All Pilates exercises, and most movements in life, originate from the core. Not being able to engage the core muscles means not being able to get the most from workouts, or from our bodies in general. A weak core can lead to postural deviations, back issues and injuries. So helping my students engage their core is a vital part of a Pilates teacher’s role. I’ve shared some tips on how I do this below.
First of all what is the core? Most of us picture a 6-pack at the front of our stomachs. Joseph Pilates called the core ‘The Powerhouse’, a term that broadens and more accurately describes the role of the muscles at the centre of the body.
The Powerhouse muscles include; the transverse abdominis, obliques, multifidus, quadratus lumborum (mid and lower back), glutes and hips. These muscles connect and interconnect from the back of the spine/pelvis/ribs and wrap around to the front with the pelvic floor at the bottom and the diaphragm at the top.
To activate our Powerhouse in preparation for movement we use the breath. The core muscles are used in abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing, which is why we use this breathing pattern in Pilates.
I ask students to place one hand on their ribs and one hand on their stomach as I explain the process and see if they can sense/feel the movement under their hands. When we breathe in the ribs expand allowing the diaphragm to move down, sucking air into the lungs and pushing the abdominal contents down, this forces the abdominal wall out. When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes, air passes out of the lungs and the abdominal muscles contract as they flatten.
So we take 3 slow steady breaths in and out through the nose and see if we can feel the ribs expand under our hand on the inhale, then on the exhale we try to sense the stomach wall move away from the other hand as the stomach muscles contract.
Sometimes this is enough for students to get/feel the connection between core engagement and breathing. But if not, we can explore this further by looking at the rib cage and stomach engagement separately.
For the ribs – I ask students to wrap a long resistance band around the rib cage and hold it at the front of the body. We then relax the shoulders and practice breathing deeply and steadily with a focus on stretching the band on the inhale by getting the rib cage to expand, then on the exhale notice how the band loosens slightly as the ribs knit back together.
For the stomach muscles – I ask students to place their index and middle fingers just inside their hip bones and press into the abdominal wall quite firmly. We then do a ‘straw breath’, imagining we’re blowing through a straw slowly on the exhale. I ask them to sense/visualise the contraction of the stomach muscles and the drawing up and in of the pelvic floor and even a slight squeeze of the glutes that naturally happens. By doing this we’re creating the stomach pressure we want for some of the more challenging Pilates movements.
Finally, I ask them to imagine that if I threw a ball firmly at their stomachs while they were exhaling, it would just bounce off, not leaving them winded.
This can seem like an overwhelming amount of information and not all students can feel it first time. It would be easy to default to terms like ‘tighten your corset/belt’, ‘tummy to spine’ or ‘scoop your belly’ but in my experience this creates tightness in the chest and shoulders and compromises posture. It’s worth taking the time to persevere because once it’s locked into the muscle memory it becomes second nature creating a safe and effective Pilates practice as well as improved movement, posture and breathing from your powerhouse for life.
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