There’s a reason why Pilates instructors, like Aliyah Hatcher, owner of the Pilates Center of Rockville in Maryland, are constantly telling you to engage your core during class. No matter which muscles you might think you’re targeting with a given move, your core is secretly at the center of every single one. “Many people focus on developing their arm and leg muscles without realizing that you can only access the full strength and flexibility of those muscles when you have core control,” says Hatcher. “When you stabilize your core, connect your limbs to your center and then move from your center, you will experience the full power of your body.”
Since your core is the guiding force in every move you make—both in and outside of your Pilates class—it’s important to take the time to strengthen it on its own, too. “A well-conditioned core can cure many of the ills that people suffer from, including back pain, poor posture, and chronic injuries,” says Hatcher, adding that a well-conditioned core is characterized by being “strong, flexible, and capable of moving freely and creating stability.”
Because of this, Hatcher is vigilant about integrating a solid session of ab work in each of the 20 classes she teaches every week (which include both virtual group and private mat classes). Below, three of the best-of-the-best Pilates core exercises that make it into every one of her workouts—and there’s not a single crunch or plank in sight.
The best Pilates core exercises
1. Roll Up
According to Hatcher, this move is the ultimate for teaching you how to properly control your core, and one of the best Pilates core exercises out there. “The Roll Up combines all of the versatility that’s needed in the core in one exercise: abdominal strength, spinal flexibility, the ability to move the pelvis and spine freely and stabilize the legs at the same time,” she says. To perform the move, start lying on your back with your hands up over head. Beginners should start with their legs bent, and as you become more advanced you can progress to straightening your legs. Inhale, reaching the arms to the ceiling, and roll up slowly to try and touch your toes. Then, as you exhale, role slowly back down. Engage your abdominal muscles as you round through your spine, and squeeze your legs the entire time.
2. Side Kicks
To work on core stability, try your hand (or, erm, your legs) at some side kicks. “Although it seems simple, you need a lot of core strength and what Pilates teachers call ‘oppositional energy’ to move your legs without losing control of your core,” says Hatcher. Lie on one side with your legs stacked, prop your head in your bottom hand and press your top hand into the mat. Keeping your neck straight and your core and glutes engaged, raise your top leg to hip level. Extend it out in front of your slowly, then extend it back behind you. Complete a full set on one side before switching to the others. If you’re new to the move, Hatcher suggests starting out with basic front-to-back kicks, then progressing to more advanced hip-strengthening moves like rond de jambes.
“I love the Swan because it provides much-needed variety in our movement and re-educates the body,” says Hatcher. “Our spines are designed to bend backwards, but most don’t people don’t bend backwards very frequently, and as a result, our back muscles get weak, our abdominal muscles get shortened, and we lose the ability to internally lift our spines up against gravity.” Swans can help to combat these issues, restoring mobility to your spine, strengthening your back, and improving your posture. Lying on your stomach with your hands underneath your shoulders, your elbows hugging your sides, and your feet slightly wider than your hips. Press into the mat and peel your head and chest off of the mat as you exhale, and inhale to lower back to start. With each repetition, try to lift your chest higher, and be sure to keep your feet grounded on the mat.
Want to try some more Pilates core moves? Follow along with the video below.