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8 best Pilates exercises that target your core for the ultimate burn

a photo of a woman doing the one hundred pilates exercise
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If one of your new year’s resolutions is to get abs from the Gods, welcome to the club. A strong core isn’t just an aesthetic goal, it’s important for helping you run faster and lift heavier, as well as helping to stabilize your lower back and improve your posture.

I’ve already rounded up some of the best ab workouts to try in 2022, but if you’re sick of doing planks (here’s how long you need to hold a plank to see results), adding Pilates to your routine is a brilliant way to target the inner abdominal muscles. 

Pilates is a “mind-body” exercise, developed in the 20th Century by a man named Joseph Pilates. It’s low-impact, so suitable for all levels of fitness, and works on improving your strength, posture, and structural alignment. One study (opens in new tab), published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that people who did one hour of Pilates twice a week for 12 weeks reported significant increases in abdominal endurance, upper-body strength, and hamstring flexibility. 

While there are plenty of classes you can follow online and in-person, if you’re completely new to Pilates, practicing these common abdominal exercises beforehand can help work on your core, and give you the confidence to master the boat-pose in class.

Pilates can be done from just about anywhere, using just an exercise mat (we’ve found the best yoga mats to practice on here), but there are also classes that can be intensified using a resistance band (shop the best resistance bands here) or weights. There’s also reformer Pilates classes, that are performed on a sliding platform, complete with a stationary foot bar, and springs and pulleys to provide resistance. 

Ready to get started? Here are some of the best Pilates moves for working your core. We’ve suggested how many repetitions to do of each exercise, but you could always try to complete each exercise for 30 seconds or one minute. 

Read what happened when I swapped my strength training for Pilates for one month.

1. One Hundred  

Why: Often used as a warm-up, the one hundred exercise gets you into the habit of coordinating your movement to your breath. It also stabilizes your trunk and engages your abdominal muscles. 

How: Lie on your back, with your lower back pressed against the floor. Pressing your thighs together, raise your legs at a 45-degree angle, pointing your toes. If this is too much for your lower back, hold your legs in a tabletop position. Engaging your core, raise your head and shoulders away from the mat, creating a C shape with your neck, and reach your arms down alongside your body. Pump your arms up and down for 100 counts, inhale for 5 counts, and exhale for 5 counts. 

2. Bicycles 

Why: The bicycle, or criss-cross exercise targets the rectus abdominal muscles, the hips, and the obliques. During the exercise, you’re required to keep your legs up off the ground, which forces you to engage your lower abs, and twist, which activates your obliques. 

How: To do a bicycle crunch, lie on the floor with your back flat against the ground. Place your hands next to your head and raise your shoulders up and away from the mat. Bend your knees and draw your legs up off the ground into a tabletop position. Bring the right knee towards your chest as you straighten your left leg, as your right knee comes up, twist your body so your left elbow touches your right knee. Repeat on the other side and make sure your legs and shoulders remain off the ground for the entire exercise. Aim for 30 bicycles, 15 on each side. 

3. Rotating planks  

Why: This exercise targets your oblique muscles, the abdominal muscles that run along the side of the body, as your hold a side plank, then rotate your torso. 

How: To do this exercise, get into a side plank position, with your feet stacked on top of one another if you’re advanced, or with your lower leg bent and your knee on the floor if you’re more of a beginner, and your weight on your elbow. Keep your hips stacked on top of each other and raise your hand to the sky, then thread that hand underneath your torso, twisting the body around. Then return to the starting position. Aim for 15 repetitions on each side, keeping the movement slow and controlled. 

4. Toe taps 

Why: Toe taps are a classic exercise in Pilates, targeting the deep, stabilizing muscles in your core, your rectus abdominal muscles, as well as your transverse abdominals, which are the outer core muscles that pop up as a six-pack.  

How: Start with your legs in a tabletop position. Engaging your core and keeping your knee bent, lower your right and tap your toe on the floor. Your left leg should stay in a tabletop position. Reverse the move and repeat on the opposite side. Aim for 15 repetitions on each side, keeping the movement slow and controlled. To make the exercise harder, tap closer to the body, or place a Pilates ball under your pelvis.

5.  Single leg stretch  

Why: The single-leg stretch exercise in Pilates targets the lower core muscles, as well as slightly working the buttocks and legs. 

How: To do this exercise, start lying on your back, with your lower back pressed into the mat. Raise your head and shoulders off the mat, and bring both legs into your chest and your hands on your shin. Keeping your head raised off the mat, slowly extend one leg at a time, alternating sides. Keep the movement slow and controlled, and keep the core engaged throughout the exercise. Aim for 30 repetitions, 15 on each side. 

6. Hip dips 

Why: These side hip dips target the oblique muscles, which run along the outer side of the abdominal muscles.

How: Start in a side plank position, with your hand, or elbow on the mat, and your hips stacked. If you’re more advanced or looking for a challenge, stack your feet on top of one another. If you’re a beginner, keep your lower knee on the floor. Engaging your core, dip your hips towards the ground, then raise them back up to your starting position. Aim for 20 hip dips on each side. 

7. Deadbug 

Why: A deadbug works on stabilizing your core muscles, as well as your spine and back muscles — all important for good posture.

How: Start with your back and shoulders flat and heavy on the floor. Lift your arms straight above your shoulders and your legs in tabletop position, your knees directly over your hips. Take a breath in and as you exhale, slowly lower and straighten your left leg and your right arm until just above the floor. As you inhale, bring them back into the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side and you've completed one rep. Aim for 15 deadbugs on each side. 

8. Scissor kicks

Why: As well as working on your core muscles, scissor kicks target the glutes, quads and adductor muscles. 

How: Lying on your back, with your lower back pressed into the floor, raise your head and neck off the ground. Keeping your core engaged, lower your right leg to the ground, raising your left leg at the same time. Bring your hands behind the raised leg as if you are pulling it into your chest. Switch legs, lowering your left leg to the floor, and pulling your right leg into your body. Keep switching sides, aiming for 15-20 repetitions on each side. 

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.