Pilates Mat: Tips For Tight Muscles

When I tell people what I do for a living I often hear “Oh, I can’t do Pilates, I’m not flexible enough.” To which I usually respond, “all the more reason for you to do Pilates!”

First of all, let’s set the record straight, you do NOT have to be flexible to attend a Pilates class.

In fact, if you’re tight and stiff then I recommend you sign up for a Pilates class right away. Sure, it may be challenging at first but our bodies were meant to move and the longer you wait to move your body the less mobile you will become.

Flexibility is as much a part of “being fit” as being able to run without getting winded. A well-rounded fitness routine should include exercises that stretch your body and increase/maintain healthy range of motion.

You don’t want to be all big, tight muscles with little flexibility. That’s not a comfortable body to live in and it’s a also body begging for injury.

A fit body is a balanced body.

Flexibility is just one of the many aspects of the Pilates method. Many of the exercises are designed to increase range of motion and lengthen muscles that have become tight and short over the years. So, if you’re one of those people who can hardly bend down to touch your toes you may want to consider joining a beginner Pilates class to do your body good.

As a beginner you may find that some of the positions are hard to hold and maintain. I recommend using a modifications to make the exercises more comfortable while you gradually improve your flexibility.

Below are a few common modifications I use with my clients on a regular basis…

Spine Stretch Forward/Saw
This simple seated position can be very hard to maintain if you have tight hips or hamstrings. Your goal should be to sit up straight without rounding forward.

Pilates Exercises

Tip: Fold the towel a few times and use it as a little seat. This will allow more room for you to move with ease. It may also be helpful to bend your knees.

The Roll Up
The roll up is a very challenging exercise and is made all the more challenging by tension in the low back.

The Pilates Roll Up

Lower Back pain

Tip: Fold the towel 1 or 2 times and place it under the small of your back. This will act as a tactile aide and relieve tension as you roll up and down. Bending your knees may also help.

The Pelvic Curl
The pelvic curl is a fantastic exercise to increase the flexibility of the spine. You may find it hard to roll smoothly through each vertebrae if you have a stiff back.

Pilates Back Pain

Tip: As you roll down from the pelvic curl position, allow your heels to lift slightly off of the ground. This will provide more room for your back to lengthen and stretch helping to relive tension throughout the exercise.

Planks are a fantastic exercise to build full body strength but can put excess pressure on the wrists until adequate strength is developed.

Front Support

Tip: Fold your mat (or a towel) up under wrists to lessen the angle of pressure. In many exercises using your elbows can work as a modification as well.

Side Leg Series
The side leg series is fantastic for shaping and strengthening the sides the body. Based on the angle of your hips you may find that it is uncomfortable to rest on your side.

Pilates Exercises

Pilates Hurts

Tip: Place a towel under your hip as you lay on your side for extra padding. This should alleviate any discomfort. In addition, if you feel strain along the side of your neck fold a towel 2 times and place it between your arm and your head. This will bring your head back in alignment with your spine and relieve tension in the neck and jaw.

Do you have other questions regarding exercises I didn’t mention here?

Feel free to ask in the comments!

  1. Monica 8 years ago

    Great tips! I’m one of those tightly strung not -so-flexible people. I look forward to try some of these tips, especially the sit bone one. Thank you

  2. Katherine 8 years ago

    I have a question for you. I struggle to do much of pilates because of my tight hamstrings. (At least I think that is what it is. 😉 ) It is especially difficult for me to do the exercises where you are on your back with your legs straight up in the air. Most of the time I just bend my knees but that makes it very difficult to do some of the exercises, especially when the legs are moving. Do you have any suggestions other than just bending my knees? Thanks! I have been enjoying doing your 28 days of pilates!! Thanks so much for doing it!

    • Administrator
      Robin Long 8 years ago

      Hi Katherine,
      You are not alone in tight hamstrings! It’s very common and the only way to improve it is to move more and continue doing exercises like Pilates that lengthen the muscles. But it will get better! Unfortunatley while lying on your back, bent legs is really the only recommendation I have. Some exercises just may not be good for you right now and that’s okay. There are always others! Feel free to skip certain exercises that don’t jive with your body and do other instead. And I recommend doing extra of the stretch and relax sessions 🙂

  3. Nicole 8 years ago

    So I’ve noticed that my hip flexors bother me when doing things like the corkscrew. Does that mean they are tight or am I not using my abs enough when lowering my legs? I’m just wondering if stretching will help or if it’s more of a form issue

    • Administrator
      Robin Long 8 years ago

      Hi Nicole! Yes, this is very common. And it’s most likely a strength and stability. Often times the hip flexors are overused so they act up during Pilates because they are doing the work that the abdominal and other core muscles should be doing. It’s a tricky balance. Stretching can help to open up your hips. And gaining strength will help too. Try to envision your thigh bones dropping heavy into your hip socket every time you are in tabletop position. Also don’t hesitate to bend your knees a bit to release the hip flexors. I wish I was working with you in person so I could help more! xo

  4. Cara 8 years ago

    Thanks Robin. Great tips. Sometimes what appears to be hamstring tightness can be nerve tension limiting range of motion. I know that’s my problem, after having a herniated disc in my low back years ago. My hamstring length is within normal limits, however, the nerve tension or limited nerve glide in the dural tube impacts my ability to do some of the exercises on my back with my legs extended up to the ceiling.

  5. LeAnn Drumm 6 years ago

    Thank you so much for these tips! I just did a roll up with the assistance of the towel rolled up under my back. I am so happy.

    Do you have any tips for doing rolling like a ball, the teaser, and the hundred? Could my tight hips be making these hard to do also?

    Thanks again!

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