A strong core, or powerhouse, is the foundation of whole body health.

It affects your stability, balance, and posture, facilitating everyday activities like bending down, twisting to grab something, lifting heavy objects, or even playing sports that require core strength.

Adequate core strength is the difference between doing an activity naturally and without much thought or feeling discomfort, stiffness, and restriction.

This article discusses what the powerhouse is and outlines 15 Pilates exercises that strengthen it.

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Ashley Corbin-Teich/Image Source/Offset Images

Created by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century and originally called “Contrology,” Pilates is a system of exercises designed to enhance the body’s potential by correcting muscular imbalances, finding optimal alignment, and creating efficient movement patterns.

Pilates exercises, in conjunction with your breath, employ all of your body’s muscles. It’s known for targeting smaller and deeper stabilization muscles and often explained as working from the inside out.

Pilates supports your body’s structure through a balance of strength, mobility, and flexibility, with every exercise engaging your core. It can involve matwork or low impact bodyweight exercises, or it can be done on specialized equipment.

Pilates offers numerous benefits. Maintaining a strong core through Pilates helps relieve low back pain, improves balance, and decreases the risk of falling (1, 2).

What’s more, Pilates has been shown to improve your quality of life, including exerting positive effects on depression and anxiety(3, 4).

Summary

Pilates is a low impact exercise comprising controlled movements that enhance your balance, core strength, mobility, flexibility, and even mood. It focuses on the smaller and deeper muscles that support your structure and enhance your overall health.

Contrary to popular belief, your core — or powerhouse — comprises more than just your abdominal muscles.

It’s the center of your body, from the base of the rib cage to the base of your buttocks. It includes muscles of the lower back, abdominals, hips, glutes (aka the butt muscles), inner thighs, and pelvic floor.

Think of it as your body’s corset, but without the restrictive quality. This area houses your organs, ideally supporting them in their natural position and enhancing their functionality.

To work most effectively, the powerhouse works in sync with your breath. Aim for suppleness — a balance of activation and relaxation versus gripping or bracing all of the time.

Summary

Your powerhouse comprises the muscles surrounding your trunk, including those of your lower back, hips, pelvic floor, and abdominal area.

1. Breathing

  • Difficulty level: beginner
  • Muscles worked: respiratory muscles, abdominals to stabilize the pelvis
  • Reps: 3–5

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, and place your hands on your rib cage.
  2. Inhale through your nose, breathing into your hands and the back of your rib cage.
  3. Exhale and feel your hands sliding toward one another and your rib cage sink toward the floor.

How to modify. This exercise is appropriate for all levels, but to add difficulty, try performing it with your legs in a tabletop position.

Tips. Imagine an umbrella at your ribcage. As you take air in, your rib cage expands in all directions. Aim to keep your neck, shoulders, and chest relaxed, and feel the back of your rib cage connected to the floor.

2. Shoulder bridge preparation

  • Difficulty level: beginner
  • Muscles worked: glutes, hamstrings, inner thighs, pelvic floor, back muscles
  • Reps: 5

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet parallel and hip-width apart. Place a pillow, block, or mini ball between your thighs.
  2. Inhale to prepare. Exhale, gently squeeze the mini ball, push your feet into the floor, and articulate your spine off of the mat. Start by tilting your pelvis and then peel your lower and then mid-back off of the floor until you’ve created a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
  3. Inhale and hold the position.
  4. Exhale, articulate the spine back down to the mat, aiming to lengthen your torso.

How to modify. To add difficulty, on the third rep, hold the position at the top, engage your glutes, and squeeze the ball on your exhale for 5 reps.

Tips. Aim to keep your shoulders and neck relaxed. Try to keep from overarching your back.

