Editor’s Note: Think you don’t have time for a workout? Join Stephanie Mansour for a five-part series of quick strength workouts and start feeling better, five minutes at a time.
The times we live in are a lot. It can be all too easy to throw your hands up and just veg out on the couch — all the while knowing you’ll be sore afterward.
You can turn that couch, however, into your secret weapon to feeling better and stronger.
For this Pilates core and glute workout, for starters, you don’t even need to get off the couch! Strengthening your core can be easy to fit into your everyday life — no matter how unmotivated you’re feeling these days.
This five-minute Pilates routine works the deepest abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominis, which help support the low back and core.
These exercises also work the inner thighs and outer hips, which help with core stabilization and balance. Finally, the other muscles of the core, like the ones that run along the spine, are recruited to maintain proper form while exercising on couch cushions (as opposed to a solid floor).
Pilates provides significant improvement in pain relief in patients with chronic low back pain, research has shown. Pilates also helps improve flexibility and trunk stability, according to studies. Doing core exercises in Pilates also aligns the body into better posture and helps maintain the integrity of the bones and joints in the body.
I became a Pilates instructor after healing my low back pain by attending Pilates classes. Learning how to engage my core allowed me to take pressure off of my low back, move around and bend over with proper form, and strengthen my abdominals, which ultimately erased my need for weekly chiropractic sessions.
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The couch routine below is meant to be performed daily, but you’ll feel strengthening and flexibility effects after one workout. The more consistent you are with the routine, the stronger you’ll become.
Remember to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth in Pilates. On the exhale, engage your abdominals even more by breathing out all of the air from your stomach and pulling your naval in toward your spine. Pretend you’re zipping into a tight pair of jeans and squeezing in your belly to fit into them.
This basic Pilates abdominal exercise demonstrates how challenging it can be to engage the abs while the legs are moving. Keep the abdominals engaged and maintain the position of the low back pressing into the couch. You do not want to arch the low back; if this occurs, extend the legs higher instead of extending them lower.
Lying on the couch on your back, bend your knees and lift up your feet off the couch.
With your legs at a 90-degree angle or a tabletop position, inhale and press the heels together and open the legs so that the knees point outward as wide as your shoulders — kind of like how a frog looks.
Exhale as you press the legs forward and straight, bringing the inner thighs together and pulling your naval down toward the couch.
Inhale as you bend and open the knees and come back to the starting position.
Repeat this 10 times.
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The muscles along the spine and the transverse abdominis will be working hard to stabilize and balance the body in this position.
Sitting on the edge of the couch, bend your knees in toward your chest. Inhale, pulling your abs in tightly, and slowly lean back onto your tailbone. Reach your arms up in front of you as high as your shoulders, and slowly bring them up toward the ceiling.
Then extend your legs straight out in front of you if you’re able. Lift them up toward the ceiling and grab the calves to keep the legs steady as you exhale.
Slowly bend the knees and place the hands on your knees as your bring your feet to the floor and inhale.
Repeat this 10 times.
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Make sure that the abs are engaged; otherwise this just becomes a twisting exercise. You want to feel a tightening across your entire stomach as you engage not only your transverse abdominis but also the internal and external obliques as you make the crisscross motion of the bicycle abs.
Sitting on the edge of the couch, place your hands behind your head. Pull the abs in as you lift up the right knee and cross your left elbow to reach toward your right knee.
Then come back to center and repeat with the right elbow to the left knee.
For an added challenge, try continuing this exercise without your feet touching the ground.
Repeat this 10 times to each side.
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The outer hip of the moving leg will be engaged, and that muscle is part of the core and is called the gluteus medius. While performing this exercise, pull your belly button in toward your spine, and keep your back straight even while the leg is moving.
Lying sideways on the couch, prop up your upper body with your hand or by resting your forearm on the couch, keeping your elbow directly underneath your forearm. Bend your knees at a 90-degree angle.
Open the top knee and leg into a clam shape, and then close.
Repeat this 10 times.
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Side-lying double leg lift
Moving both legs together as one is a challenging exercise for the lower body, but it also engages the upper body to maintain proper form and alignment.
Ensure that your low back and upper body are not shifting by acting like someone is punching you in the stomach throughout this movement. Pull the abs in tight to pull away from that punch!
Lying sideways, prop up your upper body with your hand or by resting your forearm on the couch. Lift up the legs slightly, keeping them together, and move them forward toward the front corner of the couch. Pull the abs in and squeeze the inner thighs together.
Then lift both legs together about a foot above the couch cushion as you exhale. Inhale and lower the legs.
Repeat this 10 times.
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This five-minute Pilates workout can also be done in bed or on a traditional yoga or Pilates mat. A regular practice of this routine will help you improve posture, reduce back pain and strengthen your mid-section.
Stephanie Mansour, host of “Step It Up With Steph” on PBS, is a health and wellness journalist and a consultant and weight loss coach for women.