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11 Best Toning Pilates Moves

Pilates is an incredible training method to help you condition and tone.  By doing these 11 toning pilates moves regularly, you’ll improve your strength, posture, and flexibility.

Pilates is all about targeting your muscles, especially your core, in order to stabilize, condition, and tone to improve overall athletic performance.

You never need to do a single crunch to get Pilates-toned abs because every move works your core deeply and effectively.  Pilates will help you bring focus to the movements so that you understand the connection your muscles have to your body and each other.

Each move should be done with control and modified if need be.  In pilates, form supersedes all.  

Start building strength and toning muscles with these 11 amazing pilates moves.  Watch the accompanying video tutorials via Howcast and Pilates Anytime to see proper form.

The Hundred

This is one of the deepest core tightening moves you can do.  I love it because you feel it engaging all of your core muscles immediately, but your breath helps keep you calm.

To get into the position:

  • You start on your back with your legs up and bent at a 90-degree angle.  Your spine should be neutral with your arms stretched out on either side with palms facing forward.
  • Next, roll your head off the floor and lift your shoulder blades off the mat.  This should engage your core.  You can either leave your legs at 90-degree angle, or extend them all the way out for an added challenge and to engage your inner thigh muscles.
  • Pump your arms five times on an inhale and 5 times on an exhale, breathing continuously for one hundred total beats.

See it in action here.

Single Leg Stretch

Despite the name, this exercise trains the core. It helps you learn to stabilize and effectively targets the lower abs.

Get into the single leg stretch:

  • Start in the same position you did for the hundred: lying on your back with your legs up and bent at a 90 degree angle.
  • Engage the core and try to bring your belly button to your spine.  Extend your right leg as you pull your left knee into your chest.  Your left hand should brush your ankle while your right wraps around the knee.
  • Lift your shoulder blades off the mat.
  • Inhale as you switch legs.  Exhale as you switch back.  Repeat this for as many reps as you wish.

Double Leg Stretch

Pilates woman stretching exercise workout at gym indoor

The double leg stretch builds on the foundation of the single leg stretch and really tests your core’s ability to stabilize your muscles.

If your core is shaky, this move will show it and help you condition your muscles to better support your center.

  • You’ll start in the same position as you did for single leg stretch and the hundred.
  • When you curl your shoulder blades up off the floor, you’ll extend your legs out to hover about 10 inches from the ground and extend your arms above your head.
  • Keep your body extended and don’t slump down into your shoulders, chest, or lower back.
  • On an exhale, sweep your arms in a circular motion down to wrap around your shins.  Then extend your arms and legs straight back out.
  • Repeat at least 8 times.


The saw is great for toning your obliques.  The saw refers to the position of your arms as you bend from side to side to target your obliques and core.

  • You will start differently for this move, sitting instead of lying on your back.
  • Sit straight up on your pilates mat with your legs extended straight out in front of you.  Keep your spine lengthening and tall.  Keep your feet about shoulder distance apart as you extend your arms straight out to your sides.

They should be perpendicular to your body.

  • Inhale twist to your left, keeping your spine tall.  Exhale as your right arm touches your left toes and gaze up toward your left arm.
  • Inhale as you suck your lower abs in to protect your back and lift your torso back up, maintaining the twist. 
  • Exhale as you untwist to return back to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side and do an even number of reps on each side.  

Single-Leg Circles

This exercise is amazing because it emphasizes how connected our inner thigh muscles are to our core.

We’ll be working both in this toning pilates move along with opening our hips which are notorious for being tight since we sit so much.

Get into the double leg stretch:

  • Start lying on your back with your legs extended on the mat.  Arms should be at your sides.

This isn’t an opportunity to relax, so make sure your muscles are engaged and activated.

  • Inhale as you pull your right leg into the chest and then exhale as you extend it up towards the ceiling.  Keep your hips grounded into the floor, being careful not to let that right hip pop up.

Keep a slight bend the knee if your hamstrings are too tight to fully extend.

  • Now you’ll make a sweeping circular motion with your extended leg.  It will sweep over towards the left shoulder and downward as your leg travels center, keeping the leg lifted the whole time.  Finally, the leg will sweep out over to the right before bringing it back up to the starting position.

For the right leg, you will sweep counter clockwise and for the left you will sweep clockwise.

The challenge here is the keep your hips and pelvis grounded and your core stable as your legs move in circular directions.  This is great for hip health and muscle conditioning.


This is the perfect move to help tone those stubborn lower abs.  It will help you build strength in the lower abdominals while still working the rest of the core.

  • Start lying completely flat on your back.  Inhale as you extend both legs up to the ceiling.
  • Draw your abs in and keep them engaged.  This helps protect your lower back so that you don’t sink into it.
  • Inhale as you sweep your legs over to the right.  With control, use your abdominals to lift your hips off the floor. 
  • Exhale as you sweep your legs down through center, keeping your back pasted into your mat.  If your lower back is lifting, your legs are too low.
  • Inhale as you sweep your legs over the left side.  Use your muscles to lift those hips off the floor.
  • Repeat on the other side. Continue until you’ve completed as many reps on each side as you wish.

