Pilates Exercises for the Abs, Arms, & Thighs

Pilates tones the abs, legs and arms without adding unnecessary bulk.
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If you're looking for a workout that tones muscle without adding bulk, look no further than Pilates. Founded by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s, Pilates focuses on muscle strengthening and endurance to provide exercisers with better posture and balance, enhanced flexibility and the envied long, lean look of many dancers. Actresses like Kate Hudson, Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz swear by Pilates because it focuses on strengthening and toning problem areas, such as the thighs, abs, hips and lower back. By incorporating Pilates exercises into your current strength-training workout, you too can achieve toned abs, legs and arms.

Strengthening Your Core

    One of the fundamental elements of Pilates practice is core strengthening, as practitioners believe that strong abdominal muscles are crucial for movement and maintaining balance and posture. The Pilates roll up is considered one of the most effective exercises to tone and tighten the tummy and midsection. To perform this exercise, you will need an exercise mat and a small exercise ball. Lie on your back with your heels resting on the exercise ball and arms extended behind your head. Inhale and slowly roll your head, neck and shoulders off the mat. Continue rolling upward until you are in a sitting position that ends with you reaching out toward your feet. Inhale once more and roll backward into the starting position, tightening your abdominal muscles to create a slow, controlled motion. For optimal results, perform 15 repetitions.

Toning Legs and Preventing Injury

    Devotees of Pilates realize that benefits extend beyond sculpted legs. While toning muscles is one of the main draws of Pilates, women who practice Pilates are less likely to incur injuries during high-impact activities such as running. One of the best Pilates exercises for runners is the side leg lift, which targets the gluteal muscles, hips and lateral torso, promoting proper alignment, stability and injury prevention. This exercise is performed lying on your side with your torso and head aligned with the back of your exercise mat and your feet aligned with the front of your mat. Place one hand in front of your chest and use your other arm to support your head. Make sure your spine is straight and your hips and shoulders are stacked. Exhale and lift the top leg toward the ceiling before inhaling and returning to the starting position. For an additional challenge, remove the hand in front of your chest so your upper body is supported solely by the elbow under your head.

Fabulous Arms

    The Pilates press works the upper body and midsection, helping to strengthen your chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps and abdominal muscles. Starting in a pushup position, bend one of your knees at a 90-degree angle until your toes point toward the ceiling. Bend your elbows, lowering your body a few inches while keeping your arms close to your body, and then return to the starting position. If this position is too challenging, start from a modified pushup position with your knees resting on the floor. Perform two sets of eight to 10 repetitions per knee for best results.


    Even though Pilates is a low-impact form of exercise, you should still check with your physician before starting Pilates if you are new to exercise or are pregnant. While you don't need a gym membership to perform Pilates exercises, experts recommend taking a few classes before attempting these moves on your own. During a beginning Pilates class, your instructor can help demonstrate moves and ensure you are performing the exercises correctly, which lowers risk of injury.

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