Forget sit-ups — this 7-move Pilates workout sculpts your core and works your whole body

woman doing side plank exercise
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If you’re keen to build a stronger trunk but you're bored of crunches, sit-ups, or planks, this Pilates-inspired core workout could be just the thing. 

Requiring just a yoga mat and your body weight, this low-impact workout routine features many of the best Pilates exercises for strengthening your core, like a single leg stretch, scissor kicks and bird dogs, so will target your deep ab muscles, lower back and obliques in minutes. 

Designed by Veronique Ellis, Pilates instructor and founder of Evolve, this core workout features seven moves in total and should take no more than 30 minutes, making it an ideal option when you're tight on time. 

You can reap the rewards this type of mind-body strength training brings at home, during a lunch break, and without having to spend precious time traveling to a gym, fitness center, or even leaving the house. 

To help you master the moves, Ellis has provided bullet-point guidance and we’ve also dropped in some video demonstrations. So do use these cues as they’ll help you avoid injury and get the most out of your workout. 

What is this 7-move core Pilates workout?

To do this Pilates workout, you’ll complete seven mat-based moves, ticking off 10 reps of each exercise across three sets. For compound core moves, like a side plank or knee hovers, you’ll hold these multi-joint movements for 20-30 seconds in each set. 

It’s important to flag that if you find completing this amount of sets or reps too challenging, listen to your body and only perform the comfortable moves. If you’re a Pilates beginner, remember to concentrate on your form and your breath as you flow through each move.

Over time, as you progress, you may want to amp up the intensity by increasing the reps or adding resistance bands. This will help you use the progressive overload technique to help you build muscle and strength. Now, let’s get into the workout! 

1. Knee hovers

Targeted muscles: Transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, obliques, hip stabilizers

  • Start in a kneeling position with your hands on the floor shoulder-width apart.
  • Engage your core and lift your knees a few inches off the ground, keeping your body in a straight line from head to knees.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds, focusing on maintaining stability and control.

2. Scissors

Targeted muscles: Rectus abdominis, hip flexors

  • Lie on your back with your legs extended straight up towards the ceiling. 
  • Lower one leg towards the ground while keeping the other leg lifted towards the ceiling.
  • Switch legs, scissoring your legs up and down in a controlled motion.
  • Keep your lower back pressed into the mat and your core engaged throughout the movement. Aim for 10 reps on each leg, for a total of 20 reps.

3. Single-leg stretch

Targeted muscles: Transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, hip flexors

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent towards your chest, your head lifted, and hands on your shins.
  • Extend one leg straight out while pulling the other knee towards your chest.
  • Switch legs, pulling the opposite knee towards your chest while extending the other leg.

4. Roll up

Targeted muscles: Rectus abdominis, erector spinae, hip flexors

  • Lie on your back with your legs straight and arms reaching overhead.
  • Exhale as you peel your spine off the mat, articulating through each vertebra to come to a seated position.
  • Inhale at the top, then exhale to reverse the movement and roll back down to the mat with control.

5. Side plank

Targeted muscles: Obliques, transverse abdominis, shoulders, hips

  • Start in a side plank position with your elbow under your shoulder and your body in a straight line. 
  • Hold the position for 20-30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

6. Teaser

Targeted muscles: Rectus abdominis, hip flexors

  • Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and legs straight.
  • Engage your core as you lift your arms, head, neck, and shoulders off the mat simultaneously, reaching toward your toes.
  • Hold at the top for a few breaths, then lower back down with control.

7. Bird dog

Targeted muscles: Transverse abdominis, erector spinae, glutes

  • Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
  • Extend one arm forward and the opposite leg straight back, maintaining a flat back and engaging your core.
  • Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side, alternating sides for each rep.

Is Pilates good for strengthening your core?

In one word: yes! Pilates is a mind-body exercise whose primary purpose is to improve strength, better posture and boost structural alignment. And, as the research shows, this low-impact exercise really works. 

One 2023 study, published in the Healthcare journal, found that Pilates has the power to ‘positively impact core muscle strength’. The same study noted that this low-impact form of fitness could be an effective intervention for people living with chronic low back pain. 

While researchers, who published a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, found that people who performed one hour of Pilates twice a week for 12 weeks saw significant increases in upper-body strength, hamstring flexibility and abdominal endurance. 

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Becks Shepherd

Becks is a lifestyle journalist who specializes in writing about wellness and home products, from mattresses to weighted blankets and cooling comforters. She has tested a number of mattresses for Tom's Guide, putting them through their paces to see if they stand up to the brand's claims, and offering recommendations as to the type of sleeper they will (and won't) suit.