Learn How To Connect To Your Core With These Six Pilates Moves And Turn Every Movement Into A Core Workout

Man and woman in Pilates class
(Image credit: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images)

I’m aware that having a strong core is important, but I rarely spend time focusing on training it. I spoke to Pilates instructor and founder of SW4 Pilates, Chiara Boswell, about how to connect to my core and build strength from the inside out.

She tells me that most people mistakenly think working your core means working your abs. “The core actually starts from your pelvic floor,” says Boswell. “It goes all the way up the spine, and it includes the diaphragm, which is attached to the intercostal muscles. The core is where movement starts.”

Pilates is the best way to strengthen the core, as we work on breathing in a very specific way,” says Boswell. “It’s called diaphragmatic breathing and it is very important for stability, spinal stiffness and functional mobility.”

You might be tempted to think that core work can be tacked onto the end of a session now and then, but no. “You should train your core every time you train. When you breathe, you activate it. You lift something heavy, you’re training it.”

“If you look at exercises like a list of things to do, targeting certain muscles in turn but you forget to teach the body how to integrate those moves into everyday life, things won’t change,” says Boswell. “Core work should be integrated into movement as a whole.”

Once you’ve taught your body what it feels like to awaken your core, you’ll be able to engage it properly with every movement you do. “To find that connection and integration I would start with exercises focused on breathing,” says Boswell. Then you can move on to more challenging exercises that work the whole body in an integrated way. Below are six movements to try, beginning with a basic breathing exercise.

Pilates Exercises To Strengthen Your Core

1 Lateral breathing

Breath rounds 5

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the mat. Relax and breathe normally. “Notice the flow, where does it go?” says Boswell. “Most likely to the base of your neck and collar bones. As you keep breathing try and exhale a little deeper.”

It can help to imagine an elevator traveling from the base of your pelvic floor up through your abdomen as you exhale. “You want to feel a gentle squeeze but not so hard that it changes your posture on the mat.” As your exhale gets deeper and longer, your inhale increases too. “Start to direct your inhale to the sides of your ribcage, allowing it to expand like an accordion,” says Boswell. “As you get more familiar with the movement at the ribcage try and direct the breath all around your ribcage and even down into your belly—let it expand like a balloon.”

2 The hundred

Breath rounds 10

Lie on your back with your legs extended and pressed together. Prepare by inhaling deeply and as you exhale lift the head, shoulders and legs off the mat. You should form a boat shape.

Begin pumping your arms up and down, moving from the shoulder, with straight arms. Inhale for five arm pumps and exhale for five, breathing deeply. Continue for 10 breath cycles.

3 Roll-up

Reps 5

Lie on your back with your legs extended, arms extended overhead. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, bring your arms up, tuck your head and start to roll up, peeling your spine off the mat one vertebra at a time, reaching your arms towards your feet. Inhale again and, as you exhale, slowly roll back down to the starting position.

4 Single-leg stretch

Breath rounds 8

Lie on your back with your knees bent, shins parallel to the ground. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, lift your head, neck and shoulders off the mat. Extend one leg while simultaneously bringing the opposite knee to your chest and placing your hands just below the knee. Switch legs in a fluid motion, keeping your head, neck, and shoulders lifted off the mat, inhaling for a count of two and exhaling for two.

5 Double-leg stretch

Reps 8

Lie on your back with your knees bent, shins parallel to the ground, and your hands holding onto your ankles or shins. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, extend both legs straight, keeping them off the mat, while reaching your arms overhead to a 45° angle. Circle your arms around to the sides and hug your knees into your chest, returning to the starting position.

6 Spine stretch forward

Reps 5

Sit up straight on the mat with your legs extended in front of you, feet flexed, and arms reaching forward. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, initiate the movement from your lower abdominals, rolling your spine forward one vertebra at a time. Reach towards your toes, feeling a stretch in your hamstrings. Inhale to return to the starting position.

About Our Expert
About Our Expert
Chiara Boswell

Chiara Boswell has a BSc in Sports Therapy and studied classical Pilates, completing a 950-hour teacher training course at The Pilates Center in Colorado, USA. She also has a certification in prenatal and postnatal recovery from the Center For Women’s Fitness. She has worked with rugby teams, footballers, runners and professional dancers as well as helping people with injuries and back pain.

Camilla Artault
Content editor

Camilla Artault is a writer and keen runner. She has covered women’s running gear – testing leggings, jackets, running bras, tops and shorts – for Coach since 2018, as well as interviewing experts and writing about a range of health and lifestyle topics.