Fitness trends go out of style nearly as soon as people even know what they are, so it’s remarkable Pilates has managed to stick around for so long. It probably has a lot to do with the workout program’s focus on core strength. Most Pilates routines call upon the muscles around your midsection, so it’s nearly always a great abs workout. When you consider the program’s history, its longevity makes even more sense. Created by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s, it was developed to provide balanced strength for anyone, even bed-ridden hospital patients.
This allowed Pilates to become one of the best ways for injured athletes, especially dancers, to stay in shape. This association with dance leads most people to categorize Pilates as a women’s workout, but men stand to gain just as much from this type of exercise. And according to the Pilates Foundation, 60% of the original clientele were men. Whether you’re male or female, fitness newbie or gym junkie, Pilates can seriously help strengthen your core. Get started with these five exercises.
1. Wind down
Many people think they need specialized equipment to perform Pilates moves at home. While it’s true studios have a lot of tools, there are still plenty of core exercises you can do with nothing more than an exercise mat. The wind down is particularly great because it gives you the same stomach-strengthening effect you get with crunches, without doing damage to your back. For this move, sit in the center of the mat with your knees bent and your feet lightly resting on the ground. Sit straight up so your shoulders, back, and hips are all in alignment. Bend your elbows and curl your hands into fists directly in front of your chest. Move your fists in a circular motion as you roll your body down toward the mat, keeping your stomach tight. Stop before your back touches the ground, then reverse the direction of your hands as you sit back up. Check out a demonstration over at Life by Daily Burn.
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2. The hundred
Perhaps the most famous exercise in all of Pilates, the hundred is also one of the most effective tummy toners. The micro-movements force your core to work even harder than they do during an isometric move like a plank. The key is to make sure your form is correct throughout the entire sequence, and that goes for your neck as well. Instead of crunching your chin into your chest, try to keep your gaze out toward your toes. Begin lying on your mat with your legs together and your arms at your sides. As you tighten your glutes and core, raise your feet off the ground, keeping your toes pointed. Extend your arms in front of you so your hands are just above your hips and raise your upper back and shoulders off the mat. Check your form by looking at a diagram over at Women’s Health. From this position, pump your arms several inches up and down five times as you inhale, then do five more as you exhale. Repeat as you’re able, eventually building up to 100 total pumps.
3. Double-leg stretch
If you’ve ever seen someone perform V-ups and laughed at how impossible they look, the double-leg stretch is a good way to work your way toward core strength. It’s also easier for those with tight hips to perform. Start on your back with your knees lifted directly above your hip points, heels together. Extend your arms out to your sides as you lift your shoulders and upper back off the ground, keeping your gaze just below your knees. In a slow, controlled movement, simultaneously extend your arms and legs in opposite directions as you exhale. Inhale as you return to the starting position. Shape recommends performing 15 repetitions.
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4. Extension arrow
Having the strongest abs in the world doesn’t matter much if they’re paired with weak back muscles. Your core wraps all the way around your body, so the backside needs just as much love. The basic extension arrow is great for strengthening the lower muscles in your back, so it’s a must for any core routine. Begin on your stomach with your arms at your sides and your legs extended in a straight line. Maintaining steady breathing, gently arch your back to lift both your arms and legs off the ground. Hold the position, then release your limbs back to the ground. You can check out a variation using dumbbells by heading to Muscle & Fitness. Beginners should start without the weights, then reach for a set of light dumbbells as the move becomes easier.
Most people perform crunches incorrectly, often getting a sub-par abdominal workout while hurting their back in the process. Part of the problem is speed because it’s tempting to race through crunches as fast as possible. You’re really better off going slow, though. This is why the roll-up is so great. It targets your core muscles without crunching your neck or hurting your back. Lie on your back with your legs together and toes pointed. Raise your arms so they point toward the ceiling with your palms facing forward. Moving slowly, engage your abs and exhale as you slowly roll up to a seated position. As you move, bring your arms down so they end parallel to the ground. Self suggests aiming for 10 repetitions.