Lower and lift

Lower and lift (Brendan Cavanaugh, Baltimore Sun)

Push your workout to the next level with the addition of a Pilates magic circle. It's perfect for toning and building core strength — and it's light and not too expensive (it's found at most fitness stores for less than $50). It's made of flexible metal or rubber, and is 12 to 14 inches in diameter, with soft pads on each side. Try out a few at the store, and get one that isn't too hard to squeeze but instead provides mild resistance, says Heather Kirk, Pilates instructor at Inline Private Training in Baltimore.

"It's great because it is versatile, portable, works every muscle group and costs very little money," Kirk says. "You can even pack one in your suitcase for a great workout while traveling."

Kirk shares seven toning exercises you can do with the Pilates magic circle.

Straight arms

Get ready: Standing with your heels together, squeeze your inner thighs and pull your belly button toward your spine to tighten your core. Place the circle directly in front of your chest, holding it with both hands. Your hands should be open flat with your finger tips pointing away from your body, elbows slightly bent. Try not to squeeze the circle.

Start: Press the circle 10 times. Then, squeeze the circle and count to 10 while moving the circle above your head. You should reach 10 when you get right above your head. Now, begin lowering the circle again, counting to 10 until you reach your hips. Repeat five times.

Muscles used: Chest, arms, back and core.

Arms behind your back

Get ready: Stand tall with your heels together, squeezing your inner thighs. Pull your abs in and place the circle behind your back, holding it with both hands. Your hands should be open and flat — not squeezing the circle. Your fingers should be pointed toward the ground.

Start: Inhale and then exhale slightly, squeezing the circle to engage your core and the back of your arms and back muscles. Then inhale and release the circle. Repeat 12 to 15 times.

Muscles used: Triceps and back.

One hundred

Get ready: Lie on your back and place the circle between your legs right above your ankles. Slightly squeeze the circle and raise your legs to a 90-degree angle. Roll your head, neck and chest off the ground and look toward your belly button. Lift your arms so they are parallel to the floor, and you're in a crunch position.

Start: Vigorously pump your arms up and down. While you're doing this, inhale for five counts and then exhale, pulling your abs in for five counts. Repeat until you reach 100. Once you've mastered this, try it while lowering your legs to a 45-degree angle.

Muscles used: Core, inner thighs and glutes.

Side-lying leg presses

Get ready: Lie on your left side, resting on your elbow. Place the circle between your legs right above your ankles, and stretch your legs out away from you, with your toes facing away from your body. Your hips should be stacked vertically, and your legs should be a few inches in front of your body. Reach your top arm away from you and lift your ribs up, away from the floor so you're engaging your core and back muscles.

Start: Inhale, and while you're exhaling, squeeze the circle as hard as you can. Inhale and release the circle. Repeat 10 to 15 times, and then repeat on your right side.

Muscles used: Core, obliques, back, inner and outer thighs and glutes.

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