The key to this exercise is to keep your upper body straight and still so that your abs are being worked completely.  See it in action here.

Pilates Push Up

Work your stabilization, core and arm strength with this total body movement.

  • Start standing up.  Keep your spine tall, your pelvis pulled in and down, and your shoulders straight.  
  • Inhale and lift your arms straight over your head, being mindful not to let your shoulders creep up.
  • Exhale and bend, curving your spine like a dive and roll down towards the floor until your hands touch your mat.
  • Walk your hands out until you are in plank position on your next inhale.
  • Hold and exhale as you roll your triceps back, opening your inner elbows out.
  • Inhale as you lower your body, your arms bending back to hug your ribs.  This is similar to chaturanga in yoga.

This is the challenging part as you don’t want to lower all the way to the mat.

  • Exhale and push back up to plank position.
  • Inhale and walk your hands back to your feet.
  • Exhale and roll up to stand.

This move will have you breaking a sweat in no time.  Watch the whole sequence here.

Single Leg Lifts/Scissors

This exercise is also known as scissors.  It uses the same principles as the single leg stretch, but in this movement, your legs are stretched all the way up instead of bent.

You’ll no doubt fire up your core.

  • Start lying on your back with your shins parallel to the mat and your knees bent at 90 degrees.  
  • Inhale and lift your legs straight up, keeping a slight bend if your hamstrings are tight.
  • Exhale and curl your shoulder blades up off the mat.
  • Inhale as you pull your right leg towards your forehead, keeping both legs as straight as possible for your body.
  • Grab ahold of the shin or ankle, but never the knee.  Pulse the leg two times and exhale as you switch.

Eventually, you’ll work up to a pace where you can complete pulses on both legs on one inhale.  

See how it’s done here.

Single Leg Kicks

This exercise will tone your back and glutes.  

  • Start lying on your stomach with your legs fully extended and feet no more than hips width apart.
  • Grab opposite elbows with your hands and rest your head on your forearms.
  • Engage your core and pull your abs into your back as you rise up onto your forearms. Elbows should be directly below your shoulders.  If your back doesn’t have the flexibility for this, keep your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders.
  • Inhale, bend your right leg, pointing your foot straight up.  Exhale, and switch legs.
  • Keep the motion slow and controlled to really focus that movement into the glutes.

For an added challenge lift the leg up when it kicks back for a real booty blaster.

Swan Dive

Swan provides a nice little backbend for the spine and tones your back, hamstrings, and glutes.

  • Begin lying on your stomach, legs fully extended back. Your arms should be bent back along your ribs with your elbows pointing back, not out to the sides.  

Think of how your arms would be when you push up from a pilates push up, or if you were going to push up into cobra in yoga.

  • Press your pelvis into the mat and engage your arms, legs, and core.
  • Lift your chest off the mat and up between your straightened arms.  Legs should be actively pressing back into the mat.  This is essentially the same as full cobra in yoga.
  • The back of your body should look like a curve.  Bend your arms, elbows pointing back and arms squeezing into the ribs as your body rolls forward with your legs floating into the air in a reversed curve.
  • Rock back up to your cobra position.  Hold for a moment and then,  repeat.

This move is a little more complicated, so watch how it’s done before you try it.

Pilates Shoulder Bridge

Shoulder bridge is another great pose for your glutes, back, and shoulders.

It’s similar to yoga bridge and you can add on for extra challenges.

  • Begin lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.  Your fingertips should just barely brush the backs of your ankles.
  • Your arms will extend down along your sides with hands pointing towards your feet.
  • Pull in your lower abs and activate your core as you roll up your spine, through the rib cage, lifting your glutes and back off the mat.  Imagine lifting each vertebra individually up one at a time.
  • At the same time, push into the floor with your feet.  Your arms can press down into the mat for extra support.
  • As you lift your torso up off the ground, your shoulders, neck and head will remain on the mat.  
  • Your body should make one straight line from your shoulders to your knees to prevent over or under arching of the spine.  That means keeping your pelvis and ribs neutral.
  • Stay here and hold or for an extra challenge, lift your right leg up to the ceiling.  Flex your foot.  With control, swing the leg down to the floor, pointing the toe.  Lift back up, flexing.
  • Continue for 8-15 reps and then switch legs.

You’ll feel the burn in your glutes as they fire up while you hold your bridge.  This is an amazing way to tone your lower body.  
Just make sure you’re keeping your torso stable and not bending or dipping down as the leg swings to the floor.

See how it’s done here.

Slow, controlled, connected.  Keep that in mind as you incorporate these 11 pilates moves into your fitness routine to tone, build strength, and increase flexibility.

All of these moves are mat Pilates exercises, so the only equipment needed is a Pilates mat or soft, clean place on the floor.

A mat is recommended to help protect your body when pressing into the ground.  

Love these pilates moves?  Don’t miss our Pilates For Weight Loss: 10 Best Workouts.

Pilates is an incredible training method to help you condition and tone. Start building strength and toning muscles with these 11 amazing pilates moves.

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