Pilates Dictionary

Table of Contents

Many Pilates teachers use very similar terminology. While it might be confusing at first, learning what these phrases mean can really enhance your practice.


If you’re taking group classes in particular, it’s important that you know what these terms and phrases mean. This way you can squeeze the most out of your class and stay safe.


There are two lists below. The first is terminology (specific words) and the second lists common phrases and imagery.


Please note that these are general descriptions and not appropriate for all bodies. For example, people with knee conditions might need to modify their Z-sitting position. It is up to your instructor to guide you safely.

If you want to read deeper about Pilates, check out the recommended readings!


Teachers: Feel free to provide a link to this list! (And please note material on this page is under copyright.)

Pilates Terminology for Beginners

TermWhat it meansExamples & Comments
2-way StretchReaching two parts of your body away from each other, or in opposition.Twist (arms reaching away from each other). Standing (heels to the ground, head floating up)
BoxUsually, alignment of the shoulders and hips. When lying down on your back, the shoulders are in line with the hips (not to the side of them) and the shoulders are parallel to each other (not one more toward your ear or futher away from the mat). The Hundred (hips same height, shoulders even).
C-curveIn terms of shape, it’s shaped like a capital C: a gradual curve in your spine from the bottom of your tailbone (coccyx) to your ears (top of spinal column). Your belly button is lifted in and up as you lenthen through the back.Neck Pull (hinge back then curve).
Cervical SpineThe neck area.There are normally 7 cervical vertebra.
CoccyxThe very bottom of your tailbone.Some people’s coccyx actually goes out a bit, making some matwork painful. Using additional padding can help.
CoreSee Power House. 
ExtensionMoving away from the normal center of the body (opposite of flexion).To extend the neck is to look up. Extension at the elbow or knee straighens the arm or leg.
FlexionBending toward the center of the body (opposite of extension).Flexing the neck brings the chin toward the chest. Flexing an elbow or knee bends the arm or leg.
HingeFold or extend from one joint.First section of Neck Pull, hinge back before you C-curve.
HyperextendedOpening a joint beyond the point where it is condidered safe. Many people have hyperextended elbows or knees that open beyond a straight 90 degrees. Hyperextension in the neck is referred to when you squish the back of the neck, for example, in Swan.
HypermobileHaving flexibility in the muscles and/or joints that is beyond normal. 
ImprintTo press down firmly and hold. Similar to anchoring and grounding.Imprint your hips into the mat while doing the Hundred.
Lateral BreathingBreathing that is focused on opening the side and back of the ribs (as opposed to the front or top of the chest). Used so your stomach doesn’t pooch out when doing flexion (like during the Hundred).
– Side Rib breathing  
– Post Lateral Breathing  
Lumbar Spine or RegionThe lower back area between the butt and lowest ribs. 
MidlineThe middle section of the body.Squeeze the heels together and hug the midline to engage the inner thighs while you do the Hundred.
Neutral PelvisUsually means having a small curve in the lower back.This allows a slight amount of space between the mat and the lower back.
Pilates V or Pilates FeetHeels together and toes one fist’s distance apart.Standing or the Hundred. Note there is only about 45 degrees of turnout (unlike 1st position in ballet).
Power HouseThe inner muscles of the abdomen.This was Joe Pilates term. Different teachers have different ideas of what muscles are involved in the Power House.
ProneLying on your stomach.Swan.
SacrumThe biggest section of your tailbone. 
TailboneThe very bottom of your spine that goes down between your butt cheeks. The tailbone consists of the sacrum and the coccyx.
ScapulaShoulder blades. 
ScoopPulling the abs in. Pulling the belly button toward the spine.  
HollowSee Scoop. 
Sits BonesThe part of your pelvis you should sit on.Medical term: Ischial tuberosities. 
SupineLying on your back.The Hundred.
Table TopWhen lying, feet on the mat with the knees bent and shins parallel to the ceiling.Beginner Hundred. Toe Dips.
Thoracic Spine or RegionThe part of the spine connecting to the ribs. 
TuckTilting the pelvis backwards (anterior tilt). Also, hollowing the abs like you’re tucking in your shirt.Creating a flat back while lying on your back.

