Imagine the joy of celebrating every nook and cranny of your body...all its incredible capabilities...and choosing to exercise because it’s a source of true holistic wellness. When you shift your mentality around exercise, viewing it as a celebration of your body (NOT a punishment for what you ate over the weekend), you’ll discover a renewed sense of physical and mental well-being.
There are countless fitness-related memes sprinkled across social media. Unfortunately, many can be detrimental to our mental health, conveying unrealistic body image standards and promoting the unhealthy pursuit of “skinny” or “flat” abs. Having strong abdominal muscles is so much more than simply flaunting a 6-pack.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: regardless of which muscle group you may be focused on targeting, your core is the guiding force for all of your movements – both in and outside of exercising.
Many people place a heavy emphasis on building muscle strength in their arms or legs without realizing that core control is the sole pathway for accessing the full flexibility and potential of those muscles. When you condition and stabilize your core, you’ll have the ability to perform exercises from your center – allowing you to experience the true power of your body.
The key takeaway? Work that core! By strengthening abdominal muscles, you can reap a number of therapeutic benefits – especially if you’re someone who suffers from chronic injuries, back pain, or poor posture. The following exercises are an effective way to begin strengthening your core from top to bottom.
Oh, and the icing on the cake? These movements can be performed anywhere – in your living room, backyard, or even your local park – whatever environment elicits a feeling of comfort and tranquility for you. All you need is to grab a yoga mat and a bottle of H20 to ensure you’re staying hydrated.
#1. Kneeling Arm & Leg Reach
How to Perform: To get started, position yourself on all fours in the center of your pilates mat. Posture is important in performing this movement correctly, so make sure your hands are directly aligned with your shoulders and your knees are placed right beneath your hips. For this exercise, avoid arching or slouching your spine – instead, hold it in a neutral position.
Inhale through your nose, expanding your ribs laterally. As you exhale through your mouth, lift your left arm up, holding it horizontal to the floor, right by your ear. Simultaneously, raise your right leg straight behind you. Always strive to keep the toes on your lifted leg pointed. Hold this position for one full, controlled breath. From there, move both your arm and leg in tandem back to their original starting position. Repeat this motion on the opposite side.
Recommended Reps: 3 sets of 10 reps on each side
Pro Tip: To stabilize your torso while performing this exercise, pull your navel in. Are you a pilates beginner? If so, you may find it difficult to maintain your balance on this pose. As a modification, try lifting each arm and leg separately to begin building up your strength.
#2. Side Plank Hip Dips
How to Perform: On your mat, lie down on your side with your elbow positioned directly beneath your shoulder. With your knees stacked (or feet stacked with your legs lengthened), gently lift your hips off the floor and then lower them back to your mat. To make this exercise more challenging, hold your hips off the floor for 3 to 5 seconds before lowering them once more.
Recommended Reps: Perform 3 sets of 10 reps on each side.
Pro Tip: As your building core strength, you may find yourself struggling to maintain the side plank position. If this occurs, simply place your top foot on the floor behind you for additional support.
#3. The Pilates 100
How to Perform: Lie on your mat with your back to the floor. Point your toes, keep your heels glued tightly together, and raise your legs to a 65-degree angle off of the floor. From there, begin raising your shoulders off the ground, keep your hands straight out in front of you (by your sides), and crunch your upper abs. As you maintain this position, begin oscillating your arms up and down. Using controlled breathing, pump your arms 5 times as you inhale and 5 times as you exhale.
Recommended Reps: Challenge yourself! The goal is to perform this exercise for 10 full breaths (which equates to approx. 100 arm pumps).
Pro Tip: Maintaining core engagement is a pivotal piece of bolstering the efficacy of this movement. To do so, simply suck in your belly button and squeeze your abdominal muscles. You can up the ante on this exercise by lowering your legs. If your neck or spine feel stained while performing this movement, you can either keep your head on the mat or utilize a Pilates head and neck pillow for enhanced support.
How to Perform: Lie down on your stomach with your arms and legs fully extended. Raise both your arms and lift your head and neck into a hover, making sure the back of the neck stays long. Begin fluttering your arms with small controlled moves, extending through your limbs, and alternating sides throughout the duration of the exercise. If you discover that your shoulders are slowly creepy towards your ears – a.k.a your begin hunching your shoulders, lower your body to the floor, and take a break to avoid strain or injury.
Recommended Reps: Start with 3 sets of eight to fifteen repetitions. As you become more comfortable, increase the speed of your movement.
Pro Tip: Elongate your body, keep your spine neutral, and make sure you fully extend your arms and legs for maximum impact. With your hips stabilized (press your tailbone downwards “into” the floor), use controlled breathing to pull your core in – which will help you maintain proper alignment. Once you are able to stabilize your spine while fluttering your arms, try lifting your legs off the mat and add small flutters with the feet.
#5. The Criss Cross
How to Perform: Lie down on your mat with your stomach facing upwards. Bring your knees to your chest, raise your shoulders off the ground, and carefully clasp your fingers behind your head. As you exhale, engage your core by squeezing your belly button toward the floor. Inhale while maintaining this position. On the exhale, extend your left leg out straight as you twist your torso and bring your left elbow to your right knee. Make sure to inhale each time you move your body to the other side.
Recommended Reps: Perform 3 sets of 10 reps.
Pro Tip: Similar to the Pilates Swimming exercise, avoid hunching your shoulders and raising them towards your ears. Instead, keep your shoulders relaxed and stay focused on rotating your abs from side to side. To ensure your core remains engaged during this exercise, refrain from leading with your elbows. Instead, move your arms and legs in tandem.
Strengthening your core is one of the best things you can do for your body. Do you have a favorite Pilates exercise that’s great for working the core? Share with me in the comments below!