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Mastering the Pilates Ab Curl

The Pilates Ab Curl is one of the basic exercises you'll encounter in a mat Pilates class. It's easy to think of the Ab Curl as a sit-up or a crunch exercise that's going to get you a six-pack. But the Ab Curl is much more than that - it helps you to activate and strengthen your inner core muscles which help you in your daily tasks and create more efficient and better movements elsewhere in your body. Let's break down the Pilates Ab Curl and its progressions.

Anatomy of the core muscles

We often hear health and exercise professionals talk about having strong core muscles. But what exactly are the core muscles? Core muscles are a group of muscles separated into internal and external core muscles. The internal muscles help to stabilise your torso and spine, while the external muscles help you move - the contraction of both groups lead to optimal spinal stabilisation. Pilates target both the internal and external core muscles.

  • External muscles:

    • Rectus abdominis: located at the front of your abdomen, often known as the six pack).

    • External obliques: located at the side and front of the abdomen)

    • Erector spinae: group of muscles that run vertically along your lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine.

    • Quadratus lumborum: located on either side of your lumbar spine

  • Internal core muscles:

    • Transversus abdominis: this muscles wraps around your torso, providing stability for the spine.

    • Internal obliques: these are located under the external obliques

    • Pelvic floor

    • Diaphram

    • Multifidus: deep muscles along the spine

What is a Pilates Ab Curl?

The Pilates Ab Curl involves first, lying on your back with a neutral spine, knees towards the ceiling, hands behind your head or across your chest. Then brace your core muscles on an inhale breath. Next, on an exhale breath, think about bringing your ribs to your hips, lifting the head and shoulders, and bringing your eyes towards your thighs. Finally inhale to come back down towards the mat.


The part that most people have trouble with is accurately bracing their core muscles. So we're going to learn how to do that first.

It's important to know that when you brace, it's not about sucking in your tummy. We're trying to create tension in the abdominals, similar to when you're bracing for a punch. Practice McGill's Ab Curl before you start on the Pilates Ab Curl. Knowing how to brace your core muscles will prevent you from getting low back pain.

Things to keep in mind when doing Pilates Ab Curl

Form and control are everything when it comes to Pilates. The same applies to the Ab Curl, which is one of the basic exercises of Pilates, and it's a great way to get used to the 'mind-muscle connection', which simply means, picturing the correct muscles working. Other things to keep in mind when doing the Pilates Ab Curl are:

  • Keep a neutral spine (natural curve of your spine, level pelvis).

  • Keep your chin tucked in, by elongating the back of your neck.

  • Set your shoulders away from the ears - shoulder blades should be down and back.

  • Relax your upper body and do not strain the neck and shoulders when curling up.

  • Bringing your ribs towards your hips, ensuring you're curling up using your abdominals rather than your head, neck and chest. Then lift the head and shoulders off, taking your eyes towards your thighs.

  • Exhaling through the mouth, inhale through the nose.

  • Keep the elbows wide (note the modification below if you can't raise your arms that high). This is because if you start to bring your elbows in, you'll start to lose the abdominal bracing and use your head to curl up.

Modifications & progressions of the Pilates Ab Curl

If you have trouble keeping your hands behind your head, you can modify the exercise by crossing your arms in front of your chest.

If you are suffering from any injuries, please talk to your Pilates instructor or physiotherapist before doing this exercise. For example, if you have previously fractured your thoracic spine, this exercise may not be for you. Practice McGills Ab Curl instead.

If you're pregnant, the Pilates Ab Curl is not recommended once you move past your first trimester. In the first trimester, stop this exercise if you feel any discomfort.

Once this exercise feels easy, you can increase the difficulty by taking your legs up to table top. You want to use an imprinted spine in this exercise, meaning taking your lower back slightly more towards the mat, and tilting your pelvis forward slightly.

At Breathe Physio and Pilates, we run one on one private Pilates sessions, which are tailored to your injuries, conditions and goals. We also have small group mat Pilates classes. If you're interested in learning more about Pilates, please get in touch with us.

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