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Strengthen Your Abs, Arms, and Glutes With a Towel — Pilates Routine for Beginners

This routine is effective and easy on the joints.


Could pilates be the secret ingredient your fitness plan is missing? This form of total-body exercise goes easy on the joints while boosting balance, alignment, posture, strength, and flexibility. (No wonder celebs like Jennifer Aniston and Naomi Campbell swear by it.) The best part: It’s inexpensive. There are plenty of free classes online that cater to every fitness level, from beginner to expert. You really don’t need that fancy equipment or a personal trainer to get results.

Need more evidence? A six-month study found that pilates was more effective at strengthening core muscles in postpartum women than conventional exercises (think planks and sit-ups.) In a different, seven-month study, women who took pilates classes twice weekly significantly improved their flexibility and posture. Pilates even helped reduce participants’ kyphosis (commonly called a neck hump). Also, a 10-week study found that the exercise significantly reduced back pain.

So, where should you begin? Some pilates fans will encourage you to try out a reformer — that’s a piece of gym equipment that slides back and forth, so you can perform exercises without friction. However, these machines cost upwards of $1,300, and you can get the same benefits using a hand towel or scarf. To get started, try this beginner-friendly, 20-minute at-home pilates workout as demonstrated by trainer Kristi Cooper.

Note: Consult with your doctor before attempting any exercises.

Move 1: Warm Up Your Shoulders

Warming up the muscles and tendons in your shoulders will help improve your range of motion and get your arms ready for the workout to come. How to:

  1. Stand with feet about a hip-width apart. Grip the towel, holding one end in each hand and gently pulling so there is tension on the towel.
  2. Inhale as you lift your arms in front of your body and straight above your head. Exhale and lower your arms down, maintaining tension on the towel. Repeat five times.

Move 2: Standing Side Stretch

The standing side stretch helps extend and train your breathing muscles and your external obliques (the muscles on the sides of your torso). How to:

  1. Stand in a wide stance. Hold the towel taut above your head, each hand firmly gripping an end.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, bring your right hand down toward your right knee, forming a “standing banana-shape” with your body. (Only go as far as you are comfortable.)
  3. Come back up to standing (using your oblique muscles) and repeat on the other side.
  4. Repeat eight times (one repetition includes bending on both the right and left sides).

To make this move effective: Engage your core as your torso bends. Try your best to keep your pelvis in a neutral position, and don’t arch or curve your back.

Move 3: Standing Round-Abouts

The standing round-about helps stretch out the muscles in your low back while engaging your core and arms. How to:

  1. Stand in a wide stance. Gently bend your knees and hold the towel taut above your head.
  2. Bend to your right side, right hand reaching toward the right knee, as if you are about to do another standing side stretch. When your right arm is about parallel to the floor, let your torso round over to the front. Your back should be curved, and you should be looking at the floor.
  3. Continue moving back up to the left side. When your left arm is about parallel to the floor, move back into that standing banana shape — the side stretch — and pull yourself back up to standing, arms above your head. That round-about was one rep.
  4. Repeat three times starting on the right side. Then repeat three times on the left side.

Move 4: Side Leg Slides

By using a towel as a slider in this move, you’ll work your quads, inner thighs, and core. How to:

  1. Fold your towel into a square. Lay it down on the floor and step on it with your right foot.
  2. Hinge at the hip — your knees are bent, your back is at a 45-degree angle, and your neck is in line with your spine, gazing at the ground. Put your hands on your hips or out at your sides for balance.
  3. Slide your right foot out to the side, as far as it goes in your bent stance. Pull it back in. That’s one rep.
  4. Repeat 10 times. Switch feet (your left foot should now rest on the towel) and repeat 10 times on the other side.

Move 5: Backward Lunge Leg Slides

Use the towel to gently slide into a backward lunge, working your glutes and thighs while stretching your hip flexors and challenging your balance. How to:

  1. Step on the folded towel with your right foot. Keep your feet at a hip-width distance apart.
  2. Push the towel back with your toes, sliding into a lunge. (Your left knee is forward, your right knee is back in the lunge.) Pull your leg back up to standing. That’s one rep.
  3. Repeat the movement 10 times on your right foot. Switch and repeat 10 times on your left foot.

Tip: Slide down only to where you feel comfortable. You don’t have to go into a full lunge.

