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A Pilates-inspired beginner core workout to wake up your abs

Reduce back pain and tone your core with these simple ab exercises.
Bird dog works all the same muscles as bicycle crunches, but with less pressure on the neck and back.
Bird dog works all the same muscles as bicycle crunches, but with less pressure on the neck and back.Stephanie Mansour / TODAY Illustration

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Many people are shocked to learn that they’ve been working out for decades and have never felt their core turn on.

As a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor, one of the first things I do with a new client is teach them how to really engage their core. I do this by introducing them to Pilates-based movements. This is because Pilates focuses on precise engagement of the core muscles while using the limbs to make it more challenging.

If you’re a beginner, you may feel intimidated to start working your core, but you may actually be at an advantage! Since you don’t have to fight the muscle memory from years of doing core exercises without the proper activation of your deepest core muscles, you'll learn proper form from the onset!

Not only are these exercises more effective at strengthening and toning the abs, but studies show that core strength training focused on the deep trunk muscles can help alleviate chronic lower back pain. So whether you’re starting from scratch or you’ve been working your core for years but don’t “feel the burn” anymore, this beginner core workout is for you. These exercises will help you reconnect with your core muscles and see better results from your fitness routine.

Bird dog exercise

Bird dog

This move works the same muscles as the bicycle crunch, but from a different position. Get on all fours with your palms and knees on the ground. Straighten your left arm out in front of you and your right leg out behind you, balancing on your opposite hand and knee. Hold for a few breaths. For an added challenge, bend your left elbow and your right knee in until they touch underneath your stomach. Switch sides and repeat using your right arm and left leg. Continue alternating, performing 10 reps on each side.

Pelvic tilt exercise

Pelvic tilt

Lying on your back, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground. Make sure your feet are open as wide as your hips. Reach your arms down toward your feet. Take a deep breath in and feel your low back arch slightly off of the ground. Then exhale as you tilt your pelvis forward and press your low back into the ground. Pull your naval in toward your spine as if you’re zipping into a tight pair of pants. Release and repeat 10 times.


Pilates ab crunch

Pilates ab crunch

Come into the pelvic tilt position from the exercise above. From this tilted position with your low back pressed into the ground, place your hands behind your head. Exhale as you curl up with your head, neck and chest. Pretend that you’re holding an egg in between your chin and your chest that you don’t want to crack. Then gently pulse upwards 10 times and rest.

Single leg lift exercise

Single leg lower & lift

Lying on your back, place your left foot on the ground with your knee bent and lift your right leg up toward the ceiling. Tilt the pelvis to press your low back into the ground. Hold this pelvic tilt as you lower the right leg down toward the ground, stopping at about 45 degrees, then bring it back up to center. Repeat 10 times and then switch legs.

Lower leg lift exercise

Lower lift

Begin lying on your back with your feet straight out in front of you. Lift your legs straight up toward the ceiling, engaging your abs. Exhale as you slowly lower your legs toward the mat to a 45-degree angle. Inhale as you lift your legs again. Repeat 10 times. 


Bicycle crunch

Bicycle crunch

Start lying on your back with your hands behind your head. Slowly lift your shoulders off of the floor and bend your knees at a 90-degree angle, looking at your thighs. Squeeze your abs while you reach your right elbow toward your left knee while straightening your right leg. Move through center and then reach your left elbow toward your right knee, straightening the left leg. Alternate for about 30 seconds.

Forearm plank hold exercise

Forearm plank hold

Lie face down on the floor. Place your forearms flat on the mat and bend your knees so that they are touching the mat. Engage your core and lift your body up off the mat, creating a straight line from your head to your heels. For a modification, keep your knees on the mat. This modified plank ensures core engagement while increasing balance and decreasing risk of injury.