Which Muscles Does Pilates Work?

Pilates, a popular form of exercise invented by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century, has taken the fitness world by storm. It’s a workout regimen that focuses on strengthening the body’s core and improving posture, flexibility, and balance.

But exactly which muscles does Pilates work on? This guide will delve into the details and provide a comprehensive understanding of the muscles targeted during a Pilates session.

The General Benefits of Pilates

Before diving into the specific muscles that Pilates works, it’s important to acknowledge the general benefits this form of exercise brings. Pilates offers a full-body workout that enhances muscle tone, body balance, joint mobility, and posture. It also boosts mental well-being by increasing body awareness and reducing stress.

Pilates is adaptable, making it suitable for everyone, from beginners to fitness enthusiasts. Its low-impact nature makes it an excellent choice for those looking for gentle strength training, such as older adults and those recovering from injuries. Additionally, Pilates improves functional strength, which promotes efficiency in everyday movements.

Here are some of the muscles that pilates works directly, along with an example exercise in each muscle group category.

The Core Muscles

Pilates Exercise Examples

The core, comprising the abdominal, hip, and lower back muscles, is the primary focus of Pilates. It’s a key component in maintaining good form during exercises. The core muscles provide the necessary support for the rest of the body during a workout, acting as a solid base for all movements.

Pilates exercises, whether done on a mat or a reformer, are designed to strengthen these muscles. By activating the core during exercises, you’re enabling your target muscles to train more effectively.

The Hundred Pilates Exercise


  1. Start Position: Lie flat on your back on a mat. Bring your legs to a tabletop position, knees bent, and shins parallel to the floor.
  2. Engage Core: Inhale deeply, then as you exhale, curl your head and shoulders off the mat, reaching your arms towards your feet.
  3. Arm Action: Pump your arms up and down in a small range of motion. Your arms should be straight and move energetically as if slapping water.
  4. Breathing: Inhale for 5 arm pumps, then exhale for 5 pumps. This counts as one cycle.
  5. Duration: Repeat for a total of 10 cycles, adding up to 100 pumps.

Focus on keeping your core muscles pulled in tightly throughout the exercise to ensure they are being worked effectively.

The Hip and Pelvic Muscles

The hip flexors and the muscles forming the pelvic girdle are crucial in Pilates. They work together to provide support to the core, helping maintain balance and stability. Strong hip and pelvic muscles can alleviate the strain on the lower back and promote better posture.

Pilates exercises, particularly those involving the hip flexors and the pelvic girdle, can help in strengthening these muscles and reducing the risk of injuries.

Pilates Exercise: Single Leg Circles


  1. Lie on Your Back: Lie flat on your mat with arms by your sides and palms facing down.
  2. Position Your Legs: Extend one leg towards the ceiling with the foot flexed, keeping the other leg flat on the mat.
  3. Engage Your Core: Pull your navel towards your spine to engage your core muscles and press your lower back into the mat.
  4. Circle Your Leg: Circle the raised leg across your body, then down around and back to the starting position. Keep the movement controlled and your hips still; the motion should come from your hip joint.
  5. Repeat: Perform 5-10 circles in each direction, then switch legs.
  6. Focus: Ensure your pelvis remains stable and the movement does not cause your lower back to arch.

This exercise targets the hip flexors and pelvic muscles, enhancing stability and core strength.

The Back Muscles

Pilates Child's Pose

Pilates targets the muscles in the back, especially the lower back, to provide stability and support to the spine. A strong back can protect the spine, maintain upright posture, and prevent back problems.

Many Pilates exercises, such as the Swan, are designed to strengthen the back muscles, particularly the erector spinae, which consists of three main muscle groups – the iliocostalis lumborum, longissimus thoracis, and the spinalis.

Child’s Pose with a Back Extension


  • Start Position: Begin on your hands and knees, with your knees hip-width apart and your hands directly under your shoulders.
  • Engage Core: Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, sit back on your heels, stretching your arms forward to place your forehead on the mat, entering the Child’s Pose.
  • Back Extension: Inhale and walk your hands to the right, gently stretching the left side of your back. Hold for a few breaths.
  • Switch Sides: Exhale and walk your hands to the left, now stretching the right side of your back. Hold for the same number of breaths.
  • Repeat: Return to the center and repeat this side-to-side motion 3-5 times, focusing on stretching and extending the muscles along your back.

The Gluteal Muscles

The gluteal muscles, consisting of the Gluteus maximus, Gluteus medius, and Gluteus minimus, are another major target of Pilates. These muscles are the largest in the body and play a significant role in various movements, such as sitting, walking, running, climbing, and jumping.

Pilates exercises, such as the Shoulder Bridge, are designed to tone the backside of the legs and tighten and lift the glutes. Strong glutes contribute to improved posture, increased flexibility and mobility, and injury prevention.

Pilates Exercise: Shoulder Bridge


  1. Starting Position: Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor hip-distance apart. Arms should be by your sides with palms facing down.
  2. Engage Your Core: Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, draw your belly button towards your spine to engage your core muscles.
  3. Lift Your Hips: Inhale to prepare. As you exhale, press your feet into the floor, and slowly lift your hips towards the ceiling, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
  4. Squeeze Your Glutes: At the top of the bridge, squeeze your glutes tightly without arching your back.
  5. Hold and Lower: Hold the position for a count of three, then slowly roll down through the spine to return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat: Perform 10-15 repetitions, focusing on maintaining proper form.

