The holiday season is a wonderful and festive time of year for many of us. However, it is often hard to stay in our workout routine during the holidays. Between shopping, holiday parties, traveling, and those year-end work deadlines, it can be hard to stay on track. 

The good news is that with a little strategy, you can keep up the discipline even in the midst of the holiday swirl. Even incorporating Pilates into your day for a couple minutes can help maintain your core strength, alignment, and flexibility before you get back to your normal routine after the New Year. 

Here are 10 basic Pilates exercises and neural drills that you can do anywhere – a hotel room, at your home or at your relatives’ house, during the holiday season. Doing these daily will help you create more mental and physical stamina during this hectic time of year, keep you more sane and grounded and provide you with some much-needed self care.  

Instructions: Do 5-10 reps of each and make sure to stretch a little when you are done.  The total routine takes 10-20 minutes, depending on how many reps you do. Practice the exercises in the order given below to get the most out of each subsequent movement.

1 Lumbar Spine neural drill

The lumbar spine neural drill is one of my go-tos for warming up the lumbar spine and lower back. It reduces back strain and tension and creates more relaxation in the body.  It will warm up your spine gently and provide a positive input to your nervous system, preparing your body and low back for more intense movement. 

Stand in a tall neutral position and circle your trunk to the opposite side, targeting the lumbar spine.  Repeat 3 times and reverse directions.  Click here to read and see how to do this drill correctly. 

2. Closed Chain Hip Circle neural drill 

This is one of my favorite hip drills to increase both hip mobility and brain mapping to this important region of the body.  

Stand in a tall, neutral position and step back to a 45 degree angle from midline with one leg. Lunge forward slightly on the front leg keeping the back knee completely straight. Circle the hip 5 to 7 times in one direction and repeat in the other direction.  Click here to read more and to see this drill performed.  

3. Pelvic Curl to Shoulder Bridge 

This exercise strengthens your abdominals, hamstrings and glutes, but most importantly increases the suppleness and flexibility of your spine.  

I begin every session and class I teach with Pelvic Curl.  Begin in supine position (on your back) with your feet on the mat.  Your knees are hip width apart and your feet are slightly in front of your knees.  Your arms are at your side with your palms down.  Shoulders are relaxed and back ribs rest on the mat.  Inhale.  Exhale and roll your pelvis and spine off the mat articulating each vertebrae as you roll up.  At the top of your bridge inhale and pause checking out your trunk alignment.  Your ribs should be lower than your pelvis and your pubic bone higher than your hip bones with your belly flat.  Exhale and roll your spine back to the mat.  Relax your shoulders as you roll down. 

4. Pilates Chest Lift and Chest Lift Rotation 

These simple exercises require a lot of focus and patience to do well.  They are also excellent to help you coordinate lateral breathing with movement. You will learn to activate and strengthen all the abdominal muscles by using your breath.

Lie supine (on your back) with knees bent and feet on the floor.  Press your knees and feet together. Clasp your hands and rest your head in your hands.  Inhale while lying flat and exhale lifting head and chest.  Inhale pause, exhale lower head and chest.  Keep the belly flat while lifting and lowering the chest.  Keep pelvis neutral.   

 After doing the chest lift demonstrated here add rotation to incorporate the oblique muscles.  When rotating your trunk keep your chest lifted and pelvis stable.  Exhale and rotate to one side.  Inhale returning to the center without lowering your chest.  Repeat to the opposite side.  Keep elbows wide, reaching one shoulder towards the opposite hip, not the elbow. 

5. Pilates Roll Up 

You can never practice your Roll Up too much! This full body exercise is very important to strengthen the abdominals and increase spinal mobility and stability. 

Lie supine (on your back) on the floor with your arms over your head and shoulders away from your ears.  Relax your ribs down toward the mat and press your legs together.  Exhale drawing your navel down and roll up.  Glide your shoulders away from your ears reaching your arms forward from shoulders in a parallel position.  

Complete your roll up with shoulders slightly forward of hips, shoulders down, arms reaching forward, legs together with deep abdominal activation (think of a tall C curve shape). Inhale here.  Then exhale rolling back down to your start position articulating your spine along the way.  Do NOT arch the ribs off mat as arms reach overhead. To see this exercise demonstrated correctly and incorrectly click here

 6. Pilates Basic Back Extension 

With this exercise we focus on the muscles of your back and posterior hip.  These are the opposing muscles you just worked in your Roll Up.