3. Leg lifts

  • Difficulty level: beginner
  • Muscles worked: transverse abdominis (your deepest abdominal muscle, felt under the belly button), back
  • Reps: 3–5 sets

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet parallel and hip-width apart.
  2. Inhale to breathe into the back of your ribs.
  3. Exhale to draw your pelvic floor and abdominals up and in. Imagine you’re gently tightening a belt, and lift one leg up into tabletop without moving your hips, pelvis, or back.
  4. Inhale to hold the position.
  5. Exhale to lift the second leg into tabletop, without popping your abdominals or arching your back.
  6. Breathe and hold the position for 5 counts.
  7. Exhale with control to return your feet to the floor.

How to modify. For an added challenge, keep your feet further away from your hips.

Tips. This is a challenging exercise when done correctly. Place the palms of your hands on your hip bones to feel if you shift your weight or pop your abdominals out.

4. Toe taps

  • Difficulty level: beginner
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, hip extensors
  • Reps: 5 on each leg

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet parallel and hip-width apart.
  2. Exhale and take one leg into tabletop (same as the exercise above).
  3. Inhale to hold the position.
  4. Exhale to lift the second leg into tabletop, without popping your abdominals or arching your back.
  5. Inhale the position.
  6. Exhale with control, and touch one foot to the floor, keeping your other leg stable.
  7. Inhale your leg back to tabletop.
  8. Repeat with the opposite leg.

How to modify. If you’re having trouble keeping your abdominals engaged and feel your back arching, tilt your pelvis back more, so your lower back comes closer to the ground. For added difficulty, reach your foot further away from your body.

Tips. Place one hand just below your belly button and the other hand on your low back. This will help prevent you from cheating and give you tactile feedback. Avoid arching your back or letting your abdominals dome out.

5. Single leg stretch

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, back, hip extensors
  • Reps: 8 on each leg

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with both legs in tabletop.
  2. Exhale to curl your head, neck, and shoulders off of the floor so you’re looking at your knees. Inhale to put your hands on the sides of your knees.
  3. Exhale to stretch one leg out at a 45-degree angle or lower — only as low as you can while keeping your back and pelvis in the same position. Avoid arching your back, and watch for the abdominals doming. The hand on the side of the stretched leg will reach toward the opposite ankle.
  4. Inhale to bend your knee back to the 90-degree position.
  5. Repeat with the opposite leg.

How to modify. Keeping your head down and shoulders tension-free without arching your back is more challenging than bringing your head up and curling forward. Placing your hands in front of your knees in tabletop will remind you to keep your legs at a 90-degree angle, making the exercise more challenging for your deep abdominals.

Tips. Stay connected with your breath, keep drawing your abs in and up. When you extend your leg, try to engage the back of your leg under your butt. This opens the front of your hip and connects you deeper to your powerhouse.

6. One leg circle

  • Difficulty level: beginner
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, hamstrings, hip flexors, hip abductors and adductors
  • Reps: 5 times in each direction

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with both legs straight on the floor. Try to maintain a neutral pelvis.
  2. Exhale to lift one leg up in the air (your knee can be slightly bent).
  3. Keep your hips still and inhale to reach the leg in the air across your body.
  4. Exhale to make a circle with your leg, trying to not let your pelvis rock with its movement.
  5. Repeat 5 times in each direction and switch legs.

How to modify. If you experience any discomfort with both legs straight, bend both knees slightly and work up to straightening them.

Tips. Engage the supporting leg by gently pressing it down into the floor. Press the back of your arms down into the floor, keeping your neck, shoulders, and ribs relaxed. Remember to lift your pelvic floor and abdominals in and up.

7. Side bend preparation

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: obliques, shoulder girdle stabilizers
  • Reps: 8–10

How to perform:

  1. While on your side, press up on your forearm and elbow with both knees bent. Your feet will be behind you, with your knees in line with your hips.
  2. Exhale to push your forearm into the floor and lift your hips into the air.
  3. Inhale to lower your hips halfway.
  4. Exhale to lift your hips up again. Repeat 8–10 times.
  5. Inhale to lower your hips with control. Repeat on the other side.

