Whether it’s 10 minutes or 60 minutes, the best thing about pilates is that you can get everything you need from a session without any equipment, making it super accessible and easy to get started.
BUT what happens when you’re looking to take things up a notch?!
Enter pilates props (think small equipment); things like the overball (small ball), therabands, light hand weights, the pilates magic circle, a yoga block can all add variety to your matwork, helping to keep them fresh and exciting.
Pilates props also help to isolate or engage specific muscles, and can foster "a-ha" moments even during the most familiar exercises. Like the springs on a Reformer, props can provide support and stability or offer more challenge, depending upon the movement being performed and how they are used – they are also just really good fun, which is what workouts should be!
Here are some of the most commonly used pilates props and how to use them - you can also find them in my September pilates equipment based classes. Details and to book select here.
1. Foam Roller
The best friend of a lot of sporting professionals and physios, the foam roaller is widely known as a rehab tool designed to smooth out your fascia. As it has a wobbly surface, it’s brilliant for challenging balance. In a vertical position, you can lie on it and try Arm Circles, Single Knee Fold, Toe Taps, or Dead Bug to get those core stability muscles firing. Or turn it horizontally and rest your pelvis on the Roller while spine curling, working up to Bridge. Placed beneath the shoulder blades, it’s fantastic for supporting curl ups and oblique twists and facilitates spinal extension – amazing after being a desk all day!
2. Light Hand Weights
In Pilates, we use light hand weights to keep the emphasis on the entire body. One- or two-pound weights add challenge to the Standing Arm Series and just about any of the mat repertoire – yes even single leg stretch! Many Reformer exercises, from Coordination to Rowing to Backstroke, can be done on the Mat using Hand Weights.
You’ll find these being used in my Foundational and Core mat classes, Pilates Fusion and also my HIP Pilates class. Brilliant for toning the upper body and building strength in the core (and in the case of single leg stretch, co-ordination too!)
Probably the most versatile of all the pilates props, it is a long, stretchy band that’s available in varying levels of resistance, and is great for stretching the hamstrings and lower back while lying on the Mat – it was in deed a life saver for me when I suffered with my chronic low back pain. I’d use mine to stretch my hamstrings twice a day. The band can add resistance and challenge in so many of the mat exercises including the Side-Lying Leg Series, and it provides support and stability in exercises such as the Roll Up, Roll Back, and One Leg Circle.
Again you’ll find the theraband in my mat classes and also my Pilates Fusion class, which is a combines all the best bits of barre and pilates into one 45 minute workout.
Probably my favourite pilates prop, the overall is a dream piece of kit for wakening up the surrounding muscles of the inner thighs, ankles, or palms when it’s placed between any one of these parts. It’s also a great for challenging stability and getting those deep core muscles to fire when placed under the pelvis (love doing toe taps this way) and provides a great modification tool when placed under the thoracic spine to help with curl ups.
I also use it in prenatal behind the mid-back to avoid my ladies lying supine (flat on the back) for an extended period of time.
I run a specific pilates with the small ball classes – check my schedule for more information and to book. This is the piece of kit to give you serious shakes and wobbles!
5. Tennis Ball
Joseph Pilates invented several small pieces of Pilates equipment specifically to engage and work the feet, most famously the Foot Corrector. The small size and firmness of a tennis ball makes it ideal for waking up the feet. Try rolling the sole of your foot over a tennis ball while standing or seated (try it whilst you’re working at your desk to keep your feet mobile!).
Tennis balls can also be placed under tender areas such as the hips or shoulders for a static stretch or gentle rolling massage.
You will have seen the tennis ball in use during tennis ball rising in my mat classes (we also use spikey balls, which we'll talk about next).
6. Franklin Ball (spikey ball)
These small, inflatable balls are used to massage and wake up the muscles and fascia. Placed beneath the pelvis, lower back, shoulders, or other tight or sore spots, spikey balls work with the body’s own weight to release tension. These balls can be used for static holds or you can slide them back and forth across the fasciae for a self-massage.
Again I’ve used these quite a lot in my matwork classes and last year attended an Art of Motion teacher training course on the slings system with the wonderful Katherine Pentecost. This training class was focused on using these little pieces of wonder to help you find glide and release through your fascia system.
I’ve only ever used the pole in Reformer sessions, but they are so effective when added to exercises like the classic Roll Up as it adds resistance and a challenge on the way up from the floor and contributes to a great stretch in the forward rounding position.
8. Magic Circle
I would have said that this is the most well known of all the pilates props, but I think in recent years there has definitely been a shift more towards the overball in its place. Still, this deceptively simple tool has endless uses and is a firm favourite of mine – you cannot get a better inner thigh workout!
It’s a resistance based circle that you can hold between the ankles, thighs, or palms for finding the mid-line or your ‘centre;’ an important pilates principle (think of the phrase “naval to spine”). The Magic Circle can also create instability (the same way an overball does) when balanced on the floor beneath an outstretched hand in the Side-Lying, or Side Kick Kneeling, or under the ankle of the stationary leg in the One Leg Circle. There’s also an entire standing series performed with the Circle placed above and between the ankle bones — a major balance challenge.
Check my schedule for magic circle classes – there is one coming up in September. You can also use an overball in its place if you don’t have one.
Did you know that many pilates exercises can be modified so that they can be done in a seated position? Sitting upright is especially beneficial for beginners, as it encourages length in the spine (the same effect can be achieved by sitting on a Foam Roller or a Yoga Block). Try Spine Stretch Forward, Spine Twist, or the Saw, for starters. Bonus: you can do these on an airplane or at your desk.
10. Yoga Block
In yoga classes, blocks are commonly used to bring the floor closer to you in Forward Folds. In pilates, these firm but not rigid foam blocks can take the place of a magic Circle or an Overball. They can prop up the sacrum in a Bridge and provide a useful perch in any of the seated exercises. Lightly hugging a block between the hands in Single Leg Kick engages the back muscles and upper arms. And can also be used in place of a cushion for the Big Squeeze.
Try adding props to your Mat work and see if it doesn’t challenge you in interesting ways and reveal new information about the exercises and your body.
Intrigued and want to give it a try? Book your equipment class right now here.
Hope to see you on the mat!
P.S. Have you grabbed your FREE 20 minute Strength & Stretch pilates workout yet? It's perfect for beginner level right through to advanced and will give you just the release you need in your body if it's feeling tight and out of balance. Grab it by clicking here now.