Correctly engaging and performing core exercises can be overwhelming. Many people jump to higher level strengthening exercises without correctly recruiting their deep core musculature. This often results in a pushing out effort versus an actual drawing in of the abdominals. Another very common error in recruiting the abdominals is improper breathing. First, let’s start with a brief explanation of what the “core” is…
There are 2 muscular systems that make up the core, the local system and the global system. The local system is a group of deep muscles that are the closest to the spine (pelvic floor, transversus abdominis and multifidi). It is important to learn to recruit these deep spinal stabilizers as they provide lumbopelvic stability with static and dynamic movements. As Physical Therapists, we work with clients who are often weak or unable to recruit these deeper spinal stabilizers. If done properly, there is a deep feeling of pulling up and drawing in versus an adverse contraction of “bearing down”. Once you learn how to find these muscles, you can learn how breathing actually works in conjunction with engaging these muscles. With time and practice, this will become second nature and will be performed with other higher level, advanced exercises.
The more superficial, global muscles rectus (rectus abdominis and internal & external obliques) can very often be improperly trained as well. As Pilates instructors, we often see men and women incorrectly working their core and the result is a widening of the waist and a bulging out or pooching of their stomach area. This often occurs when performing crunches, sit-ups and other common abdominal exercises. In more extreme cases, the abdominals can separate and cause a diastasis recti. This is a separation of the connective tissue of the rectus abdominis. Diastasis recti is common in women as a result of pregnancy. However, it can also be the result of improper workout & lifting techniques. As Physical Therapists, we also see diastasis recti being exacerbated by performing every day activities e.g. lifting or jackknifing out of bed.
The good news is that with time you can properly train the muscles to knit back together. Then with continued awareness of breathing, properly contracting your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, you can return to higher level exercises and activities with stability and control.
Practicing Pilates correctly often looks highly skillful and effortless. For a beginner, it might seem intimidating. Despite the level, from beginning to advanced, there should be flow. Flow means striving for a smooth, controlled and precise movement. A highly skilled athlete, runner, or performer will make what they are doing look easy. The level of efficiency of their movement is impressive. Are they working hard? Absolutely. However, most often an observer cannot tell. Performing an exercise with flow is a way to challenge the body. This begins with the breathe. Breathing guides the movement, creating a sense of flowing energy that is a unique and enjoyable aspect of Pilates. We move with the breath. The inhale transitions into the exhale and the movement follows along. I like to think of the breathe as the conductor or the guide to flow of movement. It is one of the many things that makes Pilates so much fun. Moving the body can vary much like music. Sometimes it is slow and deliberate. Other times fast and pulsing or smooth and continuous. We love varying the flow throughout class. It keeps the mind and the body challenged!
Pilates is a mind-body movement. Control begins with the mind. Your mind formulates and controls the movement. Most of us know from personal experience that it is often harder to do something slow and controlled vs fast and with momentum. Every Pilates exercises focuses on complete muscular control of a movement. Lack of control is a primary cause of injury. Pilates focuses on control instead of intensity or repetition. Our exercise culture typically emphasizes the latter and believes in working as hard and as fast as possible. With practice, control is developed and becomes more natural. It is an essential component of mastering a skill. Do not be mistaken, Pilates is not slow all the time! Once you develop control, you can speed things up. You can definitely get your heart rate up and break a sweat. I believe as with any skill, it is important to return once in awhile back to the basics, as a means to learn how to better control and further develop your practice.
Do you know how to breathe?
We all know that breathing is imperative. Learning how to breath properly and efficiently can be challenging. In Pilates, we teach posterolateral rib cage breathing. Like diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, you use your diaphragm but also the intercostal muscles. The intercostals are small muscles between each individual rib that assist with both inhalation and exhalation. There is an ideal difference in circumference of your ribcage between inhalation and exhalation and this is approximately 2 inches. To learn to breath properly, It is important to be sure that you are not using the wrong muscles such as the neck muscles to assist in expanding the ribcage to bring in air. This can be seen by a subtle elevation of the shoulder girdle. A significant benefit of posterolateral rib cage breathing is that it allows for you to engage your core while breathing. That way core is “on” throughout your breath. However, you can focus on the deepening the abdominal effort on the exhale. As your Pilates skill level improves, proper breathing allows you to take your practice to the next level. Beginners are often concerned with doing everything correctly. Learning a new skill is a practice and takes time. Enjoy the process! We do not learn to be a dancer, athlete, musician in just a couple of sessions. Eventually, you will inherently know when to breath. It will help you to stay focused and get the maximum benefits Pilates has to offer.
We hear it all the time…you need core strengthening. If there is one thing that everyone knows about Pilates, it is that it is good for improving core strength. Joseph Pilates called the core the “Powerhouse”. It is the area between the lower ribs and the pubic bone. In Pilates, the focus begins with this center of the body. Many people think the “core” means the abs. The concept of the core is a somewhat more complex. First and foremost, it is important to learn to recruit the deep stabilizers (pelvic floor, transversus abdominus and multifidi). This is called the local system. As Physical Therapists, we spend a lot of time working with patients on how to correctly engage these deep stabilizers. Once you learn how to find these muscles, you can learn how breathing actually works in conjunction with engaging these muscles. From there, you can progress to more advanced exercises. I find that many clients skip right to the more advanced exercises and never learn how to properly recruit their deeper muscles. Maybe their back pain does not improve or they get injured with exercises? By learning to correctly engage the core, one can use this understanding to carry over into other aspects of their daily life. With the engagement of the core, your posture, balance and movements will improve. In everyday life, you will sit, stand, walk, lift, push, pull with the ability to use these super important muscles to protect your spine.
Pilates requires mind-body awareness. Teaching Pilates involves instructing how to stabilize and how to move both which require concentration. I find that many beginners focus more on the movement instead of positioning and placement. They will often move to more advanced exercises too soon or use too much weight or resistance. My Pilates mentor said “put it where it belongs and then call for movement”. What this means, is that one must concentrate and be very aware of the proper position and then engage the correct muscle(s) to maintain this position before any movement begins. This is definitely a challenging aspect of teaching and where I feel as a teacher, a lot of time is spent working on this. Doing a pilates movement is one thing, doing it correctly requires concentration.
We are a very active society, however our awareness of the movements and postures we perform are often not given much attention. Pilates is about precise postures and movements. At first doing pilates can be very challenging. As with any skill, you will gradually become more familiar with the method and you learn that precision takes your practice to a whole new level. Proper form is essential to ensure you gain the most benefit and keep your body healthy and injury free. A mentor of mine used to say “the devil is in the details” and I couldn’t agree more. Learning to be more precise with your movements requires the careful attention of a skilled and well-trained instructor. I love this aspect of teaching.
Pilates blog post #1
I have been treating patients and teaching pilates classes for a long time. It is amazing how I feel as I continue to grow as a therapist and teacher. As a student, I learned about the 6 principles of Pilates. The more I continue to work with patients and clients, the more I truly understand what they really mean. They are Concentration, Centering, Control, Precision, Breathing & Flow.