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Tone your core with these simple Pilates exercises for beginners

These Pilates ab exercises will strengthen your core, relieve back pain and flatten your stomach.
Toe taps are a great way to tone the hard-to-hit lower abs.
Toe taps are a great way to tone the hard-to-hit lower abs.TODAY Illustration / Courtesy Stephanie Mansour

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As a child, I suffered from severe back pain. For almost a decade, I tried everything to relieve the pain, from massages, to stretching to different workouts. It wasn’t until I discovered Pilates that I was finally able to teach my body to turn on my core and learned to strengthen my core properly, alleviating my chronic back pain.

Now as a certified Pilates instructor, I always recommend that my clients work their core with Pilates exercises. In Pilates, the focus is on making small, precise movements with the arms and legs that forces us to use our core for stability. I am a big fan of abdominal exercises done in this way, especially for beginners who need to train their core to engage properly.

How to ‘turn on’ or activate your core

Activating your core before performing an exercise is essential for stability and proper form. It involves engaging the muscles in your abdomen, lower back and pelvis to create a strong and stable base for movement.

To activate your core, start by focusing on your breath. Take a deep breath in, allowing your belly to expand, and then exhale fully, drawing your belly button in toward your spine. This engages the deep abdominal muscles. Next, imagine pulling your belly button toward your spine, as if you’re trying to zip up a tight pair of jeans. This helps to activate the transverse abdominis, which acts like a natural corset around your waist. Finally, maintain a neutral spine position by gently tucking your tailbone and engaging your glutes. This will help to stabilize your lower back and pelvis during exercise.

16 Pilates exercises for core strength

Whether you're looking to relieve back pain or want to tone and flatten your stomach, everyone can benefit from incorporating Pilates-inspired exercises into their routine.

I do many of these exercises every day to keep my core tight and trained to engage properly in my daily movements once I get off of the mat, too! Pick and choose a few or do them strung together as a routine for a well-rounded core and ab workout.

Plank pike

From a plank position, engage your core to lift your butt up toward the ceiling into a downward facing dog. By moving between plank and downward dog you are using this move as a strength-training exercise for the core rather than a traditional stretch where you hold downward facing dog. Repeat this 10 times, moving from plank to downward facing dog back to plank.

Leg circles

Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, palms down. Bend your left knee and place your left foot flat on the floor. Extend your right leg up toward the sky at a 45-degree angle. Circle your right leg out to the side, down toward the ground, and return to your starting position. Make a circle as big as you can while still keeping your lower back on the floor. Reverse the circle. Do 10 reps in each direction, then repeat with the other leg.

Forearm plank dips

Start in a traditional forearm plank position. Twist from your waist as you dip your right hip toward the ground, then come back through center and twist to the left to dip your left hip toward the ground. Alternate, performing 10 reps to each side.  

Pilates exercises pelvic tilt

Pilates pelvic tilt

Lying on your back on a mat, 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. As your stomach rises, 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 navel in toward your spine as if you’re zipping into a tight pair of pants. Release and repeat 10 times.

Pilates exercises 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.

Pilates exercises Toe taps

Toe taps

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Take a deep breath in, then exhale as you draw your naval in toward your spine, and slowly bring both knees up to a table-top position. Draw your lower ribs down toward your hips and tighten your core as if you were wearing a corset. From here, lower the right leg down to tap the toe on the ground while maintaining the engagement of the core. There should be no movement above the hips, and the back should stay gently pressing into the ground while the abs are pulling in tightly. Exhale as you lower the leg down, and inhale to bring it back up. Repeat on the left leg. Continue alternating, performing 20 taps total. 

Pilates exercises Double toe tap

Double toe tap

Get into the same position you did for toe taps, but this time hug your knees together so that your inner thighs are engaged. Squeeze your legs together and engage your abs. Lower your toes toward the ground, keeping the knees bent. Then come back to center. Repeat 10 times.

pilates exercises Single leg stretch

Single leg stretch

Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Curl up with your head, neck and chest and pull your naval in toward your spine. Exhale as you pull the right knee in toward the chest and extend the left leg out at a 45-degree angle. Use your right hand to touch your right ankle and your left hand to touch your right knee. Inhale and switch sides, extending your right leg and bringing your left knee in. Repeat 10 times to each side.

pilates exercises Single leg straight stretch

Single leg straight stretch

This move is similar to the single leg stretch, but this time you'll straighten both legs. Lying on the ground, reach your legs straight up toward the sky. Lower one leg to 45 degrees and bring the other leg to 90 degrees. Place your hands behind the thigh or calf of the 90-degree leg as you curl up off of the ground with your head, neck and upper back. Then switch legs, lowering the 90-degree leg and bringing the 45-degree leg closer to you, holding onto the back of that leg. Repeat 10 times on each side.

pilates exercises bridge

Pilates bridge

To begin, lie on your back with your head resting on the floor. Keep your arms straight at your sides with your palms on the floor and bend your knees so your heels are under your knees. Slowly raise your hips in the direction of the ceiling by curling your low back, middle back, and then upper back off the ground. Once you’re up in the bridge position, take a deep breathe in. Then, exhale as you slowly roll down one vertebra at a time. Lower your hips and repeat the exercise 10 times. 

pilates exercises frog

Pilates frog

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Lift your legs up and bring your heels together with your toes apart and your knees as wide as your shoulders. Exhale as you press the legs out at about a 45-degree angle, bringing your inner thighs together. Inhale to come back to center. Repeat 10 times.

pilates exercises Rolling like a ball

Rolling like a ball

Sit with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grab your shins with your hands and lift both of your feet off the ground. Hug your knees into your chest keeping your thighs together. Round your back slightly while pulling your abs in. Roll back onto your shoulder blades. Then, engage your core to roll back up to the starting position. Repeat for 10 reps.

pilates exercises Open leg rocker

Open leg rocker

Sit on your butt with your back straight and your knees bent with your feet flat on the ground. Lightly grab your ankles and lift your legs into the air, pointing your toes toward the ceiling, so that your body forms a “V” shape. Remember to keep your legs open as wide as your hips. Roll backward onto your shoulder blades, keeping your core engaged. Roll back up and straighten your back while keeping your legs straight up and open. Repeat, rolling back and forth, pausing at the top every time.

pilates exercises Pilates 100

Pilates 100

Lying on the ground, reach your legs up to a 45-degree angle (or closer to 90 degrees if your low back is sensitive). Curl up using your abs and lift your head, neck and chest off of the ground. Reach your arms along your sides with the palms facing down. Inhale for five counts as you pump your arms up and down, and then exhale for five counts as you keep pumping your arms. Repeat for a total of 100 pumps!

pilates exercises Half roll down

Half roll down

Seated on the ground, bend your knees. (For a more advanced exercise, straighten your legs.) Then, reach your arms out in front of you with the shoulders relaxed. Pull the naval in toward the spine and slowly roll down half way to the floor. Reach the arms up overhead, and then bring the arms back to center and slowly roll back up to the starting position. Repeat this ab exercise 10 times.

pilates exercises Swimmers


Start by lying on your stomach. Pull your naval away from the ground to engage your abs. Extend your arms out in front of you as wide as your shoulders and your feet as wide as your hips. Lift the right arm and the left leg off the ground, then lift the left arm and the right leg off the ground . Continue alternating. Repeat 20 times.