Five Pilates exercises that are better than sit-ups for your core

Work smarter with a Pilates instructor’s top exercises for strengthening your core

Two women performing the hundred Pilates exercise
(Image credit: Ashley Corbin-Teich / Getty Images)

Good news, if you want to build a strong core you don't have to smash out a crazy number of sit-ups every day. Many other exercises are much more effective at training your abs and core. And it's certainly more interesting to mix up a variety of core-strengthening exercises than to repeat the same one.

Expert Pilates instructor at Core LDN, Millie Shiers has chosen five Pilates exercises that are better for your core than sit-ups. She tells us why they are more effective at training your midline muscles and guides us through how to do them properly.

1. Chest lift

  • Lie on your back with your legs bent and interlace your hands firmly behind your head.
  • As you exhale, lift your head and chest. Keep your pelvis in a neutral position—try not to tuck it under or let your lower back sink into the mat as this will limit the isolation of the abdominals.
  • As you inhale, lower your head and chest.

Why it's better than sit-ups

"The chest lift is a great exercise for training your abs as it focuses on the slow, controlled engagement of the abs," says Shiers. "Unlike in a sit-up, the chest lift doesn’t use any momentum, meaning you rely solely on your abs to lift your chest away from the floor. Your ribs stay on the floor and the aim is to lift your shoulder blades."

2. The hundred

  • Lie on your back with your legs in tabletop position, shins parallel to the ceiling, and your arms on the floor by your sides.
  • Prepare your abs by drawing your belly button towards your spine.
  • Lift your head and chest, hover your arms above the floor and straighten your legs in front of you at a 45° angle. Your upper spine should curl off the mat so the bottom edges of your shoulder blades are just touching the mat.
  • Keeping your arms straight, pulse them up and down, breathing in for five counts and out for five counts, repeating for 100 counts in total.

Why it's better than sit-ups

"The hundred prep and the hundred are amazing at working your abs," says Shiers, "because, unlike sit-ups, they work your abs in two ways: supporting your head and chest, which are lifted in forward flexion, and your legs, which are held in an extended position."

3. Roll-up

  • Lie on your back with your legs together and feet flexed (toes pointing up to the ceiling). Reach your arms up with your palms facing your feet.
  • As you exhale, lift your head and chest and reach your arms forward to slowly peel your spine off the mat.
  • Focus on squeezing your legs together and sliding your ribs towards your hips as you roll up.
  • Continue until you are reaching forwards as far as you can, with your spine in a C-shape.
  • At the top, take an inhale to pause, then exhale and use your abs to slowly reverse the move.

Why it's better than sit-ups

"The roll-up works your abs through the full range from lying down to sitting up, similar to a sit-up, however unlike with a sit-up, no momentum is used at all," says Shiers. "You slowly peel your spine away from the mat, meaning that your abs have to work harder!"

4. Double-leg stretch

  • Start with your legs in tabletop position, lift your head and chest and bring your hands onto your shins with your elbows out to the sides.
  • Press your hands into your shins and your shins into your hands to create opposing pressure that will increase abdominal engagement.
  • Reach your legs out straight and your arms overhead, while maintaining the position of your head and chest.
  • Circle your arms back around as your knees come in and bring your hands back onto your shins.

Why it's better than sit-ups

"The double-leg stretch requires sustained forward flexion of your spine," says Shiers, "meaning your abs are working for longer than in a sit-up."

5. Leg changes

  • Lie on your back with your arms pressing into the mat, knees bent and feet raised just above the floor.
  • Keeping both knees bent at 90°, lift one leg to tabletop position.
  • Reverse the movement to the start.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Why it's better than sit-ups

"Leg changes work the lower abs and deeper core, unlike sit-ups that are more focused on the rectus abdominals," says Shiers. "Strengthening the deep core helps to correct postural misalignment and reduce back pain."

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Camilla Artault
Contributing editor and writer

Camilla Artault is the chief tester of women’s running gear over on our sister site Coach. She also interviews experts and writes about a wide range of topics encompassing health, fitness, food, lifestyle and parenting.