Pilates Common Phrases and Imagery

PhraseWhat they want you to doNotes
“Use your Core/Power House/Inner Abdominals”In general, a use of the abdominal muscles. Specifically you’re trying to use the deeper abdominal muscles and muscles of the back.Pulling your belly button toward your spine and lengthening the lower back is your first step toward engaging your core.
“Find your 2-way stretch.”Pilates exercises generally strive to be whole body, lengthening actions. You don’t shut off the lower body while you’re working the top. Both work at the same time and in opposition.  
– “Lengthen in opposition.”  
“Scoop in your abs.”Scooping (like an ice cream scoop) and hollowing the stomach are visualizations of that belly button-to-spine action.  
-“Hollow your stomach.”  
“Belly button/navel to spine.”  
“Shoulders away from your ears.”Keeping the shoulders down and back.We often tense the shoulders in difficult movement and raise them toward our ears.
Articulate your spine.Moving through the back’s bones in sequece.  If you’re rolling down a wall, bend your knees and try to press your entire back against it, then peel away. The very top of your back should peel away before the middle. You might think of each rib coming away from the wall, one at a time.
-“Move one vertebra at a time.”  
-“Move your spine sequentially.”  
“Lengthen your waist.”When the oblique muscles are activated at the same time, they help elevate the ribs away from the hips. Or, if you’re inverted in a pose like Jack Knife, the obliques lift the hips away from the ribs.  
-“Lift your ribs away from your hips.”  
“Engage/Use/Fire up/Squeeze/Find your…”Pilates teachers use many verbs to get you to use the right muscles. 
“Open your chest. Proud/wide chest.”Pilates seeks to broaden the chest without splaying the chest open and poking the butt out. Many teachers use these images to help you be broad without splaying.  
-“Open your collar bones.”  
-“Crack a nut between your shoulder blades.” Focus on the lower inside corner of your shouder blades. That will help you keep them down and back. 
Tailbone long/down.This image can help you engage the sides of your abs (obliques) to lengthen and the deep abdominals to curl your pelvis slightly forward. Teacher might say it if they see your butt out/crunching in your lower back.Be sure that sending your tailbone long doesn’t change your upper body. Lengthen the upperbody away as you send the tailbone long.
“Wring out the air.”Exhale completely.Use the movement (e.g., Twist) to give the feeling of hugging your lungs to push out all the air and prepare you for a big inhale.
“Hug/pull in the midline.”Pilates wants integration between the trunk and the arms and legs.For examples, teachers tell you to hug the midline of your legs so you’ll maintain a connection between the legs by engaging the inner thighs.
“Square your Box.”When lying down on your back, the shoulders should in line with the hips (not to the side of them) and the shoulders are parallel to each other (not one more toward your ear or futher away from the mat).  
“Soften your knees/elbows.”Keep a very slight bend in the joints.  For example, when doing a plank, the elbows shouldn’t be locked so they can’t move further.
-“Don’t lock your joints.” If you’re hyperextended (i.e., double jointed), when you soften your elbows, that will make your arms perpendicular to the mat.
-“Anchor/ground your hips/shoulder blades.”  
“Pinch and Lift.”Engage the muscles of the butt by squeezing them together. The muscular engagement should give you a slight feeling of lift off the floor. 
-“Squeeze you glutes/butt.”  
-“Pick up a needle with your butt.”  
“Knit your ribs.”These phrase are used to keep you from opening the chest out too much.Splaying the chest can mean that the middle and upper back are too extended (lifting away from the mat). Often students splay the ribs when they pull the shoulder blades together. 
-“Draw the ribs together.”  
-“Don’t splay/pop the ribs.”  
FloatThis is used to control the movement against the pull of gravity.Floating your knees back down to the mat is different from collapsing or crashing!

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