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This Pilates Circuit May Be The Hardest Bodyweight Workout You Ever Do

A brutally efficient form of exercise, Pilates trumps weights any day when it comes to building a strong core.

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A man doing a plank exercise at an outdoor gym during his Pilates workout.
Exercises and Workouts for Men To Get in Good-Enough Shape

What do former professional soccer player Glenn Murray, rugby captain Ollie Phillips, and ultramarathon champion Mark Innocenti all have in common? They’ve practiced Pilates with Anaya Grover, instructor and owner of Men Do Pilates, which offers live and on-demand Pilates workouts for men. The reason is simple: Pilates is one of the most hardcore bodyweight workouts you can do. Period.

“The majority of men who do Pilates find it hugely challenging,” says Grover, a former professional cricketer herself. “They get a sweat on, feel the burn, and build muscle, while gaining enormous amounts of mobility.”

The origins of Pilates are, in fact, hardcore. Joseph Pilates was a German-born boxer and self-defense instructor for Scotland Yard who moved to England just before the outbreak of World War I. During the war, Pilates was interned with other German nationals at a camp in England. There, he began developing a series of bodyweight moves to help fellow prisoners maintain their fitness, and in doing so, formed the basis of the modern-day workout.

Early Pilates was particularly embraced by dancers and involved unique fitness devices, but now people with a wide range of fitness goals embrace the form of exercise to increase muscle tone, stability, mobility, and endurance. Standard workouts are 45 minutes to an hour and consist of a flow of moves ranging from those you probably know, like push-ups, to those you don’t, like teasers. Think of it as bodyweight strength training mixed with yoga.

In Pilates, there’s a strong emphasis on training your abs and lower back as well as controlled breathing. One of the main principles is maintaining a strong concentration on form during each exercise, which necessitate very precise movements. Another is the concept of flow, meaning that when you finish one exercise, you transition directly into the next and keep going. By working your body for the entire duration, your energy expenditure and muscle burn stays high.

The Benefits of Pilates

Since the majority of Pilates moves stem from your core (referred to in Pilates-speak as your “powerhouse”), the workout develops incredibly strong abdominal muscles. A study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, for example, found a 21% increase in rectus abdominis volume (your “six-pack” muscles) among nine previously non-active women who followed a seven-month program.

A 2023 meta-analysis concluded that Pilates effectively relieves back pain and improves quality of life for those who follow a regular routine. And by strengthening the muscles deep in your core, Pilates creates more stability and support for exercises like push-ups, easing the strain on your lower back.

Another benefit of Pilates, Grover points out, is how it improves balance. “The muscles in your core collaborate to give you stability and protection, like a corset hugging your body,” she says “I don’t think people realize how much the core helps with balance. It gives you central support, which can benefit you in other forms of exercise as well, like Bulgarian squats, doing lunges, running, and even just walking.”

Pilates’ emphasis on flow means there’s no downtime during workouts. As a result, the cardio benefits are solid as well. Research in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that Pilates boosts VO2 max and overall cardiorespiratory fitness.

Finally, Pilates is an excellent workout for injury prevention, especially for those who lack flexibility. “Men usually focus on individual body parts and lift weights to strengthen specific muscles,” says Grover. “But when they focus on mobility and conditioning exercises in Pilates, they injure less and become stronger overall.”

“No exercise routine can give you all the components of health, but Pilates comes pretty high up, in my opinion,” she says.

7 Pilates Moves That Will Kick Your Ass

Ready to give it a try? Start by slotting in one Pilates workout per week to your usual fitness routine. The moves here create a sequence that you can run through two to three times until you complete a 45-minute workout. And remember: The goal is for no breaks between moves. Do your best to move from one exercise to the next.

1. The Move: Curl Ups

  • Lie on your back, legs straight, hands clasped behind your head, elbows raised slightly off the floor.
  • Engage your core, lower your chin slightly to your chest, and lift your chest off the ground using your upper abdominals.
  • Lengthen back down.

