Top 5 Pilates exercises for a stronger core

Pilates best core moves

The word ‘core’ is pretty trendy these days, and as a Pilates instructor I often find myself explaining that having a ‘six pack’ does not mean that you have a strong core. Having a visible rectus abdominis (six pack) is more to do with genetics and diet, and won’t do too much to stabilise your spine and pelvis without the help of the much deeper (but less sexy) muscles of the trunk.

So what are the ‘core’ muscles?

1. The Pelvic Floor

This muscle is crucial in keeping your important bits where they should be. It is often neglected in more traditional '6-pack' moves such as ab crunches. And yes, men have a pelvic floor too!

2. The Multifidus

This thin muscle is the deepest spinal stabiliser, which never gets enough attention or credit. It stabilises the joints in the lower back, allows each vertabrae to work effectively in a controlled way and helps prevent degeneration of the spine.

3. The Transverse Abdominis

This muscle is like a corset that holds everything in place. It is located on the front (anterior) and side (lateral) of the abdomen and lies deep, underneath the internal obliques.

4. The Internal Oblique Abdominals

These muscles lie in a slanted direction, below the external obliques and above the transverse abdominis. They support the abdominal wall, assist in forced respiration (e.g. blowing out a candle) and help to rotate the trunk.

5. The Diaphragm

This dome-shaped muscle separates the abdomen from the thorax. It is responsible for 75% of the body's conscious breathing. It contracts and flattens when you breathe in, which creates a vacuum that pulls air into the lungs.

Like with the other abdominal muscles, consciously working your diaphragm in Pilates will allow for a deeper connection to the muscles of the core.

Why is correct alignment so important?

Before we can successfully find the muscles of the core, we must first make sure that the skeleton is in the right place in order to prevent larger, more superficial muscle groups from over activating. To initiate from the deep core, we must align our pelvis and spine in ‘neutral’. This is when the natural curves of the spine are present.

6 of the best core moves for strength and stability

Add each of these Pilates-inspired moves to your regular exercise routine in their progressive order to really transform the way you engage all of your core muscles.

Pilates core how to find a neutral spine

  1. Finding Neutral

Focus: Aligns the core ready for engagement

How to:

  • Sit on a chair in a neutral spine, with feet flat on floor
  • Roll your pelvis back to decrease the lumbar curve (picture 1)
  • Tip your pelvis forward to exaggerate the arch in the lower spine (picture 2)
  • Repeat the pelvic movement, but make it smaller every time until you find the mid-point between the two extremes
  • Look down and check that your pubic bone is now in line with your hip bones. You have found your neutral pelvis and spine! (picture 3)

pelvic floor pilates exercise

2. Squeeze the Diamond

Focus: Works the pelvic floor

How to:

  • Sit on a chair in a neutral spine, with feet flat on floor
  • Imagine the base of your pelvis is the shape of a diamond. The pubic bone at the front, the tailbone at the back, and the two sitting bones either side
  • Without squeezing your tush, imagine you could draw the four points of the diamond in towards each other
  • The feeling of you drawing the bones together may also feel like you are stopping yourself from going to the loo – that’s your pelvic floor engaging!

Top tip:

Alternate between ‘squeezing’ on an inhale and exhale to find which works best for you.

3. Imaginary Back Bend

Focus: Works the multifidus

How to:

  • Sit on a chair in a neutral spine, with feet flat on floor
  • Keep squeezing the diamond (pelvic floor)
  • Without moving your spine, imagine you are going into deep spinal extension (back bending)
  • Feel from your pelvis all the way to the base of your skull you start to ‘brace’. You may even feel your deep abdominals involuntarily engage too!

4. Toe Taps

Pilates core toe taps

Focus: Transverse Abdominis

How to:

  • Lie on your back in a neutral spine (natural curves) knees bent, hands resting on abdomen
  • Imagine a belt around your waist. With every exhale imagine you could draw the belt one notch tighter. As you inhale try not to let the belt go lose
  • Bringing your legs into table top (90 degrees), tab your right toe to the floor and then return to table top
  • Repeat on the other side, all the while maintaining the neutral spine and tight belt
  • 10-15 reps per side

Pilates how to do a crunch sit up

5. Chest Lifts

Focus: Internal Obliques

How to:

  • Lie on your back in a neutral spine
  • Bend knees to table table (90 degrees)
  • Link fingers below base of skull, keeping elbows wide
  • Imagine the very bottom ribs could draw down to touch the very top of your pelvic crest
  • Exhale and simultaneously lift the chest
  • Inhale as the chest lowers with control
  • Maintain a stable pelvis position throughout
  • 5-8 reps

Twisted pilates ab crunch


Chest Lift with Rotation

  • Reach the right hand to the left knee, maintaining a stable pelvis, and attempting to keep both shoulder blades off the floor (exhale)
  • Return to the Chest Lift position still keeping both the shoulder blades lifted off the floor
  • Repeat to the other side
  • 5-6 reps per side

Ready to step up your pilates game? Check out our What is Reformer Pilates Guide


If done diligently and regularly, these exercises will help you locate and feel each of these core stabilisers individually. This awareness these six core muscles is key. Through visualisation, engagement and movement you will learn how they all work together to create such a deep strength and internal stability, that you’ll wonder why we are all so obsessed with six packs!

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