Chair Based Pilates – there’s more to it than meets the floor

Mention Pilates to most people who do it regularly and they won’t be able to imagine Pilates without a mat on a floor. Put it another way, people who can’t lie on the floor probably can’t imagine that they’d ever be able to do Pilates. So, what’s to be done? Chair Based Pilates!

Why do Chair Based Pilates? Well, first all all lets bear in mind the benefits, especially as you get older,  of doing Pilates regularly:

  • More awareness of and improvement in  alignment and posture
  • Maintenance of and increased joint mobility
  • Improved core stability
  • Strength development, especially functional strength – the kind you need on a day to day basis, to get out of a chair, lift shopping bags or climb the stairs for example.
  • Improved balance
  • Improved co-ordination
  • Health benefits arising from the attention paid to breathing and relaxation

Looking at that list then it seems daft to deny those benefits to people simply because they can’t lie down.

So what does Chair Based Pilates involve?

spikey balls

Chairs: Sturdy ones with a supportive back and no arms.

Props/Small Equipment. These can add variety to the work out which would otherwise be rather static.

Spikey balls for self massage of the feet, hands, and arms. Or use them whilst leaning against a wall where they’re great for the shoulders and neck.


Soft balls – could be used to throw and catch – great for hand eye coordination, challenging reaction times and general entertainment value.  Depending upon the chairs they can aid spine extension, or be used for strength work.

Squeeze/stress balls to improve hand grip and strength – great functional exercise.

Resistance bands to assist both stretching and strength work.

Walls – assist with balance work, shoulder strength, supported spine flexion.

What would a  Chair Based Pilates session typically involve?

Three daughters of George III
Always plenty of focus on body alignment and sitting properly, but comfortably: as if you’re a genteel character from nineteenth-century literature or eighteenth-century royalty like the three daughters of George III immortalised here and painted in the 1780s.  They knew a thing or two about how to stand and sit.

Emphasis on Breathing.  We want to encourage gentle diaphragmatic breathing during the session and indeed during life in general.

Every exercise has core stability at its heart:  the right breathing, an awareness that the body is relaxed yet stable/secure and the trunk doesn’t buckle /twist/compress unnecessarily during the exercise.

Here are some of the exercises that we would do. This list is not in order of importance, I’ve simply worked from the feet upwards:

chair adductor

  • Foot mobility, arches of the foot, toes, ankle, heel and toe points. You could spend ages on this vital and underrated part of the body. We don’t give our feet the respect they deserve, and we certainly don’t mobilise / exercise them enough. Chair based Pilates is a really valuable opportunity to address this.  Some people may be self-conscious about taking the shoes off (or not be able to reach down to their feet and not wish to be assisted). But we can go home and do these exercises at home whilst watching Strictly if needs be…  And shoes or no shoes, we can always mobilise the ankles.
  • Inner thigh strength work
  • Sit to stand.  This works the back of the legs and the buttocks. Can also be done as stand to sit – a classic squat. There is a half way exercise, which was taught to me as a “Jockey Lift” because that’s as far as you go – to the point when you look like A P McCoy on a champion horse.
  • Pelvic floor work.  Absolutely vital.  Best done standing and sitting.  Worthy of a blog post in its own right!
  • Upper body strength work: the resistance bands can be used here to work the front and back of the arms and the wrists.
  • When it comes to shoulders, mobility is preferable to strength work – exercises that keep the shoulder blades moving and keep the range of movement in the arms.  The chest and shoulders benefit from the dynamic stretching that comes from the mobility exercises.
  • Fingers, thumbs and wrists can be mobilised. and this kind of work is surprisingly helpful for people with joints stiff from osteoarthritis.  The wrists can also benefit from strength work and this is one part of the body that can be worked whilst sitting in a chair.
  • Our necks can become chronically misaligned and so the focus here is alignment, length and keeping functional movement – being able to turn the head without causing twinges of pain.  As ever with Pilates, there is a focus on alignment and length in every exercise but it is the raison d’être of neck work
  • Exercises for spine mobility: rotation, side bending in particular.

If you can add a bit of standing work…..

chair wall press up(With seated alternatives for people who need it)

There are quite a few useful things to do:

  • Wall assisted spine roll down
  • Wall assisted press ups (for shoulder alignment
  • Pelvic tilts and rolls to get extra movement into the lower back
  • Balance exercises
  • Various exercise to achieve pelvis/hip dissociation. That is getting the leg to move without the lower back getting involved.  Really great core stability work

Stretching the muscles

As in Yoga, the idea of increasing flexibility comes with the territory, but nevertheless it can be helpful and enjoyable to do some specific stretches and they work beautifully incorporated into chair work.

We all kinda know what we need:

  • Neck, chest and shoulder stretches
  • Back of the leg stretch – above the knee and the calves – best done using a Resistance Band
  • Front of the thigh stretch

What is rather tricky in Chair Based Pilates?

chair extension

A lot of overt shoulder strength work doesn’t work well in this situation. The body is better supported standing or in “all fours” for this.

Working the buttocks and backs of the legs is almost impossible and for me this is the biggest loss in chair Pilates.  These muscles (often referred to as the glutes and hamstrings) are vital for both movement and stability and they get weakened and dysfunctional with prolonged sitting……but you can’t win ‘em all, and participants who are able can do some leg exercises in a standing position.

Moving the spine in extension – back bending.   This is worth doing because it is such a valuable aspect of movement but it is much harder than when lying down – and it’s hard enough there!

For further details and classes, please see our page on Chair Based Pilates.

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