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Why do the Hundred first?

- Nadea Knodel

Irene crushing her Hundred in her reformer workout

It's the first day of #MarchMatness on Pilates social media, and while we're not officially participating in the daily Instagram/Facebook posting marathon this time around, it's always nice to take a little bit of time to check in on the classical matwork and give it some love and attention.

The first exercise in Joseph Pilates' matwork exercise order (as featured in his book Return to Life Through Contrology) is the Hundred. It's also nearly the first exercise he wants us to do on the reformer, preceded only by the footwork. He really just throws you right in, and you hit the ground running! Gotta love the efficiency.

I confess the Hundred is not my favourite exercise. It's a lot of work and it takes a lot of focus and endurance. I'm personally easily bored and counting is not my strong suit (as I think anyone who does my classes will know well), so when nobody is looking, I definitely have to fight the inclination to just skip it and go straight to the roll up.

From a fitness industry and teaching perspective, a lot of "contemporary" Pilates teachers kind of shy away from doing the Hundred first thing. The worry is that it's too hard and too intense for people to do right away, and that it's unfair (or maybe even harmful?) to throw people right into it when they aren't warmed up by other matwork exercises first. A lot of teachers will put the Hundred much later in their mat workouts for that reason, and I used to do the same thing.

But everything Joe did was very intentional, logical, and methodical, and his exercise orders are far from random. So what was he thinking?

Once I started studying the classical/original Pilates method a little more and I started doing more continuing education and reading about things like modern exercise science, neuroplasticity, motor learning, somatics, mindfulness, and other areas of physical and psychological health, I changed my mind about the Hundred and now I think Joe was on the right track by sticking the spicy exercise right at the beginning.

Here are some reasons why I think it's a great idea that makes a lot of sense:

1. It’s centering and helps you focus your mind.

Focussing on your breath and allowing the repetition of counting your 100 beats can help you clear the air in your brain and re-orient it from all the distractions of your life off your mat. It's kind of like a grounding mindfulness meditation. You can't really be thinking about what you had for breakfast and what appointments you have coming up after your workout when you're busy counting, breathing, and pumping your arms. You can be present and in the moment -- it's just you and your mat.

2. It helps you check in with how you’re feeling physically and prepares your body for what's to come.

Because you’re literally spending 100 counts in the same exercise, you have plenty of time to scan your body to see how everything is feeling and to try to start to integrate your body into one cohesive unit instead of a bunch of different pieces. What you notice in your Hundred can help you set the tone for what you want to focus on in the rest of your workout. It can also be a bit of a litmus test or measuring stick to let you know what your body and energy levels feel ready for that day, which will help you set reasonable expectations for yourself.

2. Short bursts of cardio enhance motor learning and skill retention.

Brief moderate/high-intensity activity is linked to increased cognition, skill retention, and adaptability. It’s good for your brain, and when your brain is fired up and oxygenated, it will help you learn movement skills more effectively during the rest of your Pilates workout. If you start off with a spicy 100 with a lot of breathing, endurance, and an elevated heart rate, you improve your chances of making progress on the more challenging parts of your practice AND your body and mind actually remembering what you learned!

Joe demonstrating the Hundred in his book "Return to Life Through Contrology"

All that said, the Hundred at the beginning of your Pilates workout doesn’t have to look like the “advanced” Hundred or the version in Return to Life (unless that fits your body) for it to be useful! You can get all the above benefits by finding a variation that suits your body and how it’s feeling that day, and it’s more than reasonable to give yourself a gentle warm up first if you feel like you might need it. I truly believe there is a variation or modification for the Hundred that can work for any and every body -- whether that's keeping your legs down, supporting your head with a pillow or barrel, adding weights, or a million other things. As long as the main ingredients are there (breathing, centering, abdominal focus, pelvic stability, endurance, mindfulness, etc), you're good to go!

If you’re a person who skips the Hundred or puts it later in your workout, why not give Joe’s approach a try and see what you think? You might be pleasantly surprised. And if you're a person who really doesn't particularly enjoy the Hundred (like me), maybe these benefits might be enough to convince you to hate it a little less.

Have you done your Hundred yet today?

Some references and further reading:

  • Demonstration of the 100

  • Does physical activity benefit motor performance and learning of upper extremity tasks in older adults? – A systematic review

  • A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Improves Motor Skill Consolidation in Parkinson’s Disease

  • Lange, C., Unnithan, V. B., Larkam, E., & Latta, P. M. (2000). Maximizing the benefits of Pilates-inspired exercise for learning functional motor skills. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 4(2), 99-108.

  • Magill, R. A., & Anderson, D. I. (2017). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

  • Newell, K. M. (1986). Constraints on the development of coordination. In M. G. Wade & H. T. A. Whiting (Eds.), Motor development in children: aspects of coordination and control (pp. 341-360). Netherlands: Springer.

  • Schmidt, R. A., & Lee, T. D. (2011). Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis, 5th ed. Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis, 5th Ed. Champaign, IL, US: Human Kinetics.

  • Wulf, G. (2007). Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 10 years of research. Ejournal Bewegung und Training, 1(2-3), 1-11.

  • Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(5), 1382-1414.


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