Strengthening your core is one of the best things you can do for your overall fitness. A strong core—which includes your abs, obliques, and lower back muscles—helps keep your body balanced and stable, lets you maintain proper posture and exercise form, keeps your spine stable and safe, and overall, helps you move in a more controlled and efficient way. There are tons of ways to work your core (check out some great ideas here) but adding Pilates moves into your routine is a great way to engage your core muscles in a new way—because everyone gets sick of doing planks after a while.
“Pilates is a mind-body workout that targets your core muscles with every exercise,” Manuela Sanchez, a Pilates instructor at Club Pilates in Brooklyn, New York, tells SELF. Whether you’re doing a core-focused move or something that targets other muscle groups, your core is always engaging during a Pilates session. And the workout method strengthens all different areas of your core. “It works the abdominal on both a deep and superficial level to achieve true core strength,” Sanchez says—meaning that the moves engage a wide range of muscles, from your deep internal transverse abdominis to the rectus abdominis on top (what you think of when you think “abs”).
To help you reap the core-strengthening benefits of Pilates, Sanchez rounded up some of the method’s best moves that focus on your midsection. They’re all classic mat Pilates exercises, “so all Pilates lovers will recognize them and people new to Pilates can easily learn them,” she says. Another plus: None of these moves require equipment, so you can do them pretty much anywhere.
Sanchez suggests choosing a few of the moves (which she demos below) to do as a warm-up before an intense workout. “Then, integrate the rest of the exercises throughout your workout as a way to keep targeting and working your core,” she suggests. You can also just pick a few you like and do them a couple times through to create a standalone core routine. If you’re new to these exercises, try doing a move for 30 seconds, working your way up to a minute.
Here’s how to do the moves:
- The 10-Minute Core-Blasting Pilates Workout
- 20-Minute At-Home Pilates Workout for All Levels
- The Best Home Pilates Equipment for 2019
- Fitness Mad Core Fitness Mat
- Hugger Mugger Pilates Bolster
- URBNFit Standard Exercise Ball
- Stott Pilates Mini Pilates Ball
- TheraBand Resistance Bands
- ProBody Pilates Pilates Rings
- Life’s A Beach Pro Pilates Chair
- SPRI Foam Roller
- Pilates Equipment Fitness Pilates Ladder Barrel
- AeroPilates Precision Series Reformer with Optional Cadillac
- Keep reading for the 5-minute mat Pilates sequence that Erika Bloom’s celebrity clients can’t live without.
- Single-leg stretch
- Bridge with leg lift
- Side-plank twist
- Front support
The 10-Minute Core-Blasting Pilates Workout
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.
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.
20-Minute At-Home Pilates Workout for All Levels
All the straps, springs, and moving parts of a typical Reformer class make Pilates seem almost scary compared to those yoga classes full of flickering candles, blocks, and cozy blankets. Plus, fancy machines mean Pilates can be pretty pricey—upwards of $40 per class at some studios! Add in the svelte celebrity fans applauding the workout, and we don’t blame you for thinking it all seems a little intimidating—and out of your budget.
But before you pass up on Pilates, we have some good news: You don’t need any extra equipment to reap the physical and mental benefits—all you need is a mat! Mat-based Pilates is a gentle, low-impact, yet serious strength workout that research shows can help ease low back pain, reduce body fat, improve flexibility, and even support mental well-being . In fact, mat Pilates can be even more effective than using a reformer since you’re using your own bodyweight to strengthen your muscles and stabilize your joints, says Taylor Phillips, a senior Pilates instructor at Equinox.
Here, Phillips demonstrates a 20-minute Pilates mat workout—no gym or weird apparatus needed. Whether you’re new to Pilates or you’re an experienced pro, you can follow along, taking modifications or more advanced positions where noted.
Complete three rounds of the following moves for an intense full-body burn.
Stand with feet parallel, hip-distance apart. Inhale, then exhale while extending arms up and reaching through upper back. Inhale, then exhale and slowly roll down toward the floor one vertebrae at a time. Sit back as if sitting in a chair before reaching up and lifting heels. Return to standing.
Dynamic Core Plank Series
15 reps per side
Walk hands out to plank position. Engage your abs to draw right knee into chest. Extend leg back, pointing toes to the ceiling and engaging glutes and hamstrings. Repeat for 5 reps. Then, bring right knee to left shoulder in the same manner for 5 reps. Finally, bring right knee to right shoulder in the same manner for 5 reps. Repeat entire series on the other leg. To modify, lower knees to floor and limit leg range of motion.