Lying prone (face down) rest your forehead on your mat so your neck remains long.  Press your arms against your side bodies, palms facing your thighs. Rest your feet on the mat but point your heels up toward the ceiling to turn on the muscles of your hips.  Your legs can be pressed together or slightly apart.  Lift your belly off the mat and keep your pelvic bones (hip bones and pubic bone) as even on the mat as possible.  Inhale lifting your chest.  Do NOT look forward.  Keep your nose pointing toward the mat.  LIFT your belly off the mat as you lift your trunk.  Exhale and lower your chest.  

Focus on breathing into your back ribs without relaxing your transverse abdominis muscle (lower belly).  If you feel strain in your lower back, lift your chest less high and focus more on keeping your pelvic bones evenly pressing into the mat and your belly lifting off the mat.  

7. Pilates Spine Stretch with Extension

This is a great exercise to strengthen your lats and increase the flexibility of your spine. It is one of the most effective Pilates exercises for improving your posture and learning proper shoulder and neck alignment.

To begin, sit tall with arms forward from shoulders and legs straight in front of hips, slightly apart.  (Bend the knees if needed or sit on a folded blanket or bolster to reduce the pull on the low back).  Exhale and round your spine, reaching your arms forward from your shoulders and look down to keep your neck in line with the rest of your spine.  Inhale and extend your spine on a diagonal line and gaze between your feet.  Exhale round your spine again over your legs.  Inhale and lengthen your spine to your upright starting position.  This is a complicated exercise.  Check out this video to see how it’s done correctly- and incorrectly!  

8. Pilates Side Lift  

Keep your legs pressed together throughout the lifting and lowering.  This exercise helps increase lateral flexor strength and requires trunk stabilization. Do this exercise on each side with an equal number of repetitions. 

Start by lying on one side with your shoulders, ribs and hips stacked as if you have a wall right in front and behind you.  Rest your head on your lower (straight) arm and place your top hand on the mat for support, or lift it up to a “T” position from your shoulder for more challenge.  Press your legs together.  Exhale and lift your legs off the mat like a fishtail.  Inhale lower your legs but don’t let them touch the mat.  As you lift your legs do NOT sink your lower side into the mat.  

9. Pilates Supine Spine Twist 

This exercise works the obliques and also helps maintain spinal flexibility by rotating the spine and pelvis.  

Start in supine position (lying on your back) with your legs in tabletop position.  Your arms are by your side with palms down or in a T position with palms up.  Inhale and rotate your thighs and pelvis to one side keeping your shoulder blades on the mat.  Exhale and return to your start position.  Repeat to the other side.  When you rotate to one side, notice if you are hyperextending your spine.  If you are, you need to reduce your range of motion.  Inhale into your back ribs, not into your lower belly.  Keep your belly flat and engaged and your thighs pressed together throughout the exercise.  Don’t let your thighs move away from your trunk while rotating. (This will hyperextend your lower back.)  Keep them right over the hips or slightly in front of the hips as a modification to protect your back.  

10.  Push Ups 

The Pilates push up, when performed correctly, will strengthen all the muscles of the trunk and shoulder complex.  Make sure to modify as needed so that you maintain your spinal alignment and hold on to proper form.

Begin in a plank position on your hands and feet, or a modified position on your hands and knees.  Your spine is in alignment from your ears to your feet or knees.  Inhale and bend your elbows lowering your trunk toward the floor.  Exhale straightening your arms and return to your start position.  Maintain the alignment of your spine throughout.  

If you drop your head, shrug your shoulders up to your ears or sag your belly and hips toward the floor you’ve gone further than your alignment can support.  You must reduce your range of movement.  This means you lower your body less toward the floor or you go to your knees because you are not strong enough to stay on your feet.  You will injure yourself and not gain the amazing benefits of this exercise by pushing yourself too far. 

Adding one more activity to your busy holiday season can feel like a challenge.  But staying committed to your movement practice pays dividends no cooking or shopping experience can match.  You will reduce your stress and feel more energy and motivation to accomplish all those other tasks.  You will create more well being and mental calm.  In this season of giving, while you are thinking of all the gifts to share with others, remember to give back to yourself with the gift of movement.

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