At first glance, a Pilates studio might look like a medieval torture chamber, with strange straps and metal springs hanging from padded platforms called “reformers.”
It was invented in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, who created the movements to help English vets recover from injuries sustained during World War I.
Since then, Pilates has been a go-to regimen for anyone interested in working on strength, grace, and of course, a solid core.
Pilates may offer more than just a nice set of abs.
In 2017, researchers worked with a small group of women considered to be overweight or obese. After 8 weeks of Pilates, the participants had lost weight, lowered their BMIs, toned their waists, and decreased their ab and hip circumferences.
Researchers have also found that Pilates may be an effective way to manage low back pain and rehabilitate from injuries, though more research is needed in this area.
A 2014 survey of physical therapists who had treated people with low back pain found that Pilates improved body awareness, posture, and movement control, though precautions should be taken for those with a fracture or certain other conditions.
The benefits are more than just physical, of course. A 2017 study found that doing Pilates once a week not only increased the participants’ muscle strength, flexibility, and balance but also improved their mood.
While some Pilates classes use special machines, mat sequences require only your body weight. They’re easy to replicate at home and still reap the same benefits. We asked Sarah Ruback of Melt Method in New York to pick some of the best moves for core strength.
The focus here is quality, not quantity. Make each rep as strong as possible, and don’t stress about the number of reps. Learn the core-blasting moves below, and then put them into action with the 10-minute workout at the end of the list.
More of a Pilates pro than a beginner? Simply perform each movement longer than the listed time. Moving slowly and focusing on correct form can help even advanced practitioners feel the burn in every muscle.
For an added challenge, Ruback suggests holding 1-to-2-pound dumbbells. If you don’t have those, water bottles or soup cans also work well.
1. Pilates Curl
Lie faceup with knees bent, feet flat on the mat, and arms at your sides. Exhale, curling chin to chest and bringing shoulders completely off the mat. Hold for 1 breath, then lower back down slowly. Lift from chest to engage abs and avoid crunching your neck.
2. The Hundred
Lie faceup and bring knees in toward chest. Lift head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. Stretch hands out by your sides with palms facing down.
Extend your legs to a 45-degree angle with heels together and toes apart (called the Pilates stance). Pump arms up and down while breathing in and out through your nose for 5 counts each. Repeat for 10 sets.
Lie faceup with arms extended toward the ceiling. Exhale, curl chin to chest, and roll up to a sitting position with arms reaching toward feet. Exhale and reverse to roll down, one vertebra at a time. Move slowly and smoothly with no forward lunging or jerking.
4. Rolling Like a Ball
Sit on the mat with knees drawn toward chest and arms wrapped around legs. Rock back to tailbone, with feet hovering a few inches above the mat.
Inhale, rolling back to your shoulder blades. Exhale to roll forward and return to the balanced starting position. Use abs to control momentum and pause before feet touch the mat.
5. Single-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat with knees drawn toward chest and shins parallel to the floor in a tabletop position. Exhale to lift head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. At the same time, extend left leg straight to a 45-degree angle and draw right knee in toward chest.
Grab right knee with left hand and right ankle with right hand. Switch legs on the inhale, pulse for 1 beat, then switch legs again on the exhale, keeping shoulders off the mat and core engaged throughout.
6. Double-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat. Lift head, neck, and shoulders and bring knees to chest, arms hugging shins. Inhale, then straighten legs to a 45-degree angle while simultaneously extending arms along ears.
Exhale and circle arms down to hug shins as you return to starting position. Keep shoulders off the mat throughout and maintain even breathing.
7. Single Straight-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat with legs extended straight up, perpendicular to the floor. Lift head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. Bring right leg in as close to your face as flexibility allows, lightly holding right calf with both hands.
Pulse right leg toward face 2 times while left leg extends away from your body and hovers above the mat. Repeat on the other side.
Lie faceup on the mat, hands behind neck and elbows wide. Lift head, neck, and shoulders off the mat.
Bring left armpit to right knee and extend left leg to high diagonal. Twist to the other side and switch legs, bringing right armpit to left knee and extending right leg.
9. Double Straight-Leg Stretch
Lie faceup on the mat with hands supporting the back of your neck and knees bent toward chest. Exhale, bringing upper torso off the mat and extending legs toward ceiling. Lower your legs to a 45-degree angle for 3 counts, then lift again for 1 count.
10. Teaser II
Lie faceup and hug knees to chest. Reach arms directly overhead and extend both legs to high diagonal. Stretch arms back toward ears, then shift them toward toes, rolling up to a seated V position.
Keep arms and legs at a 45-degree angle to the mat. From this position, lower and raise legs for 3–5 reps. Roll your spine down to the mat one vertebra at a time, then lower your legs to return to starting position.
11. Pilates Plank to Push-Up
Stand tall. As you exhale, round chin toward chest, rolling your body down to a “rag doll” position. Walk hands out into a high plank position.
Lower your body halfway to the mat, elbows tucked close to ribs. Straighten arms to press up. Repeat for 3-5 reps. Walk hands toward feet and roll back up to starting position.
12. Shoulder Bridge
Lie faceup with knees bent, feet flat on the mat, and arms along your sides.
Exhale and lift hips off the mat toward the ceiling. Holding this position, extend right leg and kick it toward the ceiling with pointed toes. Flex right heel and lower right leg to the level of your left knee.
Do 3 reps, then place right foot on the mat. Extend left leg and repeat on the other side. Roll hips down to the mat to return to starting position.
13. Double-Leg Kick
Lie facedown with right cheek on the mat. Place hands on low back, one on top of another, palms facing up. Allow elbows to fall toward the mat. Kick both heels to glutes 2–3 times.
Straighten legs, keeping feet off the mat. Extend clasped hands toward feet and lift chest off the mat, gazing straight ahead. You should feel no pressure in your low back. Lower your chest to the mat. Turn your head to the other side to repeat.
Special thanks to Pilates instructor Sarah Ruback for creating the workout for this article. Also, special thanks to personal trainer Molly Ritterbeck for modeling the exercises seen here. Molly wears her own Brooks tank and H&M tights.
Hilary Lebow is a writer, certified yoga instructor, certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and certified nutrition coach. When she’s not working, she can be found in nature with her two dogs or planning her next travel adventure.