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8 of the Best Pilates Exercises for Your Abs, Legs, and Booty, Ranked by an Instructor

Tehrene Firman

Tehrene FirmanJune 24, 2020

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Most of us know by now that Pilates can do amazing things for your body. Aside from toning you from head to toe, it also lengthens, promotes flexibility, and gets your heart rate up sans burpees.

“When done at a moderate pace, Pilates provides a cardiovascular benefit,” says Andrea Marcellus, pilates instructor, trainer, and creator of the app AND/life. “It also focuses on the eccentric (lengthening) phase of the muscle contraction rather than the concentric (shortening) phase, and the eccentric phase leads to faster strength gains.”

While there are numerous different Pilates exercises to choose from, Marcellus shared the best of the best for three categories: abs, legs, and butt. By the time you’re done making your way through this list, you’ll certainly be feeling the burn.

The best Pilates exercises for your abs, ranked

1. Straight leg criss cross

Why Andrea loves it: “Any moves that take the legs away from the body are the best because they create a strong contraction in the transverse abdominals that will not only tone, but also create incredible core stability. This move also activates the obliques and the rectus abdominis, so you get the best of everything.”

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back. With a scooped belly, curl your head and shoulders off the floor and draw your legs to the ceiling.
  2. Bring your right elbow toward your left leg as you lower your right leg to the floor, then switch to the opposite side. Think bicycles, but with your legs straight the entire time.
  3. Repeat for 10 sets.

2. Double leg stretch

Why Andrea loves it: “This exercise generates energy and blood flow thanks to your arms and legs moving, and it strengthens  both your transverse and rectus abdominis muscles.”

How to do it:

  1. Start this exercise lying on a mat with your legs in a table-top position. Bring your shoulders off the floor and deepen your navel toward your spine.
  2. On an inhale, reach your arms and legs as far from the center of your body as you can while keeping your belly scooped.
  3. Circle your arms out to the sides to return to your home position on an exhale as the knees come in.
  4. Repeat 10 times without releasing your head and shoulders to the floor.

3. Double straight leg stretch in ‘diamond’

Why Andrea loves it: “This exercise targets the rectus and transverse abdominals while disengaging the hip flexors. This means your abs have to work harder.”

How to do it:

  1. With a scooped belly, curl your head and shoulders off the floor and draw your legs to the ceiling in a diamond shape.
  2. Lower the diamond shape to the floor on an inhale, and return to the ceiling on an exhale.
  3. Repeat 10 times.

The best Pilates exercises for your legs, ranked

1. Footwork grand pliés

Why Andrea loves it: “In my opinion, footwork grand pliés are hands-down the best standing leg exercise in all of Pilates, as the exercise strengthens and tones every muscle in your legs evenly from your toes to your hips.”

How to do it:

  1. Using a counter for balance, stand on your toes in first position with your legs tightly together, heels together, and toes apart.
  2. Drop your hips toward the floor while keeping your spine in neutral. You can use the counter to help you drop lower without your torso pitching forward.
  3. Return to standing on an exhale with a wrapping sensation in your legs and while deepening your abdominals.
  4. Do 3 sets of 10, or do several sets quickly for 30 to 60 seconds at a time.

2. One-leg shoulder bridges

Why Andrea loves it: “This exercise both strengthens and lengthens your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, as well as your transverse abdominals and the postural muscles in your back.”

How to do it:

  1. Lying on your back with your knees bent and abs scooped, keep your spine in neutral as you raise your hips off the floor.
  2. Extend one leg out in front of you so it’s in line with your body, then return your foot to the floor and slowly lower your hips.
  3. Perform 12 reps on each leg.

3. Side-lying leg circles

Why Andrea loves it: “The motion of the leg tones the quadriceps, hip, and glutes, while the challenging side-balanced position strengthens your abdominals and postural muscles in your back.”

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your side with your shoulders and hips stacked. Your legs should be together, slightly turned out, and pulled long.
  2. Slowly circle your top leg 10 times in each direction while keeping your torso still. Repeat on the opposite leg.

The best Pilates exercises for your butt, ranked

1. Hip raises into leg extensions

Why Andrea loves it: “This exercise super-tones the glutes, as well as stretches and strengthens the quads. ”

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back and put your feet up on a large ball.
  2. Raise your hips into a bridge position on an exhale without letting the ball move.
  3. Push the ball away on an inhale, return it on an exhale.
  4. Inhale and roll down through the spine to neutral.

2. Swimming

Why Andrea loves it: “This exercise is thought of for back strengthening, but it’s great at toning your quads and glutes while lengthening your hip flexors and hamstrings.”

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your stomach with your arms extended in front of you.
  2. Deepen your abdominals and inhale to lift your chest and legs off the floor.
  3. Keeping your arms and legs straight and long, lift your right arm and left leg higher and then switch, continuing at a moderate pace.
  4. Complete 10 reps, then release into child’s pose to rest.

Next, try this 15-minute, full-body Pilates workout:

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