How to modify. To add difficulty, straighten your legs and lift to make a straight line from your head to your foot.

Tips. Imagine you’re squeezing a tennis ball in your underarm to keep from sinking into your shoulder or tensing your neck.

8. Sidekick

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, hip extensors, flexors
  • Reps: 8–10 on each side

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your side with your bottom arm reaching long overhead, and rest your ear on your arm. Keep your knees straight and bring your feet forward, angling your legs about 30–45 degrees in front of your body.
  2. Imagine you’re gently tightening a belt to lift and draw in your abdominals.
  3. Lift your top leg up until it’s in line with your hip.
  4. Without arching or flexing your back, inhale to kick your leg forward.
  5. Exhale to kick your leg back, opening your hip and engaging your glutes and hamstrings.
  6. As you bring your leg through the full range of motion, aim to keep your hips stacked and spine long, without arching, tucking, or rolling your pelvis out of position.
  7. Repeat 8–10 times and switch sides.

How to modify. To make it easier, bend your bottom leg for more stability. To make it harder, lift up onto your elbow and forearm to challenge your stability.

Tips. Use control instead of momentum to kick your leg, and keep your leg in line with your hip.

9. Side leg lifts

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals (especially the obliques), back, inner thighs
  • Reps: 8–10

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your side with your legs straight and in line with your hips. Keep your bottom arm reaching long overhead, and rest your ear on your arm. Use the hand of the top arm on the floor in front of your lower belly for balance.
  2. Exhale to lengthen your legs and upper body in opposition and lift both legs off of the floor.
  3. Inhale with control to lower your legs.
  4. Repeat 8–10 times and switch sides.

How to modify. To challenge your balance and strength, lift your upper body away from the floor with your legs.

Tips. Aim to keep your alignment by keeping your body in a straight line. Check your ribs and lower back to make sure you’re not overarching.

10. Swan dive

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: back extensors, abdominals, hip extensors
  • Reps: 5–8

How to perform:

  1. Keeping your elbows parallel and bent, lie face down on the floor with your hands flat on the floor and in line with your shoulders.
  2. Begin with your body engaged, your abs drawn in and up, and your lower back lengthened (be sure not to sink or arch into your lower back). Your legs are straight and lengthened with your hamstrings and glutes engaged.
  3. Inhale to imagine reaching through the top of your head. Gently press into the floor with your hands and lift your head, chest, and ribs as far as your body will go without strain.
  4. Exhale to lengthen your torso and return to the mat.
  5. Repeat 5–8 times

How to modify. Go only as far as you can while maintaining connection in your abdominal muscles.

Tips. Throughout the exercise, keep all of your muscles engaged. Imagine you’re lifting your rib cage away from your hips, creating more space, and getting taller. Watch out for just pressing up into the position using only your arms and compressing your lower back.

11. Swimming preparation (aka Bird Dog)

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, hip extensors, back extensors
  • Reps: 8–10 on each side

How to perform:

  1. Start on all fours, with your knees underneath your hips and your hands underneath your shoulders.
  2. Aim to maintain a neutral spine, keeping your head in line with your shoulders.
  3. Exhale to draw your abdominals in and up. Without shifting weight or arching your back, lift one leg behind you and the opposite arm in front.
  4. Breathe and hold the position for 3 slow counts.
  5. Inhale with control to return your leg and hand to the floor.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

How to modify. Keep your core engaged and stable and add 5 pulses of reaching your leg and arm a little higher. This will fire up the area just under your butt and work deeper into your abs.

Tips. Focus on keeping your back long when you lift your arm and leg. Imagine your back is a table and you’re balancing something of value on it.