Kneel on the floor with knees directly under hips, feet touching. Hinge upper body back about 45 degrees, engaging abs, glutes, and feet while maintaining a straight line from head to knees. Return to the starting position. For more challenge, sustain the hinge position and lower and lift your arms 10 times.
Kneeling Side Kick
10 lifts and 10 circles per leg
From kneeling, lower left hand to the ground and extend opposite right out, holding right hand behind head. Lift right leg to hip height, then lower for 10 reps. Then hold leg at hip height and rotate leg in small circles for 10 reps. To modify, lie on side instead of kneeling.
10 to 15 reps
Lie faceup. Curl up to raise shoulders slightly and engage abdominals to support lower back. Extend arms by ears and raise legs to a 45-degree angle from the floor. Circle arms around and hug knees into chest. To modify, keep legs at a 90-degree angle and rest head. For more challenge, add leg beats, scissoring legs on top of each other for 5 beats with each extension.
10 reps per leg
Lie facecup. Curl head and neck up to raise shoulders slightly off the ground. Lift left leg 1 inch above the mat and extend right leg to ceiling, bringing your hands to your ankle. Double-pull your right leg, then switch legs. Maintain hip stability throughout the exercise. To modify, softly bend knees and keep head down. For more challenge, reach arms by ears throughout, keeping hands out.
Lie faceup, arms at sides. Curl head, neck, and shoulders up, and extend legs to a sustainable level (where abs stay engaged but lower back is not lifting from the mat). Begin pumping arms up and down, breathing in for 5 counts and exhaling for 5 counts, totaling 10 breath cycles. To modify, bend knees at a 90-degree angle (as shown).
5 reps per side
Lie on right side, supporting body with right hand. Engage core and rotate hips to lift legs as high as possible from floor to engage obliques. Return to starting position with control.
5 to 8 reps
Lie facedown. Place hands underneath shoulders. Engage core and lift head slightly. Raise your chest up and extend arms forward as you lift legs 1 inch above the mat. Bend elbows so arms form a “W” shape, hold, then lower everything down to the mat.
Side Leg Series
10 kicks and 15-20 circles in each direction per side
Lying on your left side, bring legs slightly in front of your hips to create a kickstand. Lift right leg to hip height and kick forward and back, maintaining upper body stability and pointing toes. Repeat for 10 reps. Then pause at hip height, point foot, and rotate in small circles (about the size of a tennis ball), circling 15 to 20 times in each direction.
Lie faceup. Extend arms to ceiling, lifting head and engaging core to roll up smoothly. Reach forward with hands reaching toward toes while still drawing your waist back to create length along your spine and maintaining a feeling of drawing your abs in. Slowly roll back down.
All photos courtesy of Greatist.
The Best Home Pilates Equipment for 2019
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Pro Body Pilates
Pilates one-on-one sessions don’t come cheap. Group classes are a little less expensive although I find that they don’t yield as much progress as focused or customized workouts. After a few years of practice, having an at-home Pilates studio—albeit very mini and very makeshift—has become somewhat of a practical and economical option. While I am still a staunch believer in working with coaches or trained instructors, having Pilates gear at home helps complement and sustain progress.
During busy weeks when my schedule won’t allow for a quick studio workout, I’m still able to squeeze in few minutes of exercise just before starting the day. All I need is a trusty mat, a few cups of coffee and some of my favorite Pilates gear. While I am far from being an expert or even an advanced student, videos on YouTube have been very helpful in guiding my workouts at home. Coaches are also very generous when it comes to giving “homework.” I remember when I bought my first Pilates gear, my trainer told me to start with a mat and a foam roller. He then gave me five exercises to help improve posture, balance and strengthen core.
Here is a helpful guide to help you build your very own at home Pilates studio:
Fitness Mad Core Fitness Mat
For Pilates workouts, a thicker cushion works best, especially when doing floor work, like planks. This mat from Fitness Mad is 15mm thicker than most models in the market today, giving extra support and comfort, especially for the back and palms. Since I don’t have a proper studio space at home, I’m also able to roll it up and store is with ease. A ribbed surface ensures stability and grip especially for sequences where balance is the focus.
Hugger Mugger Pilates Bolster
Standard Bolster from Hugger Mugger
There are certain exercises in Pilates that may require added support, and this is when a comfortable bolster comes in handy. Personally, I like having them around especially during core strengthening exercises (like oblique twists), which tend to hurt the back. This standard bolster from Hugger Mugger is firm enough so that you are able to stay in good form. The flat top shape also provides added stability and handles on both ends make it more mobile.
