Pilates Flat Abdominals Series

Pilates is all about core strength. The benefits of core strength go way beyond flat abdominals, but it is the flat ab results of doing Pilates exercises that help make Pilates as popular as it is. 

Introduction and Warm Up

Studio down-shot partial body of fit blonde woman doing sit-up exercise.
Steve Smith/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The secret to getting flat abs is to do the exercises correctly. That means that the abdominals have to be very pulled in. They cannot be allowed to bunch up and poof forward. When that happens, the rectus abdominis, the outermost muscle of the abdominal muscles, is getting shorter and bunching up. This might make that muscle stronger, but it will not result in balanced development, core strength, or a flat stomach (crunchers take note!). The flat abs come from the deep scoop of the abdominals, balanced by the length and breadth of the spine.

Let's begin!

Warm Up: One of the keys to doing abdominal exercises effectively is being warmed up first. If you haven't warmed up yet, choose at least two exercise from the Warm Up Folder.

Return to this step-by-step for the first full-on abdominal exercise, The Hundred.

Pilates Flat Abs Exercise - The Hundred

Pilates Hundred
(c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

The hundred is a classic Pilates mat exercise. The hundred requires that we coordinate the breath with the movement, and be strong and graceful at the same time.

1) Lie on your back with your knees bent and the shins parallel to the floor. For now, put your hands behind your knees.

Inhale to begin.

2) Exhale: Bring your chin down and curl your upper spine up off the floor. Keep the shoulders engaged in the back. The gaze is down into the scoop of the abs.

Stay here and inhale.

3) Exhale: At the same time, activate your abs, and extend your legs and arms toward the wall in front of you.
Your arms extend straight out but low, just a few inches off the floor.
Your legs should only be as low as you can go without shaking, and without your lower spine pulling up off the mat.

4) Five short breaths in and 5 short breaths out (like sniffing in and out) go along with a controlled up and down pumping of the arms.
This is a small pumping action - be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed.

5) To finish: Keep your spine curved as you bring the knees in to your chest. Grasp your knees, and then allow your upper spine and head to roll, sequentially, back to the floor. Take a deep breath in and out.

For more instructions, modifications, and related links go to the hundred.

Flat Abs with the Roll Up

Pilates Roll Up Exercise
Pilates Roll Up Exercise. About.com

The roll up is well known as a foundation exercise for the Pilates flat abs effect, among other benefits.

1) Lie flat on your back, arms stretched above your head, ribcage down.

2) Inhale: Leave your shoulders down and your scapula settled in your back as you bring your arms overhead, nod your chin and begin to curl your upper body forward.

3) Exhale: Continue rolling up off floor as you deepen the scoop of the abs and reach your arms forward, parallel to your legs.

4) Inhale: Begin with a deep pull in of the lower abs to start to roll back down.

5) Exhale: Continue to roll down, one vertebrae at a time.

Repeat up to six times.

For the more detailed instructions and relevant links go to the roll up.

Single Straight Leg Stretch - Flat Abs Exercise

pilates mat exercise
Single Straight Leg Stretch. courtesy of Kolesar Studios

Single straight legs is a challenging Pilates mat exercise that works abdominal endurance and stretches the backs of the legs.
(This is a different exercise than single leg stretch.)

1) Begin lying on the mat with legs extended toward the ceiling. Legs and heels are together in Pilates stance, rotated slightly outward from the hips.

2) Extend your spine, pull in your abdominals, and curl your upper body up off the mat. The tips of the shoulder blades touch the mat.

3) Grasp an ankle, or below the knee if you have tight hamstrings, and stretch the other leg out at a 45 degree angle.

Adjust the angle of the outstretched leg to make the exercise more or less difficult. The lower the leg, the harder the abdominals have to work to maintain alignment.

4) Inhale and pull your leg toward you, pulsing it toward you twice, increasing your stretch each time.

Switch legs.

5) Exhale and pull your leg toward you, pulsing it toward you twice, increasing your stretch each time.

Switch legs.

Repeat each set 6 to 10 times.

For more instructions, modifications, and relevant links go to: single straight leg stretch.

Choose a Counter Stretch

Mat Exercise - Swimming
counter stretch with Swimming. (c) 2006, Marguerite Ogle

It is important to balance your routine with exercises that work opposing muscles. The flat abs series works the spine and abs in flexion, a forward curve. Now would be a good time to choose an extension exercise or two.
Some good choices: swimming or swan

Pilates Flat Abs with Criss Cross

Pilates Mat Exercise
Criss Cross. (c) 2006, Marguerite Ogle

Criss cross puts a special emphasis on the obliques. The obliques aid postural stabilization, but they are more involved in flexion and rotation of the spine. One of the big benefits of working the obliques is that they help define the waist.

  1. Lie on your back in neutral spine, shins up - parallel to the floor.

  2. Place your hands behind your head, supporting the base of the skull, elbows wide.

  3. Leaving the pelvis in a neutral position (not tucked or hyper-extended), scoop the abdominals and curl the chin and shoulders off the mat.


  4. Exhale: Extend your left leg out straight at a 45 degree angle.
    Keep your elbows wide and chest open as you rotate your torso so that your left armpit is reaching for your right knee.

  5. Inhale: Switch legs, bringing your trunk through center.

  6. Exhale: Extend your right leg, and rotate your upper body toward your left knee.
Repetitions: Start with 6 and work your way up to 10.

Tip: You must keep a stable, neutral pelvis as you rotate the spine. No tucking, tilting, or rocking please!
For more instructions, modifications, and relevant links go to criss cross

Flat Abs with Double Straight Leg Lowers

Pilates picture
Double Straight Leg Lower. photo: Peter Kramer, courtesy of Kolesar Studios

Double straight leg lowers is very effective at working both the upper and lower abdominals. Provided that you do it correctly, this is an ideal core strength and flat ab builder.

Follow these step by step instructions and learn to protect your back as you get a great abdominal workout.

1) Prep: Lie on your back with your legs straight up toward the ceiling.
Place your hands behind your head, keeping your elbows wide and chest open.
2) Inhale
Exhale: Pull your abdominals down to the floor. Allow that motion to press your lower back into the floor. At the same time, curl your upper torso up off the floor.

3) Inhale: Your abdominals are pulled in, and your lower back pressed to mat. Lower your legs, thinking of lengthening them at the same time.

Take your legs as low as you can with control and good alignment. Do not let your back pop up off the mat. Use your upper abs to maintain the lift of the chest, and don't try to hold yourself up by pulling on your head and neck with your elbows and hands!

4) Exhale: With control, deepen the abs even more as you return the legs upright.

Repeat the exercise 6 to 8 times.

For more instructions, modifications, and relevant links go to double straight leg lower/lift