20 Core Minutes of Pilates

A Pilates Workout for Core Stability w/wo Exercise Ball

This Pilates workout is designed to strengthen your core stability muscles: the deep abdominal, back, and pelvic floor muscles. One of the best ways to challenge these muscles is to make them stabilize the trunk under unstable conditions. In this workout, we do that by reducing stabilizing contact with the floor and by using the exercise ball (non-ball options are given too).

This is an intermediate workout but all of the instructions include modifications. Use the photos as reminders. If you don't remember an exercise or it is new to you, the instruction links will give you all the details.

Warm Up the Core - Diaphragmatic Breathing

deep breathing exercise
Deep Breathing Engages the Core. Getty Images/Digital Vision

You might think that breathing is too easy an exercise. But diaphragmatic breathing helps you get oxygen to fuel your workout, stimulates the organs and spine, and it prepare your core muscles to workout.

Do this exercise standing so that you will be ready for wall roll down.

Take at least 5 deep, belly breaths.

Instructions for Diaphragmatic Breathing

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Wall Roll Down

standing Pilates picture
Standing Pilates - Wall Roll Down. Marguerite Ogle

Standing is another action we take for granted. But standing with good alignment takes a lot of core strength. We are always in danger of falling over, really. It's the core muscles that hold us up. The wall roll down exercise helps to stretch the back and warm up the abs, establishing a strong, tall posture when we step away from the wall. Notice also that wall roll down incorporates the Pilates fundamental exercise, arms over.

Do wall roll down 5 times.

Instructions for Wall Roll Down

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Knee Folds (ball optional)

Pilates on Exercise Ball
Knee Folds on the Exercise Ball. (c)2007, Marguerite Ogle

The ball adds our first real stability element. Make your core muscles stabilize you. Keep your spine long and your abs in. Don't depend on just leg power to lift the leg. Whether you are on the floor or on the ball, the idea is to get a deep crease at the hip and use your abs to help lift the leg.

Do at least 5 lifts on each leg, alternating. Then, stay on the ball (if you are using one) for chest lift.

Instructions for Knee Folds
Instructions for Knee Folds On the Ball

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Chest Lift (ball optional)

Chest Lift On the Stability Ball. getty images/sheer photo, inc

Again, the exercise ball is going to add a stability challenge to this exercise. Use your core for balance and stay away from trying to steady yourself by over-gripping the ball with the legs. On the floor or on the ball, you might feel this more in your upper abs but pull in the lower abs in and up as well.

Do 5 -7 repetitions.

Instructions for Chest Lift On the Mat
Instructions for Chest Lift On the Ball

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One Leg Circle

Pilates Exercise
One Leg Circle. Courtesy of Peak Pilates

In one leg circle, the leverage of the extended leg moving away from center challenges the core to keep the trunk stable, as in no rocking of the hips, at all.

Do 5 circles each direction with each leg. Do small circles at first and build up to larger ones.

Instructions for One Leg Circle

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Shoulder Bridge

Pilates Exercise
Shoulder Bridge. (c)2008, Marguerite Ogle

This exercise begins with shoulder bridge prep, where both feet are on the floor and you lift the hips straight up (not rolled up) to be in a diagonal line with the shoulders. Extending one leg gives you less of a base and a greater level of difficulty for the core to maintain stability.

Alternate lifting each leg 5 times each. If you are only pressing up to bridge position without the leg lifts, press up 3 times.

Instructions for Shoulder Bridge

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Open Leg Balance and Rocker

Pilates mat exercise
Open Leg Rocker. (c)2006,Marguerite Ogle

Maintaining balance is a big job for the core. First, we take away all contact with the floor except just behind the sit bones. Then, if you are ready, take that balance into rolling. Stay curved, and use your abs to initiate the rolling and keep you rolling straight.

Do 3 balances and 3 rolls. Don't do more because we are going directly to rolling like a ball.

Instructions for Open Leg Balance
Instructions for Open Leg Rocker

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Rolling Like a Ball

Pilates Exercise - rolling
Pilates exercise, rolling like a ball. Steve Boschoff

Now, that you have a sense of how to release your back and use your abs to roll, get in a tight ball and use your abs even more to keep your roll on track.

Roll 3 times.

Instructions for Rolling Like a Ball
Tips for Rolling Exercises

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Side Leg Lifts

Pilates Leg Lifts
Side Leg Lifts. By Peter Kramer, Courtesy of Kolesar Studios

Lying on your side with your ribs and legs lifted away from the mat does not provide a very big surface to balance on. That means your core will be working extra to keep you stable and your hips stacked vertically, as well as to lift your legs. It is a good idea to bring your legs slightly forward of your hips to help with balance.

Do 5 lifts on each side.

Instructions for Side Leg Lifts

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Side Kick Front/Back with Kneeling

Pilates Side Kick Exercise
Side Kick Front/Back. Courtesy of Peak Pilates

Side-lying and a leverage challenge from your moving leg will work your core muscles in side kick front/back. Moving up to kneeling side kick, with just one leg and one hand on the floor, makes it even harder to maintain a stable trunk.

Do 5 kicks on each side. Do 3 on each side if you are taking the exercise up to kneeling position as well.

Instructions for Side Kick Front/Back
Instructions for Kneeling Side Kick

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Plank to Leg Pull Front

Pilates Exercise
Leg Pull Front. (c)2007, Marguerite Ogle

Plank is one of those wonderful exercises that engages everything. Part of the difficulty of plank is that your legs are close together so you are challenged to stay stable though you are in a long tripod position.

Increase the challenge by taking one foot off the floor, shifting into leg pull front. Lift your leg as high as you can keep your hips level, abs in, and spine long.

Hold and release plank 3 times. If you are stable, add leg pull front, 3 lifts for each leg.

Instructions for Plank
Instructions for Leg Pull Front

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Pilates Bicycle
by Peter Kramer, Courtesy of Kolesar Studios. by Peter Kramer, Courtesy of Kolesar Studios

As bicycle gets more advanced the angle of the body shifts so that the back position is closer to neutral spine. This is very hard to maintain. You will also notice that it is a lot of core work to keep your trunk lifting up, and not sinking into your hands.

Do the bicycle action 5 times with each leg.

Instructions for Bicycle

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Pilates Push Up

Pilates Push Up
Pilates Push Up. (c)2007, Marguerite Ogle

Pilates Push Up combines plank, wall roll down, and a difficult push up. We're adding shoulder stability to the abdominal work here. Don't forget, what makes this push up unique is that the elbows stay by the sides and the scapula (shoulder blades) stay settled on the back.

Do the complete exercise 3 times. Try to keep your hips stable as you walk your hands back toward your feet after the push up. Finish standing.

Instructions for Pilates Push Up

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Chest and Ab Stretch

Stretch on Ball
Chest Stretch on the Ball. Paige Waehner

These instructions for wonderful stretches on the ball are from About.com's guide to exercise, Paige Waehner. They are both extension exercises which are going to feel really good after the core and flexion exercises.

If you don't have an exercise ball, choose a Pilates stretch or two to finish up with.

Instructions for Chest and Ab Stretch
Instructions for Pilates Stretches

Good Work!

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