Practice Core Engagement and Feel the Burn With This 10-Minute Mat Pilates Workout
After years of being told to "draw my navel into my spine" during core workouts and Pilates sessions, I'm finally ready to admit that I have no idea what that means — or really, why I'm even doing it.
Whenever an instructor would shout out the direction in a group Pilates class, typically during a set of planks, I'd quickly tense up my abs while holding my breath, or pull in my stomach, hoping I'd get a nod of approval (and therefore a long-awaited confirmation on technique) as they walked by.
I never got that nod, any correction, or clarification on the directions, so I turned to Club Pilates instructor Lorin Jetter for workout jargon translation. According to Jetter, drawing or pulling your navel into your spine is a metaphorical phrase that "simply means to engage your core and challenge your abdominal muscles."
This leads to the question: but how do you engage your core? Luckily, Lorin came through with directions on that, too. "Exhale and think of bringing the sides of your rib cage together toward your midline, as you pull your belly button backwards toward your spine and up toward your rib basket," she says. "Keep your core braced and continue to breathe throughout your workout!"
Lorin says to imagine feeling hugged by your abdominal muscles. "I like to think of imagining my rib cage coming together and interlacing, the same way you would interlace your fingers behind your head for abdominal work."
A proper execution might not happen on your first go. If you're having trouble engaging your core, Jetter recommends taking a few deep inhales and exhales and allowing your rib cage to expand and contract. On the exhale, find your engaged core. The benefit? Jetter says engaging your core will help you strengthen your abdominal muscles, while also protecting your spine.
Use this 10-minute Pilates workout, curated by Jetter, to practice engaging your core. Roll out your mat and scroll through the moves to feel the burn.
- Start by lying on your back. Lift your legs into a "tabletop" position: with your knees directly above your hips and feet directly out from your knees, bent in a 90-degree angle with your shins parallel to the floor.
- Interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head, with your elbows pointed out to the sides.
- Inhale to prepare, and as you exhale, peel the back of your head, the back of your neck, and finally the backs of your shoulders blades off the floor. Keep a ping pong ball-sized distance between your chin and chest and keep your elbows wide. Inhale to lower back down with control.
- Repeat 20 times.
- "Keep your legs still the whole time. This will wake up your deep abdominal muscles, your transverse abdominis, as well as your rectus abdominis — the long six-pack muscle," Jetter says.
- Hold your final chest lift and keep your upper body still.
- Exhale as you lower one leg away from you, keeping your knee bent at a 90-degree angle, and lightly tap your big toe on the floor before inhaling and slowly returning your leg to the starting position. Repeat on your second side.
- Alternate legs and repeat for 20 reps on each side.
- Start with your chest lifted and legs in tabletop. Exhale as you rotate your upper body to the right, as if you're going to touch your left armpit to your right knee. At the same time, extend your left leg to straight at a 45-degree angle above the floor.
- Inhale as you return to the starting position, keeping your head, neck and shoulders lifted off the floor, and returning the legs to table top.
- Exhale to repeat to the opposite side, and inhale to return.
- Repeat, alternating sides, for 20 reps on each side.
Bonus Ab Burn: Twisted Bicycle
- For an optional, extra burn: hold your final Criss Cross repetition on one side. While keeping your upper body rotated to one side, bicycle-switch your legs for an extra 10 reps without moving your upper body.
- Repeat for 10 reps on the second side.
- "In Pilates, the core isn't just about your abs — it's your whole midsection, including the back side! These next couple of moves target your posterior (back side of the body) chain," Jetter says.
- Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hips-distance apart. Lengthen your arms by your sides and press your palms firmly into the mat.
- Inhale to prepare, and exhale as you start from your tailbone and peel your spine off the floor one vertebrae at a time. Stop at the top when your body makes a flat line from the front of your rib cage to the fronts of your thighs — be mindful not to arch your back and let your ribs fan out.
- Inhale at the top, and exhale again as you start from your upper back and melt your spine back into the floor one vertebrae at a time.
- Repeat 20 times.
- "By articulating through the spine, you're continuing to involve the deep abdominal muscles while now also involving the glutes (booty) and hamstrings (back of the thighs)," Jetter says.
- Hold your final bridge at the top. Keeping your knees and rib cage still, lift your right hip higher than your left.
- "Swing" your tailbone down toward the floor as your switch sides and lift your left hip higher.
- Alternate sides and repeat for 20 reps on each side.
- Be mindful to keep your rib cage and knees still — only your pelvis is moving.
- "We're still working the glutes, hamstrings, and deep abs, but now you're also hitting the side booty and obliques," Jetter explains.
Bonus Booty Burn: Heel Raises
- For an optional extra booty burn, hold your bridge position at the top, with your hips level.
- Exhale as you press down into your toes and lift your heels off the floor.
- Inhale to lower your heels down with control.
- Repeat 20 times.
- Flip over to face the floor and start by placing your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Engage your core and step your feet back to a plank position where the fronts of your hips are flat and your spine is neutral — no arching and no rounding your back!
- Hold your plank for one minute, taking deep inhales and exhales throughout.
- Think about pushing the floor away from you and separating your shoulder blades across your back. Be sure to keep the back of your head in line with the backs of your shoulder blades — no resting your chin on your chest!
- "Planks are a total-body exercise: you're working your abdominals, shoulders, arms, and legs to keep yourself strong and stable!" Jetter says.
- "This continues to work your abdominals, but also involves the quads and a little extra oblique work," Jetter says.
- Starting in your plank position, exhale as you take one foot off the floor and bend your knee toward your chest. Inhale as you step back into your plank position. Repeat on the second side.
- Be mindful to keep everything on your body still, with the exception of the leg you're moving — no booty in the air!
- Repeat for 20 reps on each side.
- On your final mountain climber, hold one knee hovered toward your chest above the ground. With control, swing your thigh side to side, so your knee points at one elbow and then the other like a windshield wiper.
- Repeat for 10 repetitions on one leg, then 10 repetitions on your second leg.
Final Bonus Burn: Knee Pulses
- For one final optional burn, start in a plank position and bring one knee into your chest again.
- Pulse your knee closer to your chest, and then return it to point directly under your hip. Repeat for 10 pulses.
- Switch legs for 10 pulses on your second side.