THINK ABOUT YOUR LAST abs workout. It was probably sit-ups, Russian twists, reverse crunches, with rep counts reaching the hundreds. Those are perfectly good moves. But we propose a different way, via a practice that goes back a hundred years. Pilates workouts stand out thanks to the 360-degree approach to core stability. The focus isn’t solely on strengthening the front of the body, or the rectus abdominis (six-pack abs). It’s also on deep core muscles, or transverse abdominis. Moves hit the obliques that stack up your sides and the muscles that fold around your back, too.
And if you’re a winter sports lover, spending weekends skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and cycling, Pilates has particular utility, for both body and mind.
“In outdoor pursuits, you need to stay focused, breathe, and pay attention to what’s in front of you,” says Michael Gayle of MGayle Outdoor Adventures.
Years ago, Gayle, an adventure guide in Buffalo, Minnesota, began practicing Pilates, and it helped him level up his backcountry game. Pilates focuses on the core muscles responsible for doing things like holding a ski position for minutes at a time, and stabilizing on an icy bike trail. And it works hip flexors and glutes, which get used when you’re tramping around in the snow. Today he’s a certified Pilates instructor, and he designed the workout here with the outdoor athlete in mind.
And there’s the mental part. “Due to Pilates training, I have enhanced levels of stability, mobility, and mindfulness,” Gayle says. “It even serves as a wellness barometer, balancing my extreme adventure side.”
A note on the pace—it’s intentionally slow. Pilates requires a person to maintain core engagement, alignment, and body awareness, which translates into improved biomechanics and less wear and tear on the body while out in the wild.
When doing the routine, focus on breathing, which will help core activation. Inhale through the nose until you feel pressure on the rib cage. Exhale forcefully through pursed lips, like blowing through a straw, until all air is released. Call on this breath work when fatigue creeps in and the core starts to lose rigidity.
The equipment is simple: a mat, resistance band, and two yoga blocks. (If you can find a sun-filled studio—like the one at Performance Lab by the Wright Fit in New York City, shown here—even better.) Pilates may not require huge weights, but when done right, your abs will be quivering by the end.
If these moves pique your interest, think about trying a studio class. Here’s some background before you go.
What is Pilates, exactly?
It’s a collection of exercises to develop functional balance, strength, and flexibility. The moves are performed on a mat or on a reformer, a large wood platform with a sliding carriage, springs, ropes, and handholds.
Who does it?
These days, everyone. LeBron James and Aaron Judge do Pilates for strength, control, and focus. It’s also used in rehab. In fact, Joseph Pilates got the idea when he was an orderly during WWI, caring for injured soldiers.
What does the science say?
Researchers have studied whether it helps with chronic low back pain, since it bolsters the transverse abdominis muscles. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine finds doing Pilates twice a week may help.
For a full workout, do 6 to 8 reps of each move—the slower the better, focusing on control. Rest 30 seconds to 1 minute between exercises, and do 3 rounds. As you progress, drop to 4 to 6 reps of each move, but cut out the rest time. If you’re training for a specific activity, do the moves listed every day at least two weeks before a big outing.
Pilates practice relies heavily on breathing patterns. But you also need to maximize each breath. Holding on to tension constricts the chest, reducing lung capacity. If you begin breathing shallowly, take a moment to get centered and let go of any anxiety. Pilates is a quiet practice that will have your muscles screaming. If you settle in and hold these poses, you’ll reap rewards, such as strong abs, shoulders, glutes—and mind.