URBNFit Standard Exercise Ball
Although an exercise ball is not a piece of equipment exclusive to the practice of Pilates, I find it to very useful when I am up for major core work. The exercise ball challenges balance so your muscles are forced to engage and stabilize the entire body. Where Pilates is concerned, the exercise ball is best used when doing spine stretches, planks, hundreds and for the super advanced, a couple of roll-ups. This exercise ball from URBNFit is gym-grade and can hold up to a ton. I love that it already comes with a dual-action inflation pump, air stoppers and workout guides.
Stott Pilates Mini Pilates Ball
Mini Stability Ball from Stott Pilates
If you’re looking to level up your workouts, then a mini stability ball is for you. Use of such a ball helps to activate the muscles that we often don’t get to utilize during regular workouts. It is most helpful for targeting arms, abdomen, buns and thighs. They are also great for alignment and good posture. Stott Pilates Mini Pilates Balls are also ideal because they’re lightweight and can be inflated according to your desired firmness.
TheraBand Resistance Bands
These flexible bands are the simplest yet most efficient gear you can have in your at-home Pilates studio. I like to integrate these into my exercises when I feel the need for added resistance or when I want to challenge the range of motion. The non-latex bands come in colors that correspond to resistance levels. There are countless exercises and therapeutic movements that you can do using TheraBands. What’s more, they are so lightweight and easy to pack that you can bring them when you travel.
ProBody Pilates Pilates Rings
Also known as the Magic Circle, these seemingly very ordinary accessories do wonders for improving balance. It also gives you just the right amount of resistance so that muscles not often activated get a good working as well. Rings from Pro Body Pilates measure 14 inches and are crafted using high-grade plastic laminate and soft foam covers. Padded grips are ergonomically designed to allow for easy and comfortable handling.
Life’s A Beach Pro Pilates Chair
Exercises done on the Pilates chair do wonders for sculpting the body. A few minutes on the chair and you will immediately feel the burn. ThisPro Chair from Life’s a Beach features two adjustable spring resistance settings. Split step pedals are useful for working on both legs and arms. They even work for planks. Seats, pedals and hand grips are padded for ultimate comfort. What makes this ideal for building your own studio is that folds flat so that you can store it with ease. The Pilates Chair also comes with four workout DVDs that you can follow.
SPRI Foam Roller
Foam Roller from SPRI
Foam rollers are used for various mat exercises and thus is the second thing to add to your workout equipment—after a mat. It helps to keep proper alignment of the body. When doing core exercises, I usually use foam rollers to add challenge to my workouts and improve my sense of balance. SPRI foam rollers remains in perfect shape even after countless uses. Having a medium density roller like this one is also great for giving your tired muscles the kneading it needs.
Pilates Equipment Fitness Pilates Ladder Barrel
Pilates Equipment Fitness
Some of my best stretches and chest opening exercises were done on the Pilates Ladder Barrel. It has also been my preferred piece of equipment for working on obliques. Because exercises done on the ladder barrel require absolute stability, I tend to favor one crafted from high-quality wood. This one from Pilates Equipment Fitness was made using pine wood. It is padded and upholstered using fine leather and features adjustable knobs for customizing specs.
AeroPilates Precision Series Reformer with Optional Cadillac
There are countless exercises that you can do on a reformer. My first few Pilates sessions were done on a reformer bed, and it was the convenience and efficiency of the device that got me hooked. It was only much later in my practice before my coach decided to teach me sequences on the Cadillac. I found this more exciting and challenging. Think inversions and splits while suspended midair. A reformer bed and a full Cadillac will work only if you have enough space—and funds—for both. However, if it’s a home studio that you’re looking to build, then a half Cadillac is absolutely brilliant.
The Precision Series Reformer with Optional Cadillac from AeroPilates features four levels of spring resistance, a padded foot bar and cardio rebounders as well as a wider platform. It also comes with hand and foot straps as well as adjustable head rests and shoulder pads. Cadillac features that take your workouts to the next level include roll-down bars, arm and leg springs and push-through bars.
When a woman’s got the kind of life that involves 4 a.m. call times and late nights at the Oscars or Met Gala, she’d be forgiven for sometimes forgoing her hour-long fitness class in favor of a 5-minute sweat sesh.
Those are the kind of students Pilates guru Erika Bloom works with all the time—her client base is so exclusive, she can’t even name names—so she’s kind of become an expert in the art of the ultra-personalized flash workout.
Her favorite sequence is as efficient as it gets, hitting all angles of the body for a head-to-toe burn.
