Look at any fitness instructor you love and there’s likely one thing they all have in common: They do Pilates. The technique is crazy-effective for strengthening and sculpting the stomach, giving you the hard-as-a-rock abs you crave. How?
“Pilates exercises tend to target all of the muscles of the core, and specifically what I call the deep-core four: the transversus abdominus, multifidi, pelvic floor, and diaphragm,” says Erika Bloom, founder of Erika Bloom Pilates in New York City. “These muscles draw the belly in to create a flat stomach, and provide stability and support to the pelvis and torso so that your extremities can find both power and freedom of movement.”
That freedom helps improve overall strength, she adds, while simultaneously working the “superficial” muscles of your core—the rectus abdominis, obliques, and back muscles. All of this, combined with correct alignment of your pelvis and spine so that all the proper muscles are recruited, comes together to create a sculpted look that leaves everyone with abs-envy.
Now that you’re begging to add Pilates to your regular routine (it’s cool, we are too), check out these seven moves from top Pilates instructors. Do ’em weekly and, when paired with proper nutrition, you’ll have the strong, flat stomach you’ve always wanted.
Single Leg Stretch
“I love the single-leg stretch because it reinforces the engagement patterns of the transversus abdominis while challenging its strength,” says Bloom. “By doing this exercise (among others) each day, you should achieve a newfound connection to your deep abdominal muscles that can be carried into your daily life for truly belly-flattening results.”
How To: Start lying on your back with a neutral spine (a.k.a. the natural ‘S’-shaped curve is maintained, and you have a small space under your low back). Exhale and float your legs up to tabletop position. Inhale. Exhale to engage your transversus abdominis, and extend your right leg out to 45 degrees. Inhale to draw the leg back in to tabletop position. On the next exhale, reach the left leg out, then inhale to draw it back in. Maintain a stable pelvis and an engaged core as you repeat for 15 reps.
“Teaser is a quintessential Pilates exercise, but it takes practice to master it,” says Heather Anderson, owner and program director of New York Pilates. “Achieving balance during this move is a sure sign that you’re making progress and getting stronger.”
How To: Start seated, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Tuck your pelvis under to roll back on your sacrum, keeping your spine in a “c” shape. Once you’re comfortable in that position, lift one leg up in the air at a 45-degree angle above the ground. If balance is a struggle, hold onto the back of your thighs, continuing to practice until you can hold the position without gripping your thighs. When you’re ready to progress, bring both legs up—you’ll feel your lower abdominals pull the legs in toward your chest as you straighten. Work toward straightening both legs at the same time until you can let go of thighs and reach arms forward, and eventually use tension cables for added resistance.
“This move quickly targets the obliques and brings movement to your spine, which we could all use,” says Vehia Walker, senior instructor at Uptown Pilates. “It’s like you can feel your waist cinching with each repetition!”
How To: Start lying on your back, knees tucked into your chest. Place hand over hand at the base of your skull. Keeping your elbows wide, tuck your chin to your chest and curl up to the tips of your shoulder blades. Twist your upper body to bring your left elbow toward your right knee while extending your left leg to a 45-degree angle from the ground. Bring both knees back into your chest as you bring your body back to center, still curled up with chin to chest. Repeat on the other side, bringing right elbow to left knee while the right leg extends. Come back to center. Repeat seven more times on each side.
“My favorite move on the megaformer is the Scrambled Eggs exercise,” says Tracy Carlinsky, owner of Brooklyn Bodyburn. “It works the muscles in the frontal plane and forces your deep abdominal muscles and obliques to stabilize against the gravitational force of your moving leg and the force of the cable and spring tension. Those muscles also stabilize the spine and pelvis, while the upper body works to stabilize the arms and scapulae, giving you a great full-body exercise.”
How To: Kneel on the carriage, facing the back, foot strap on left foot. Come to all fours with hands directly below the shoulders. Straighten left leg behind you, keeping leg in line with torso and hips. Hover right knee one to two inches over the carriage, directly below the hip. Keeping left leg straight, sweep it toward the front of the machine, slowly counting to four. Counting to four again, swing left leg down and back (like a pendulum) to return to starting position. Repeat as desired, then switch legs. This move can also be done on the floor.
“This exercise is tough without being defeating,” says Sloan-Taylor Rabinor, instructor at XO (who, NBD, also happened to be the principle back-up dancer for Lady Gaga’s World Tour). “It makes you burn in those hard-to-get areas of your belly.”
How To: Sit upright with the knees bent in tabletop. Swing your arms overhead to find external rotation through your shoulders and place hands on the mat behind you. Keep chest open and proud, tuck your tailbone to protect your lower spine, and extend your legs straight, hovering them a few inches above the floor. Engage your core to guide your legs up to the right, then slowly rotate back down through center. Pause at the center, then raise legs up to the left (like you’re doing the can-can).
“My favorite Pilates exercise is the double-leg stretch, as it’s not only effective, but easily made more challenging or more doable,” says Liz Barnet, instructor at SLT in New York City. “While some Pilates moves take a fair amount of practice to really ‘get’ it, you’ll feel this one right away.”
How To: Start lying on your back with your knees hugged into your chest, hands lightly on shins. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor; if necessary, support your head and neck with a pillow. Inhale as you extend your legs out to a 45-degree agree, heels together and toes apart, while reaching your arms overhead and along your ears. Exhale as you sweep your arms out and around toward your hips, simultaneously drawing your knees back in to start. Be sure that, as you stretch out, your lower back maintains a neutral curve and doesn’t pop off the floor.
Round Back Chest Lift
“I like this move because not only does it work your abs, but adding instability in the shape of a small, 30cm ball allows your back muscles to engage as well,” says Karen Jones, owner of Harmony Studios in Los Angeles. “Similar effort, double the results!”
How To: Start sitting, feet on the ground. Firmly press your lower back against a small ball. Round your lower back and lean back. Take a deep inhale. On the exhale, lift slightly-bent arms overhead, wider than shoulder-width apart. Slowly lower arms to start position, keeping abs engaged throughout.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US.
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