Move 6: Parallel Squat With Towel Raise

The parallel squat works your thigh muscles and your core. Raising the towel at the same time works your shoulders. How to:

  1. Stand with feet at a hip-width distance apart. Hold the towel taut between your hands.
  2. Hinge at the hip and come into a squat, feet parallel. At the same time, raise your arms up, stopping when they are parallel to the floor. Return to standing. That’s one rep.
  3. Repeat 10 times.

Move 7: Arm Pulses in a Squat Stance

Don’t be fooled — arm pulses look easy, but you’ll start to feel the burn in your shoulders quickly. This move also works your quads and glutes. How to:

  1. Stand with feet at a hip-width distance apart. Hold the towel taut between your hands.
  2. Hinge at the hip and come into a squat, feet parallel. Raise your arms up to the height of your ears.
  3. Pull the towel backwards above your head and quickly return to the original position (at the height of your ears). That counts as one rep, or one pulse.
  4. Repeat 10 times.

Move 8: Back Warm-Up

This gentle move might seem like nothing at first, but it helps you learn proper form for the back stretches and strengthening exercises to come.

  1. Sit on a comfortable surface, such as a yoga mat, with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
  2. Place the towel around the balls of your feet, like a hammock. Hold each end taut. Keep your back straight (imagine a string drawing you up through the top of your head).
  3. Push your feet into the towel. Gently curve your back, creating tension, then pull straight back up. Repeat five times.

Move 9: Ab Hold With Arm Raises

This move focuses on your abs while challenging your overall balance. How to:

  1. Sit with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Fold the towel lengthwise. Place it just above your glutes at the base of your back.
  2. Lean back, pressing onto the towel, with the heels of your feet still touching the floor. Your spine is slightly curved. Option to hold onto your thighs under your knees for assistance.
  3. Reach one arm straight up, above your head. Lower it and reach the other arm up, and lower.
  4. Inhale and slowly reach both arms up above your head, engaging your core. Exhale and lower both harms. Return to sitting, keeping your back curved. When you reach a sitting position, straighten your spine.
  5. Repeat steps 2 through 4 two more times.

Move 10: Sitting Spinal Rotation

This move works your abs while stretching the muscles in your back. How to:

  1. Sit in an extended butterfly position. Your knees drop down to the mat and the bottom of your feet touch, but don’t pull your feet in (as you would for a normal butterfly stretch).
  2. Hold the towel taut in your hands. Reach your arms out in front of you so they’re parallel to the floor.
  3. Inhale. Exhale and rotate your torso to the left. Finish the exhale on two pulses, pulling the rotation a little further on each pulse. Rotate your torso to the right and repeat the two pulses.
  4. Repeat step 3 two more times.

Move 11: Side Leg Pulses

This move works your outer thighs while you maintain your balance with your arms and torso. How to:

  1. Lie on your right side propped up on your right elbow. Your forearm should face out in front of you. Bend your right leg so that your upper leg is parallel to your forearm, and your lower leg is parallel to your left leg.
  2. Lift your left leg and pulse it up and down 10 times.
  3. Keeping your leg raised, kick it forward with the foot flexed. Point your toes as you pull your leg back to starting position. Repeat 10 times.
  4. On your last leg pull back, keep your leg pulled back (at a diagonal). Lift your left arm up towards your head in a diagonal, so that it is in line with your raised left leg. Hold for three seconds and release.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 on your left side.

Move 12: Back Extension With a Double-Leg Kick

This finisher move targets your shoulders, back, glutes, and hamstrings while challenging your balance. How to:

  1. Lie on your stomach.
  2. Hold the towel taut behind your back. Keep your hands a bit closer together than normal (about shoulder-width apart). Keep your arms straight. The towel should rest just below your glutes.
  3. Pull the towel up your back, until it is just below your shoulder blades. Let your elbows drop to the floor. You should feel a stretch in your shoulders and upper back.
  4. Glue your legs together and point your toes. Pull your lower legs up until they are at a 90 degree angle. Pulse three times at the top.
  5. Lower your legs, still glued together. At the same time, pull the towel down your back, back below your glutes, while lifting your torso off the floor. Return to the starting position (step number 3.)
  6. Repeat five times.

Finish your workout with a cobra pose, then a child’s pose, holding each for about five breaths. Congratulate yourself on finishing this challenging workout!

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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