12. Leg pull front prep (hovers)

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, pelvic floor, arms
  • Reps: 5–8

How to perform:

  1. Start on all fours, with your hands in line with your shoulders and your knees lined up with your hips.
  2. Inhale to breathe into the side and back of your ribs.
  3. Exhale to lift your abdominals in and upward, and lift your knees 2 inches (5 cm) from the floor.
  4. Hold the position for 2–3 breaths.
  5. Inhale with control and return your knees to the floor.
  6. Repeat 5 times.

How to modify. To make this exercise more challenging, try lifting one leg at a time from the hover position.

Tips. Keep your abdominals lifted in and up, and stop if your abdominals pop outward or dome inward when you lift your knees.

13. Roll down

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, back extensors
  • Reps: 5–8

How to perform:

  1. Begin sitting up tall with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. You may reach your arms forward, or gently place your hands on the back of your thighs.
  2. Exhale to draw your pelvic floor and abs upward and inward and begin to tilt your pelvis to curl your lower back about halfway to the floor.
  3. Inhale to hold the curl.
  4. Exhale to return to the starting position.

How to modify. For an added challenge, start with your legs straight.

Tips. Try to create length in the front of your hips on the roll down to avoid over-recruiting the hip flexors.

14. Crisscross

  • Difficulty level: beginner/intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals (especially obliques), hip extensors
  • Reps: 8–10 (both sides)

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with both legs in tabletop and your hands behind your head.
  2. Exhale to lift your head, neck, and shoulders by sliding your ribs toward your belly button.
  3. Inhale to hold the position.
  4. Exhale to rotate your upper body to the opposite knee while the same leg straightens.
  5. Inhale to return to the previous position.
  6. Exhale to rotate to the opposite side.
  7. This completes one set; repeat 8–10 times.

How to modify. Keep your legs in tabletop or your feet on the floor until you’ve developed enough coordination to perform the full version.

Tips. Think of bringing the opposite side of your rib cage to your hip bone as you twist. Engage the hip extensors in the back of your leg as you straighten it, so as to open the front of your hip. Keep your elbows wide throughout the exercise.

15. Plank

  • Difficulty level: intermediate
  • Muscles worked: abdominals, shoulder girdle stabilizers, legs
  • Reps: 3–5

How to perform:

  1. Start on your forearms and knees.
  2. Exhale to draw the abs inward and upward, taking one leg back to a straight position and then the other.
  3. Hold for 30–60 seconds.

How to modify. Keep your knees on the floor, making a straight line from the crown of your head to your knees, to build strength before doing the full version.

Tips. Imagine you’re squeezing tennis balls at your underarms and push your forearms into the floor. Engage your legs and lift your seat in the air slightly to avoid arching and sinking in your lower back.

Summary

Pilates is whole body exercise with an emphasis on core training. These exercises are deceptively challenging and zone in on the core when executed with precision and good form.

Pilates and Pilates-based exercises have numerous benefits for a wide range of individuals. Pilates can be rehabilitative and help prevent injuries, and it’s an excellent cross-training tool for athletes.

Some benefits include:

  • improved posture
  • improved balance
  • increased mobility and flexibility
  • increased muscular endurance
  • decreased stress levels

Important considerations

To get the most out of these exercises, aim to work at a slow to moderate pace. Strive for control and refrain from holding your breath.

If you’re pregnant or postpartum, experiencing back pain, or recovering from an injury, some of these exercises are not suitable.

With the many nuances of Pilates, working with a qualified instructor is the most ideal scenario. A qualified Pilates instructor assesses specific exercises and provides modifications for your needs and goals.

Consult your doctor before embarking on any new exercise program.

Summary

Pilates has many benefits, and the exercises can be modified for any fitness level, age, or phase of life.

Strengthening the powerhouse with Pilates is an effective way to enhance your overall health.

With a focus on breath, balance, and mind-body connection, Pilates makes you strong without making you rigid. Pilates exercises promote a healthy spine and joints that are mobile, strong, and flexible.

Pilates enriches your quality of life, setting a foundation of ease in your daily activities and adventures.