This exercise tones the legs and tightens and lifts the gluteal muscles, contributing to improved posture and injury prevention.

The Erector Spinae Muscles

Pilates The Swan

Pilates also works on the erector spinae, a group of muscles and tendons running along the spine. These muscles are responsible for extending and bending the back. They are crucial in maintaining spinal health and preventing back problems.

Exercises like the Swan, which focus on back extensions, are instrumental in strengthening these muscles and enhancing spinal flexibility and posture.

Pilates Exercise: The Swan


  1. Start Position: Lie face down on a mat, legs together, arms extended overhead, palms facing down.
  2. Engage Core: Activate your abdominal muscles to support the spine.
  3. Inhale: Slowly raise your head, neck, and chest off the mat, lengthening your spine.
  4. Exhale: Lift your arms and legs simultaneously, keeping your gaze forward and down to maintain neck alignment.
  5. Hold: Maintain this extended position for a few seconds, ensuring your muscles are engaged.
  6. Inhale: Gently lower your torso, arms, and legs back to the mat.
  7. Repeat: Perform 3-5 repetitions, focusing on smooth, controlled movements.

Note: Ensure you’re not straining your back; the lift comes from the strength of your back muscles, not momentum.

The Shoulder Muscles

The deltoids and other shoulder muscles are activated during various Pilates exercises, especially those involving planks. These muscles are essential for maintaining good form in plank variation exercises and also work the core.

By targeting the shoulder muscles, Pilates can help enhance upper body strength and stability, thus improving overall body balance and posture.

Pilates Exercise: Pilates Push-Up


  1. Start Position: Stand tall with your arms by your sides. Inhale and raise your arms above your head.
  2. Roll Down: Exhale, draw your chin to your chest, and roll down vertebra by vertebra. Walk your hands forward to come into a plank position.
  3. Pilates Push-Up: Inhale and bend your elbows close to your body to lower down into a push-up. Exhale and press back up.
  4. Return: Walk your hands back towards your feet. Roll up to standing position.

This exercise strengthens the shoulder muscles, triceps, and core.

The Transverse Abs

The transverse abs, located deep within the core muscles, are another area that Pilates focuses on. These muscles help stabilise the pelvis and spine, maintain balance, and correct posture. Pilates exercises, like the Pilates 100, target the transverse abs, strengthening them from deep within.

Dead Bug

The Dead Bug is a great alternative to the Pilates 100 for those looking to strengthen their core without the neck strain that some people experience with the Pilates 100.


  1. Lie on Your Back: Begin by lying flat on your back on a mat. Keep your spine in a neutral position, with no arching of the back.
  2. Activate Your Core: Engage your core by imagining you’re pulling your belly button down towards the floor. Your lower back should press slightly against the mat.
  3. Raise Your Limbs: Lift your arms and point them straight towards the ceiling. Raise your legs and bend your knees at a 90-degree angle, keeping your thighs perpendicular to the floor.
  4. Lower Opposite Arm and Leg: Inhale and slowly lower your right arm behind your head and extend your left leg towards the floor. Keep the movements controlled; your arm and leg should hover above the floor without touching it.
  5. Return to Starting Position: Exhale as you bring your right arm and left leg back to the starting position.
  6. Alternate Sides: Repeat the movement with the opposite arm and leg, lowering your left arm and right leg.
  7. Breathe with Control: Breathe in as you lower your limbs and breathe out as you raise them back to the initial position.
  8. Maintain Form: Keep your core engaged throughout the exercise and ensure your back does not arch off the mat.
  9. Sets and Reps: Aim for 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions on each side.

By incorporating the Dead Bug exercise into your routine, you can build core stability and strength in a way that is both effective and spine-friendly.

The Role of Breathing in Pilates

Pilates Breathing

Breathing plays a crucial role in Pilates. Proper breathing techniques can generate sufficient intra-abdominal pressure, aiding in stabilising the lower back. Training subjects to breathe properly, emphasising the expiratory muscles, can also reduce the sensation of fatigue and effort during exercise.

The Importance of Body Position and Posture

Pilates encourages awareness of body position and posture. The workout requires you to be in total control of your body as you move, initiating from your central core muscles and then proceeding through a controlled range of motion.

Pilates promotes the slight forward flexion of the cervical vertebra, the stabilisation of the scapula, the connection of the rib cage to the hips, and the posterior pelvic tilt. These movements help in achieving maximal muscular contraction and efficient organisation of head, neck, and shoulder girdle.

The Benefits of Pilates for Specific Body Parts

Pilates offers numerous benefits for specific body parts. It helps relieve tension in the shoulders, back, and legs. It boosts the body’s natural ability to burn fat, promotes mindfulness and body awareness, and technically requires only a mat.

Pilates can also be a great way to cross-train and prevent injury. It provides variety in your workout routine, preventing overuse injuries from repetitive movements. By promoting functional strength, Pilates improves the way you move in your everyday life.


In conclusion, Pilates is an excellent workout regimen that works on various muscles, particularly the core, hip, back, gluteal, erector spinae, shoulder, and transverse abs. The exercises are designed to increase muscle strength and endurance, improve flexibility, and enhance posture and balance.

With its numerous health and fitness benefits, Pilates is a great addition to any workout regimen. Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast or a beginner, Pilates can help you achieve a stronger, more balanced, and more flexible body.