Go to the mat for a better body with our insider Pilates tips.

By Alyssa Shaffer

There's a group of women at the gym who hold themselves a certain way. They appear tall, confident and enviably lean. Their secret? Most likely it's Pilates. The popular workout uses your own body weight to build core strength and flexibility through a series of floor-based exercises. It helps you develop abs that any mom would envy and requires a concentration and focus that push out any nagging thoughts of that C your kid got in math class. "After I do a session, my head is totally calm and I'm energized!" notes Claire Danese, a Pilates instructor at Equinox Fitness in New York and mom of two. Take a class once, devotees insist, and you'll feel a difference almost immediately. Get svelte with our insider tips.

Pilates 101

When a workout has its own lingo, you need to decipher it to get the best results. Three terms you should know:

  • Mat class: Pilates workouts are usually divided into two categories: mat classes or equipment-based ones. Mat classes can be done anywhere, use your own body weight and have a strong focus on core strength, explains Moira Merrithew, executive director of education for Merrithew Health and Fitness Pilates in Toronto. Equipment-based workouts employ machines (like the Reformer or the Cadillac, which apply resistance using springs), incorporate more arm and leg movements, and require personal instruction.
  • Powerhouse: Almost every Pilates move involves engaging the core muscles — a group that includes the abs, lower-back muscles and pelvic floor — which work together to form a corset-like support structure. "Building strength in this area is important," says Danese. "In Pilates all movement flows from the center out."
  • Postural Muscles: One reason people who take Pilates look slimmer is because they focus on their posture. Instructors give frequent cues like "grow taller," "lengthen through the crown of the head" and "glide your shoulder blades on the back." "Maintaining good posture puts your body in its best anatomical position, so it moves and functions at its best," adds Danese.

No Gym? No Problem!

There are plenty of affordable routines to try right in your own living room.

  • DVDs: Both Mari Winsor's Beginner Pilates (amazon.com, $15) and Stott Pilates: Basic Pilates Volume 2 (merrithew.com, $16) are particularly good for beginners because of the heavy emphasis on correct form and alignment. If you're looking for more of a challenge, consider Element: Pilates Weight Loss for Beginners (collagevideo.com, $15), which mixes in strength training.
  • Apps: The Hundred? Yep, there's an app for that, as well as many other Pilates moves. In addition to the free downloads we mentioned on the previous page, consider checking out Pilates: Day-by-Day 15-Minute Workout (iTunes, $5.99). New York City-based instructor Alycea Ungaro covers the basics with super-clear authority in a format that's sure to appeal to any time-crunched mom.
  • Web Stream: Stream top Pilates instructors straight to your computer or tablet. Pilatesology.com offers hundreds of classes for all fitness levels, with an emphasis on intro videos ($19/month or $150/year). If you have a computer webcam and want personalized attention, check out Wello.com, where an instructor will demo moves and monitor your form to ensure you're doing them correctly (starting at $10).

WIN IT: Three lucky readers will get a $100 gift certificate to Wello.com, where online instructors lead you through one-on-one or group workouts.

To enter, go to familycircle.com/wello.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.