Make it harder: Place a full bowl of water on your lower abdomen as you lie flat. Try not to spill the water as you raise your upper torso off the ground.

How many: 10 reps

What it works: Rectus abdominis

2. The Move: Oblique Curl Ups

  • Lie on your back, legs straight, hands clasped behind your head, elbows raised slightly off the floor.
  • Engage your core, lower your chin slightly to your chest, and lift your chest off the ground using your upper abdominals.
  • Twist your torso to the left, keeping your hips pointed toward the ceiling.
  • Return to center and twist your torso to opposite side.
  • Return to center.

Make it harder: Place a bowl of water on your lower abs and keep it from spilling as you rotate your torso above it.

How many: 8 reps on each side

What it works: Rectus abdominis, obliques

3. The Move: Teaser

  • Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on floor.
  • Engage your core and lift feet off the floor, extending legs in front of you at a 45-degree angle.
  • Raise your arms above your head.
  • Roll through your spine to slowly raise your torso off the ground, reaching arms forward until they form a parallel line with your legs.
  • Hold this semi V-shape for one count, then roll back to the start, keeping legs straight and raised at 45 degrees throughout.

How many: 10 reps

What it works: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, erector spinae

Make it harder: Start with your legs flat on the floor and raise them to 45-degrees as you raise your back off the floor, then release them to hover directly above the floor when you roll your spine back down.

4. The Move: Corkscrew

  • Lie on your back, legs straight, arms by your sides and pressing into the mat for stability.
  • Engage your core and raise legs straight off the floor and directly above you as you roll onto your upper back.
  • Keeping hips and torso steady, let your legs drop to the left at about 30 degrees.
  • Roll down your spine so that your back is flat on the floor as you rotate legs clockwise to 6 o’clock (hovering feet about two feet off the floor).
  • Roll back up on your upper spine as legs rotate over to 9 o’clock and back to 12 o’clock, making a full circle above your body.

How many: 8 circles on each side

What it works: Obliques, transverse abdominis, lower back

5. The Move: Jack Knife

  • Lie flat on your back, legs straight, arms by sides.
  • Engage your core and lift legs straight off the floor and above your body, toes pointed to ceiling.
  • Raise legs as high as you can while keeping them straight.
  • Reach your feet for the wall behind your head, allowing hips and lower back to come off the floor.
  • Once legs are over your head and toes are pointed toward the back wall, roll up onto your upper back and raise legs directly overhead.
  • Engage your core again and slowly roll down until your back touches the floor.
  • As your back touches the floor, allow your straight legs to lower until they hover just above the floor.
  • Repeat.

How many: 8 reps

What it works: Transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, erector spinae

6. The Move: Plank

  • Start on all fours, hands below shoulders and knees below hips.
  • Extend one leg at a time behind you, knees straight and toes tucked for support.
  • Lower onto your elbows.
  • Check to be sure your body forms a straight line from your head through your back and down to your feet.
  • Hold the position feeling a strong tension in your abdominals.

Make it harder: Place a bowl full of water on your lower back while you hold the plank.

How long: 60 seconds x 3 reps

What it works: Transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, glutes

7. The Move: Bridge

  • Lie on your back, knees bent, feet at hip-distance apart.
  • Keep your spine in a neutral position, and arms by your sides.
  • Inhale, then exhale and engage your deep abdominals as you tilt your pelvis towards your belly button and start to lift it off the floor.
  • Roll through your spine, vertebrae by vertebrae, as you raise your hips toward the ceiling.
  • Squeeze your glutes and hold for five counts.
  • Slowly roll back to starting position.

How many: 8 reps

What it works: Transverse abdominis, glutes, hamstrings

Make it harder: From bridge position, straighten your right leg out in front of you in the air. Raise and lower it 8 times without letting it touch the floor. Repeat on opposite side.

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