6 Pilates Moves for a Stronger Core and Back

What is Pilates?

If you’ve done Pilates before, you know it’s excellent for building core strength. In fact, the core is the foundation of all Pilates moves, activating the deep muscles of your abdomen.

“The premise with the core and Pilates is that you need the core to move your body efficiently,” says Adefemi A. Betiku, a New Jersey-based physical therapist and certified Pilates teacher. “We are constantly, with every move, urging clients and patients to activate the deep core muscles.”

During a Pilates session, you focus on training these muscles all the time, and that has some powerful benefits for your daily life.

Learn why Pilates is so beneficial and how to do moves that give you a stronger core.

What is the core?

Think of your core as a house, says Betiku. Your transverse abs, deep abs, are like the walls of the house. Your diaphragm, the muscle you activate when you breathe, is the roof.

Your pelvic floor muscles are — you guessed it — the floor of the house. You can think of your glutes as the foundation of the house, Betiku says.

Add a muscle called lumbar multifidus (it supports the spine) to the list of deep core muscles; think of it as the back wall of the house. Some say that the internal obliques belong to this group of intrinsic muscles. It’s the sides of the house, if you will.

Pilates works all of these muscles.

The Benefits of Pilates Core Exercises

While you can usually turn to crunches, sit-ups, or cycling to work the abs, these exercises primarily target the six-pack muscles (also known as the rectus abdominis). Pilates, on the other hand, goes deeper into your center to help you strengthen and stabilize your center.

That’s why the practice is different from other forms of exercise, says Melanie Carminati, a physical therapist, Pilates instructor, and founder of Inspira Physical Therapy in Brooklyn, New York.

“Pilates is different from traditional core work because it focuses on targeting these deep stabilizing muscles, which are important for spine and organ health and overall vitality and quality of life,” she says.

The exercise also includes a mindfulness element, making the breath and body aware during the movements, she adds.

People with weaker transverse abs tend to experience lower back pain, Betiku says. But because Pilates targets these deep muscles, it can help you stay pain-free.

How to activate your deep core muscles

As you go through the different Pilates exercises, your instructor will say words or phrases that help you train the deep muscles of your core.

To target the transverse abs, Pilates instructors might say to gently pull the navel down or toward the spine. To engage the glutes in the movement, all you need to do is squeeze your butt.

To get the pelvic floor going, incorporate Kegels into your Pilates exercise. To know if you are doing Kegels correctly, you need to think about how you would stop yourself from peeing. That contraction is a cone, explains Betiku.

The importance of breathing

Breathing is a big part of Pilates – that’s where the connection between body and mind is made. Because it activates the diaphragm, proper breathing makes movements more efficient, optimal, and effective, Betiku says. So you’ll hear cues about breathing during a Pilates class to help with this activation.

To help you focus on your breathing from the start of a Pilates session, an instructor will likely have you inhale to prepare for an exercise.

A Pilates instructor can also have you focus on breathing into your side for side bends or twists.

Regardless of the movement, you’ll find that paying attention to your breath during each exercise brings mindfulness and core engagement throughout your routine.

Pilates exercises for your core

As you perform these top Pilates core exercises, which Betiku has put together, you need to focus on those deep core muscles. And watch your breath.

Thanks to Adefemi Betiku

Pilates 100

If you have persistent back pain, Betiku suggests skipping this one. Otherwise, it’s a great exercise for working the deep core muscles. It is also a signature Pilates move.

Start by lying on your back, arms stretched out at your sides. Bring your legs to a tabletop position, with your knees bent and aligned over your hips. Pull your belly button down toward the mat.

Lift your chest, neck and shoulders off the floor. Lift your arms off the floor. Pulse your hands up and down as you inhale and exhale for 30 seconds.

When you’re ready for a challenge, straighten your legs and lift them diagonally.

(You can also try these leg exercises at home.)

pilates bridge exercise

Thanks to Adefemi Betiku

Bridge

Increase the burn on your butt with bridges, which target the glutes through hip extension.

Start by lying on your back, arms stretched out at your sides. Bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Squeeze your butt and lift your hips. Your torso should form a straight line with your thighs.

Pause at the top of the bridge, then slowly lower back to the floor. Repeat for 10 reps.

When you’re ready to take this up a notch, lift one foot off the floor and do a single leg glute bridge, performing 10 reps on each side.

(A glute bridge is one of many warm-up exercises you can do before your workout.)

plank exercise

Thanks to Adefemi Betiku

Shelf

“A plank a day keeps the physical therapist away,” Betiku says. Do this exercise often to especially strengthen the transverse abdominal muscles.

Start by placing your forearms or hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Your shoulders should be in line with your wrists and elbows.

Step back with your feet so that your body forms a straight line. Make sure your back is not arched (think tuck your tail between your legs) or rounded. Hold for 30 seconds.

If you feel solid during this move, upgrade your plank: lift one leg and hold for 30 seconds. Then switch to the other side. This forces the obliques to work even harder.

side plank exercise

Thanks to Adefemi Betiku

side plank

This is another exercise that targets the transverse abs. Betiku usually teaches side planks in a modified position because it is a real challenge for the deep core muscles and especially the obliques.

Start lying on your left side, with knees bent and hips and shoulders stacked. Place your left forearm on the floor. Lift your hips so that you form a diagonal line from shoulder to hip. Hold for 30 seconds.

If this feels easy, lift the thigh and stretch it out to the side. Hold for 30 seconds, or lift and lower the leg 10 reps per side.

(Here are some easy plank exercises to add to your workout routine.)

reverse plank exercise

Thanks to Adefemi Betiku

Reverse Shelf

This exercise not only works your abs, but also your glutes and hamstrings, Betiku says.

Start sitting, with your knees bent, legs together and feet planted. Keep your chest high. Place your hands on the floor behind you, fingertips pointing out to the sides.

Tighten your glutes and lift your hips. Keep your chest high and look straight ahead. Hold for 30 seconds.

If this feels feasible, stretch your legs out in front of you to increase the challenge. Or lift one leg to engage the obliques.

(This is how long you should hold a plank.)

Quadruple Extension Exercise

Thanks to Adefemi Betiku

Quadruple extension

This move adds an anti-rotation component to the core, which aids in stabilization.

Start on all fours. Align your shoulders over your wrists and keep your knees in line with your hips. Inhale deeply, then extend your right arm and left leg straight out. Make sure your shoulders and hips stay square on the floor.

Pause, then bring your right elbow toward your left knee, meeting at the center of your body. Extend your arm and leg again.

Repeat for 10 reps, then switch sides.

Next, find out if Pilates can help with weight loss.

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