Abs vs. Thighs: Which Muscles Are Really Working To Strengthen Your Core?

by | Mar 6, 2012 | Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 8 comments

This article is part 1 of a 6-part series with tips to improve Pilates technique, increase effective Abdominal Strength, reduce overuse of gripping hip flexors, and improve functional mobility of the spine, pelvis, and legs.

When you do a sit-up,  Pilates Roll Up, Neck Pull, or Teaser, or even during the Ab Series of 5 in Pilates Matwork, How much are you using the Hip Flexors and Quads vs, the Abs and Psoas to do the work? 

Increasing your awareness of Abs vs. Thighs can help you change some bad habits for muscle recruitment, improve your true core strength, increase the flexibility of your back, and free up your hips & legs for better mobility.  Changing habits for Abs vs. Thighs will help you improve Ab strength, relax tight hip flexors, discover how to use your core more &  Quads less for effective sit-ups, & Pilates Roll-up exercises.

Why Is Paying Attention To Abs vs. Thighs  Important?

Well as a society, we spend so much time sitting that our hip flexor muscles are too tight to begin with.  And for a lot of people, on the rare occasion that they think about better seated posture, the tendency is to use the hip flexors in the front of the thighs even more to grip and pull the pelvis forward, instead of activating the pelvic floor, abdominal, and back muscles to really lift the body up away from the legs to sit taller.

Gripping and grabbing with the hip flexors draws the thigh bone up to the top of the hip socket.  In effect, the thigh bone is stuck up on the Quadriceps, rather than laying down on the Hamstrings.  In this position there is limited mobility for the leg to move in any direction because there is not adequate joint space between the ball of the leg bone and socket of the pelvis. 

***If there is limited joint space to move the leg in the socket to swing the leg forward and back (like the action that is needed to walk and run for good gait,) movement of the socket around the leg (the action needed for a full sit-up, Roll Up, Neck Pull, Teaser) is also compromised.

When you “Hang on with your hip flexors” your feet and legs will lift up off the mat while you are attempting to roll up!  The weight of your legs lifting up will push your upper body back down to the mat!  No matter how hard you try…  Getting up will always be a battle if you’re gripping with the hip flexors.  If you are trying to roll down and the hip flexors stay tight, the legs fly up which makes it impossible to articulate through the spine and roll back with any sort of control – gravity decides when you hit the floor, not the eccentric lengthening of your core to control your descent.

Our legs function like a teeter-totter.  For one end of the leg to go up, the other end must go down. And for us to get the most benefit from our Ab work the thigh bones need to stay down while the Abdominal muscles are pulling up and in!

The Slinky Effect

The goal with Pilates is to develop “length with strength.” 

We are always strong when we shorten or compact things together.  But putting the body in compact positions limits mobility.  Trying to force movement without enough joint space, and pain, or injury, is the only logical result.

Think about the slinky that you played with as a kid

Smash it together and it’s a tube.  It can roll in this shape, but that’s about it.  But when you pull the slinky apart, it moves freely in all directions.  Set it on a stair and pull it apart, and the anchor of the low end provides support for it to flip over, stretch apart, and gracefully walk down the stairs.

The “Slinky Effect” is what we’re looking for in finding the opposing muscles in our body to support movement.

For Ab strengthening, the support or “anchor” from the legs comes from underneath the legs with the Glutes and Hamstrings.  But typically people try and use the Quads and fronts of the legs instead.  This is why so many people struggle with exercises like full sit-ups, the Pilates Roll-up, and Neck Pull.

If you want more support for your core strengthening, waist-slimming, “slinky length,” youve got to get the backs of your legs doing more!


This is the first article in a 6-part series on Abs vs. Thighs.

Keep on the lookout for the next installment with details and tips on the Tabletop Prop exercise – the first exercise in a recommended progression to help you get stronger faster and become more aware of your Abs vs. Thigh habits to improve your Pilates exercise technique!


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. Tracy

    This is great – I live the slinky metaphor!

  2. Raquel Currah

    Great article! Can’t wait for next installment.

    • Aliesa George

      Thanks for the comments! Glad to know you like what you’re reading. More soon….

  3. Paulette

    Yes I need this. I’m looking forward to the post on doing tabletop. After 6 months hundreds with tabletop is still a struggle for me. Perhaps your tips will help. Thanks

    • Aliesa George

      Hi Paulette! Did some filming yesterday – need time to edit and hope to have a video of this exercise posted soon. Thanks for your comments. I look forward to hearing how these tips help your Hundred! Have a great day.

  4. Kim Carlyle

    This is well written. Doing Mat on screened in porch on this gorgeous day. Miss working with you in person, but it’s like you’re right there,in person. Thanks. You are the BEST TEACHER in the planet.

    • Aliesa George

      Hi Kim, Thanks for the comments – You just made my day! So proud to know you’re doing your Matwork at home – atta girl!!!

  5. best abs workouts girls

    I’ve been taking creatine monohydrate for a few weeks now. I use it as an energy boost to provide me a longer workout, building much more muscle. Do any of you know if consuming alcohol while taking the product will kill me?



  1. Abs vs. Thighs: Preparatory Exercises to Find the Abs & Relax the Hip Flexors for Effective Core Strengthening | Centerworks Blog - [...] Abs vs. Thighs to improve core strengthening.  Click on the link, If you missed the first article “Abs vs.…
  2. Abs vs. Thighs – Strengthening the Hamstrings & Glutes for Effective Core Conditioning - [...] 1st Article: “Abs vs. Thighs: Which Muscles Are Really Working To Strengthen Your Core” [...]
  3. Core Conditioning Exercise Tips To Improve Pilates Exercise Technique - [...] 1st Article: Abs vs. Thighs: Which Muscles Are Really Working To Strengthen Your Core? [...]
  4. Abs vs. Thighs: Improving Core Strength with the Pilates Double Leg Lift with a Partner - [...] 1st Article:  Abs vs. Thighs: Which Muscles are Really Working to Strengthen Your Core? [...]
  5. Pilates for Core Conditioning - Oblique’s vs. Quads - [...] 1st Article: Abs vs. Thighs: Which Muscles are Really Working to Strengthen Your Core? [...]
  6. Help Me Stop Gripping My Hip Flexors During Pilates Exercises - [...]  Article 1:  Abs vs. Thighs:  Which Muscles are Really Working to Strengthen Your Core? [...]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

10% Off

Sign up now to get 10% off your first purchase.

Get updates on discounts, events, early access to new products, and more.