“Our celebrity and socialite clients are either traveling a lot or they’ve just got a little time between filming,” says the in-demand instructor, who presides over private studios in New York City, the Hamptons, Connecticut, Turks & Caicos, and in September, Los Angeles. “I like the idea of five moves that they can do because it’s really good to have something that fits into any kind of schedule.” (Also true when your calendar’s packed with mermaid baths and women’s circles, rather than red carpets.)
Her favorite sequence is as efficient as it gets, hitting all angles of the body—legs, arms, abs, hips, and back—for a head-to-toe burn. And don’t consider for moment that these moves are any less challenging just because there’s no equipment required. “People think the reformer makes it harder, but it actually makes things easier because it provides support,” she explains. “Body weight is enough for most of these muscles.”
Complete the following five-minute circuit six times per day, and you may find you’re standing taller, walking more gracefully, and feeling extra confident in your little black swimsuit—even if you don’t have paparazzi trailing you down the beach.
Keep reading for the 5-minute mat Pilates sequence that Erika Bloom’s celebrity clients can’t live without.
“This is probably my favorite exercise—it’s key to having a flat stomach,” raves Bloom. “ so often address the core by doing crunches, but that shortens your torso, creating a bulky tummy.” Not only does this move promote a more elongated midsection, but it’s also helpful for lower-back pain—a winner on all fronts.
10–15 reps per leg
1. Begin with a neutral pelvis. (This is the position where the natural “S” curve of the spine is maintained by keeping your tailbone heavy while leaving a little space between your lower back and the mat.) Then, bring your legs up to 90-degree angles, knees over your hips—AKA tabletop.
2. Exhale to extend your right leg out to a 45-degree angle as you pull your belly button back toward your spine and up as if you were trying to connect it to your rib cage.
3. Inhale to draw the leg back to tabletop.
4. On the next exhale, repeat with the left leg. Maintain a stable pelvis and an engaged core throughout.
Bridge with leg lift
One of the lesser-known benefits of Pilates is that it can actually alter your gait. That’s why Bloom utilizes exercises like this one, which specifically help give her clients more “grace and ease” while sashaying in front of a camera. How? “With proper bridging you find the inner, upper hamstring, which can totally change the way you stand and walk,” she explains.
8–10 reps per leg
1. Begin on your back with your knees bent, feet flat, heels in line with your sitz bones (about two-fists distance apart).
2. Press into your feet to lift your hips up into a bridge, maintaining a neutral spine.
3. Extend your right leg straight. Reach it up toward the ceiling as high as you can while keeping your pelvis and spine completely still. Lower it back down as low as you can while maintaining a stable, neutral position.
4. Lift the leg for eight repetitions and then return the foot to the mat. Exhale and roll down from the bridge back to your mat, articulating through your spine one vertebra at a time.
5. Repeat with the other leg.
This hardcore move creates mega-definition in the waistline—heads up, crop top fans—but that’s not even the full extent of its power. “The side-plank twist’s cool because it also works the hip and shoulder,” Bloom points out. “It’s super full-body.”
15 reps per side
1. Lie on your right side with your right forearm against the mat at a 90-degree angle, elbow under your shoulder. Reach your left arm up to the ceiling.
2. Float up to a side plank. Focus on pressing up from your hip and side waist while maintaining a wide collarbone.
3. Thread your left arm behind you through the space below your torso and the mat to twist. Reverse the movement to return to your starting position. Repeat on the other side.
“This exercise is a necessity for my celebrities,” proclaims Bloom. “They’re so often wearing strapless gowns, and they want to know the one exercise they should do right before they put the dress on.” The T-lift hits the upper arms, shoulders, and upper back in one go, helping to open the chest and improve posture.
1. Lie face down with your arms stretched out, in line with your shoulders like a letter “T.”
2. Float your arms up about two inches as you raise your head, neck, and shoulders a few inches off your mat and into a small arch.
3. Reach your arms back toward your hips as you slightly increase the arch.
4. Return the arms to the T, then lower your torso and arms down to return to the starting position.
You knew you wouldn’t get out of this routine without planking, right? “Front body, back body, side body, legs, arms—this exercise hits everything all in one, and in a way that really does change the shape of the body,” Bloom says. “Here, the muscles are learning how to lift and support the skeleton, which can directly translate into better posture.”
10-15 reps per leg
1. Begin in a plank.
2. Lift your left leg a few inches off the mat as you point your foot.
3. Flex your foot and return it to plank. Maintain a stable pelvis and a long reach from head to toe. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Originally published July 18, 2017, updated July 26, 2018.
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