Reverse plank progression

Start in reverse plank (back support) position
Inhale: prepare
Exhale: drawing from the centre start to pull the butt and legs back through the hands, keeping as much of the legs off the floor as possible (photo 4)
Inhale: hold
Exhale: slide legs out in front until body is back in a reverse plank position and extend right leg (photo 5)
Inhale: lower right leg
Repeat from beginning and extend left leg.

You can teach this sequence by initially instructing the basic reverse plank with either the tuck or the leg kicks. Once participants have mastered these individually, you can link the two together. You can also teach this with a single breath cycle using the exhale to tuck back and the inhale to extend out into reverse plank with the leg kick.

Instructor tips:

  • It is often easier to place a towel under participants’ heels for the tuck as it helps to make the movement smoother
  • Cue pulling in from the lower abdominals to initiate the tuck, especially at the end of range.

4-point kneeling progression (knee stretch series)

Start in a basic 4-point kneeling position
Cueing a strong connection through the core, instruct your participants to gently hover their knees off the floor without losing their alignment. Breathing rhythm can be natural – ensure no breath holding (photo 6).
When participants are comfortable with knees off the floor you can start cueing to lift one foot off the floor while maintaining natural breathing and correct alignment.
From this position, move into the exercise.
Inhale: prepare
Exhale: pull knee into chest
Inhale: extend leg out behind (photo 7)
An option for progression is to add flexion (photo 8) and extension (photo 9) into the movement as the knee is drawn in and extended out.

Instructor tip:

  • Look out for overextension in the lumbar spine and excessive use of the traps.

Lunging hip flexor stretch

Start in a basic kneeling hip flexor stretch with one knee on the floor and the other leg bent in front of body at a 90 degree angle
Place hands on the floor and extend back leg out behind the body (photo 10)
Inhale: prepare
Exhale: keeping hands on the floor try and extend the front leg while keeping the spine long and in neutral (photo 11)
Inhale: hold
Exhale: bend front knee again while pushing through the back heel to create length in the back leg
Repeat 3 times
Transition into forward bend by keeping legs straight and swiveling feet to parallel (photo 12)

Hold forward bend for 1-3 breaths before turning to the other side and repeating the whole sequence.

Taryn Polovin BAppSc (Ex&SpSc), Grad Dip (Human Nutrition)
With a background in both exercise science and sports nutrition, Taryn has been involved in the health and fitness industry for over sixteen years. She is an international instructor trainer, fitness presenter and the host and creative director of the international TV show Aerobics Oz Style.