Abs vs. Thighs: Improving Core Strength with Pilates Matwork

by | Apr 11, 2012 | Pilates | 1 comment

The Pilates Double Leg Lift Exercise with a Partner

Core Strength with Pilates at CenterworksThis article is number 5 of 6 in the core strengthening series of articles about Abs vs. Thighs.  Improve your core conditioning, get more effective work from your Abdominal muscles, and help reduce lower back pain with the helpful Pilates training tips in this article to help you discover how to use your Quads less, and Abs more for improved core strength & conditioning.

When I started Pilates, my first teacher spent hours and hours of my private lesson time helping me retrain my habits to get the work out of the front of my thighs while working my Abs.  I am eternally grateful for this nit-picking, and his painstaking efforts to be sure that every repetition I did was right.

I had huge Quadriceps muscles when I started Pilates, and a very tight lower back.  With my athletic background and fitness training, I had developed posture and movement habits that were getting me by, but weren’t optimal for me to really safe and efficient with my movement.

I thought I was very strong, fit, and flexible until we started retraining my technique, then I quickly realized how much I had been relying on my leg muscles rather than my core to support me! 

Core strengthening took on a whole new meaning as we tweaked my Pilates technique by doing the Double Leg Lift from the “Series of 5” with a partner.

Since so many of the Pilates Matwork exercises involve holding or lifting the legs up, it will be a real assets to your exercise technique to figure this Abs vs. Thighs concept out for your own body.  Improve  core strength and exercise efficiency.  Get better low back support, stronger Abs, and do less of the lifting with those overdeveloped Quads.

The Double Leg Lift with a Partner is a great exercise!  Improve body awareness and discover true core strength.  Done well, you’ll learn how to do all your Ab work, without having the Quads take over.

For This Core Strengthening Exercise You’ll Need To Find a Partner:

  • One person lays on their back, hands behind the head, knees bent into the chest.
  • Curl the head and shoulders up, and extend the legs to the ceiling.
  • Partner stand behind, and support the legs at the ankles.
  • Let your legs be heavy, and allow your partner to hold the weight of the legs.
  • From your spotters view it will be easy to see the Abs pull in, and easy to see if the Quads grab.
  • Inhale & Exhale to pull the Abs in while your partner assists in supporting your heavy, relaxed legs.
  • Inhale and Exhale to pull the Abs in and hinge the legs back to the starting position, straight up to the ceiling.

Done correctly, the legs (while remaining relaxed) should feel very light, and easily float back up to the ceiling.  You will feel significantly more work in your core, and no grabbing or gripping in the fronts of your thighs.

Helpful Exercise Hints for Relaxed Quads To Get Your Abs Stronger While You Practice the Double Straight Leg with a Partner

  • As the legs are lifting, the quads need to stay relaxed!
  • It’s OK to start with bent knees and progress to straighter legs, but straight legs will be ideal.
  • If your legs get lighter in your partners hands, your quads are pulling the legs up.  Stop, hold where you’re at, relax the thighs, inhale, exhale, belly in, then continue keeping the Quads relaxed.
  • You may need 2-5 breaths to lift your legs from a low to high angle and stay out of the quads to start!
  • Eventually this exercise should be done on one breath – inhale to lower the legs, exhale, abs in, float the legs up.
  • If your legs stay heavy in your partners hands, you are correctly using your Abs, and Psoas as the hip flexors to lift the legs.  Congrats!  you’ve figured it out.

Now to practice on your own, use a wall or chair to rest your legs on at the lower angle so you can take a moment to feel your back down, Abs in, quads relaxed, then exhale to float/ lift the legs.

Putting It All Together To Move Well On Your Own With Every Core Strengthening Abdominal Exercise You Do

It is a combination of the feeling of relaxed quads and free legs that you are finding here, along with the work of the Abs and backs of the legs – hamstrings & Glutes that you practiced with the Knees Over the Roll Down Bar, and 100 with Feet in the Straps that provides the full balance of work and release required to do this exercise safely.   (Or any other exercise where the legs are held between 45 degrees and eye-level)

The combination of preparatory exercises and modifications in this Abs vs. Thighs series of articles can help you get the core strength you need and the freedom to get those legs to lift & lower through a full range of motion with great support and zero back strain.


To review the first 4 articles in the Abs vs. Thighs series, click on the links below:

1st Article:  Abs vs. Thighs: Which Muscles are Really Working to Strengthen Your Core?

2nd Article:  Abs vs. Thighs: Preparatory Exercises to Help Find the Abs & Relax the Hip Flexors for Effective Core Strengthening

3rd Article:  Abs vs. Thighs: For Effective Core Conditioning – Strengthen the Hamstrings & Glutes

4th Article:  Core Conditioning Exercise Tips To Improve Pilates Exercise Technique (Abs vs. Thighs: The Pilates Hundred Exercise with Feet in Straps or Leg Springs)


Sign Up for the Centerworks Blog RSS feed and get notified for the sixth and final article in this Abs vs. Thighs series, as well as all the Pilates, Foot Fitness, and Functional Movement posts to help you enjoy Whole-Body Health and Wellness Success!

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.

1 Comment

  1. Isla

    Power lift chairs are wonderful for those having a problem getting in and/or out of a regular chair. The Leather lift chairs come with a remote to gently ease you up, so it’s easier to get out. Put it in the up position when getting in, and you can be gently lowered to a sitting and even reclining position. Ingenious and very helpful!! Thanks for writing and I’d like to invite you to my blog and comment on my article about lift chairs.



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