Five Pilates Exercises to Strengthen your Core

Make no mistake…the Pilates abdominal series is a real core burner. No matter how strong those abdominals get, these five exercises seem to always cause a few groans whenever I teach them.

Unlike your basic ab crunch or sit-up, the Pilates ab series of five can do a lot more than just give you a nice six-pack.

They offer up a healthy dose of thoracic flexion, enabling you to broaden and stretch your back; hamstring stretch, rotation, hip strengthening and lengthening, and of course, core work.

I teach all of this inside my Pilates course for weightlifters – PilatesFloWOD and my monthly #BPSisterhood program.

In order to make the most of these five exercises, here’s a few pointers to keep in mind:

  1. Move the legs like they’re coming from the rib cage. This will keep you from gripping at the hips
  2. Curl the T-spine UP and OVER when you curl. Your nipples should point to the ceiling, not be jammed towards your thigh
  3. You lower the legs only as low as you can maintain the c-curl (or the t-spine flexion). If your legs drop too low and your abs can’t hold it, your spine will fall out of flexion, tensing the neck and hip flexors
  4. Move with precision and control! If your torso is rocking around or your legs are all willy nilly in the air, you’re wasting your time. Remember, just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re benefiting from the exercise so make sure you’re doing it right
The #pilates ab series is more than just a crunch. You get thoracic flexion, rotation, a stretch in the upper back, hamstrings, and strengthen the hip flexors in just 5 moves.

The Abdominal Series of Five

Now for the meaty part of this post!

I’ve added a mini-ball to this series to enhance some of the movements but it is not necessary.

These exercises are done in the order outlined for about 5-10 reps total.

Coach’s notes:

  • Notice how my legs don’t drop to the floor. At this level, I can feel my legs plugged into my ribcage or to the top of my stomach. This is a crucial thing to maintain throughout all your Pilates exercises because the moment your hip flexors grip and take over to hold up the legs for you, the entire exercise falls apart
  • Keep the torso still. Even as I’m pressing into the ball, I maintain the c-curve in my back and allow the legs to lengthen out without bouncing my torso around. Control is everything!

Next up we have the….


Coach’s notes:

  • This is just one variation of the double leg stretch, using the mini-ball
  • The biggest mistake people make is dropping the head/neck/shoulders as they extend the arms back. Do not do this. You don’t get any points for how far back your arms go, just like you don’t get points for how low your legs go.
  • It’s crucial that you maintain the c-curl even as the limbs move. That’s part of the challenge. An agonizing challenge but one that is worth perfecting.


Coach’s notes:

  • Be envious of my hamstring flexibility all you want; I earned it! Your legs, however, may not straighten that much or that far back (yet!), so avoid hurting yourself and soften the knee if needed
  • Beginners with tight hips and hamstrings tend to bend the knee completely about 90-degrees. This is okay as long as you don’t lose sight of the exercise’s goal (core control and flexion)
  • Notice how my torso doesn’t bounce all over the place? That’s because I’m not pulling the leg from my chest, I’m pulling the legs toward me from my back and allowing the leg to come to me
  • You can use the ball here as well by holding it up over the face. I only like this for those that have mastered the C-curl and can truly broaden their backs

Right when you really start to feel it, you get….

  • If I had a dollar for how much this exercise sucks, I’d be on the cover of Forbes by now as a self-made billionaire instead of Kylie
  • This exercise never gets easier, and by this point you’re fatigued and your abs are crying…don’t give up!
  • Lifting the head as I’m doing in this video is advanced work. Beginners should lower the head to the mat and push their arms to the floor. Still a difficult exercise but it’s a nice option for those still working on maintaining the c-curl
  • Once again, we focus on moving the legs from the top of stomach. This is why in the beginning, you may not lower the legs as much
  • Challenge yourself more by scooping the stomach even deeper as the legs lower (if you’re curled up)

Finally, we finish with….

  • This exercise pulls everything from the previous four exercises and throws in rotation to f*ck life up (just kidding…you’ll be fine!)
  • Stop trying to fly through this exercise. It’s not meant to be fast. You want to own every part of the movement, which broken down is:
    • Thoracic flexion (c-curl) with Single leg stretch (of the legs)
    • Rotation through flexion
  • Aim the nipple to the knee, not the elbow to the knee. 
  • Your hands serve a purpose in this exercise. It’s not there to cradle your head; it’s there to help you create resistance and support. Push the skull into the hands, and the hands into the skull. This enables you to keep your head with your spine as you move, without dropping the head.
  • Maybe Joseph Pilates did this on purpose because he knew we’d be smoked by now and would struggle to keep our heads up. Consider this his gift to you.

Implement, Implement, Implement!

I am all for you doing the series of five just to have nice abs, but let’s look at it from a grander perspective.

The series of five lays a foundation for many of the other Pilates exercises on the mat or the apparatus. If you can be strong with these five exercises, the others (think corkscrew, balance control off, scissors, bicycle, etc), become that much easier to do.

The abdominal series is also a nice foundation of core strength for people like you who want to lift, get strong, but don’t want to spend another 10 minutes at the end of a workout just doing abs. The Series of Five is part of proven system. Put it into action by popping it into your routine or doing it on its own  for about 3 minutes a day.

Want to stretch, flex, and strengthen at-home for 30 minutes a day?

Join the Barbell Pilates Sisterhood membership. Get on the waitlist for the next enrollment period!


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