Pilates: A Core Workout That Actually Flattens Your Belly

Woman practicing pilates in park
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Ab workouts and belly blasters are a dime a dozen. Find a magazine and you’re sure to find “5 Easy Ways to Flatten your Tummy.” Yet core workouts remain at the top in terms of exercises done improperly.

I remember a famous pop singer back in the ‘90’s proclaiming that her flat tummy was due to her performing 100 crunches per day. All I could think about was how much time she was wasting and how strong her neck muscles must be.

Any exercise where you can do 100 repetitions is probably not worth doing. In this case she was likely recruiting all kinds of muscles she didn’t intend on working, or for that matter want to work.

The problem isn’t with any particular exercise as much as the way it is executed. A good “crunch” or ab curl should be done well enough that after a dozen or so you are spent! So let’s get to the heart of the problem and find out how to really turn on that core of yours with exercises that focus on quality, not quantity. The answer? Pilates!


If you want to learn how to work your core the right way your best bet is to learn the Pilates method. Once you learn the basic principles of Pilates you will inevitably carry them into every other exercise you perform.

Pilates was designed to strengthen the core by using gentle, but powerful, movements. In the early 1900s, Joseph Pilates formed this technique concentrating on proper breathing and correct spinal and pelvic alignment.

Today, people seek out Pilates because they know it does what most people want: strengthens the core and back, flattens the tummy, and balances the body’s strength and flexibility. Best of all: no equipment needed. Not even shoes!

The pilates method is based on the science that of all your abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominus is the most important muscle to strengthen in order to achieve these results.

All of your ab muscles will work in chorus, but awakening the transverse abdominus (TVA) and tapping into its use is the key to success.

Pilates Principles

Pilates is based on 5 main principles. In order to perform any abdominal work correctly, you would be wise to learn these and make them part of your daily life. I practice them most often sitting at a stoplight.  Here they are.

1. Breathing: There is power in breathing. The basic pilates breath tells you to inhale through your nose, filling your belly with air not your chest, then exhale by blowing through your mouth like you are forcing air out of a tiny, skinny straw. Try it. You will feel your TVA kick in immediately.

2. Imprint and release: Lay on your back with your knees bent and feel flat on the floor. This is your neutral position. Now practice the breath as stated above and as you exhale, gently press your belly downward so that your low back presses into the floor. As you inhale release back to neutral.  The imprint is crucial for stabilizing your back as you perform any ab exercise with your feel off the ground. It’s also just a good exercise on its own.

3. Scapular retraction: Shrugging our shoulders and squeezing at our necks is a common mistake in ab work as well as many upper body exercises.

To avoid this, sit tall, inhale, then as you exhale imagine sliding your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. Keep your shoulder blades down and back like this during exercise.

4. Cervical spine placement: Does your neck get sore during crunches unless you hold onto your head with your hands? You can train your cervical spine (the 7 vertebrae in your neck) to relax during exercise and eliminate neck pain. To practice, lay on your back with feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Keep your arms on the floor next to you. Inhale and slightly tilt your chin toward your chest, then exhale and lift your head and chest forward imaging a string in the middle of your sternum and someone giving it a tug.

(keep enough space under your chin to fit a tennis ball). Hold yourself up and inhale, then exhale and gently lower your head. Try this several times. It takes practice.

5. Rib cage placement: Most of the time when we lift our arms over our head, the rib cage “pops” forward or sticks out. For this principle, the idea is to practice pulling the ribs into your body by use of the oblique muscles. Once again, lay on your back with knees bent, feet flat on floor and arms by your side. Inhale and raise your arms up to the sky, then exhale and reach them behind your head. While doing so, keep your ribs tucked in by pulling your belly muscles tight. Inhale to lift your arms back to the sky, then exhale back to start position. Practice 5-6 times.

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