How do I engage my core?

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. 

#pilates #coreengagement #powerhouse #pilatesteacher #corecontrol #coremovement #breathing #pilatesbreathing #abdominalbreathing #coremuscles #zenergyactive #zenergystudio

The Zen & Energy of the Olympics

The Olympics provides a fascinating glimpse of what it takes to achieve incredible athletic feats.  Most of the training techniques are beyond us mere mortals but many athletes use breathing techniques to gain a competitive edge either to create calm and focus or power and energy.    

One of the BBC commentary team explained how horse riders have to avoid transferring pre-event stress to their horses as they can literally feel the tension in the rider’s body, and this will cause the horses muscles to tense in response.  So apparently lots of riders’ hum to activate their diaphragm which stimulates the vagus nerve and therefore the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest state) fast tracking the rider (and horse) to a state of calm.  

On the opposite end of the spectrum the shot-putters, who are throwing the weight of a bowling ball over 23 feet in the air, need to generate strength and power in a matter of seconds.  As they release the shotput, they use a loud grunt to create exactly the right amount of intraabdominal pressure around the torso to create the dynamic strength and stability needed for the load.  

Creating a strong centre or core like this is fundamental to Pilates.  Joseph Pilates called our core the ‘powerhouse’.  All Pilates movements emanate from our powerhouse first before we add movement, this ensures we’re creating the right amount of tension and muscle control for a safe and effective Pilates practice.  

The diaphragm is a key muscle in breathing due to its relationship to our respiratory organs – it moves out of the way for the lungs to expand, then applies pressure to the lungs to exhale.  It also has attachments to the surrounding muscles and bones (including the spine), so by breathing diaphragmatically we effectively engage our core muscles, align our spine and gain the advantages of the nervous rider by calming our minds too. 

To create intra-abdominal pressure for yourself start by standing tall and strong, collar bone wide, shoulders relaxed in neutral spine.  Now breathe in slowly and sense your rib cage expand, exhale slowly but firmly through pursed lips or imagine blowing through a straw.  Tune into the intrabdominal pressure you create around your centre. If you place your fingers just inside your hip bones, you should feel your abdominal wall contracting on the exhale.  This is also a fundamental way to engage your pelvic floor but that’s a whole other subject!  I often get asked – how much pressure should I create – as much as necessary for the activity but as little as possible.

You may also notice how this slow steady breathing and alignment of your body creates a sense of calm – you’re also benefitting from the diaphragm’s relationship to the vagus nerve just as the horse riders do – hence the mental and physical benefits of Pilates.  Let me know how you get on. 

#olympics #powerhouse #diaphragm #core #pilates #mindandbody #zen #energy #zenergyactive #corecontrol #intraabdominalpressure #josephpilates #breathing 

Boost your NEAT for improved weight loss, strength and flexibility

In the first lockdown here in the UK the nation embraced exercise.  We replaced the daily commute by moving with Joe or grabbing our trainers and re-acquainting ourselves with nature.  By the third lockdown however, motivation dwindled.  Now at the end of our lockdown journey (fingers crossed), many of my clients have told me they’re now moving even less than they did pre-lockdown. Not only have they lost their way with exercise routines but they’re feeling the loss of the incidental movement going to work provided.  Combine this with work and home life blending into one meaning even longer hours sat at makeshift desks, bodies are feeling stiff and clothes a little tighter.

As a Pilates instructor it would be easy for me to prescribe more Pilates, but I’m realistic about how much time clients have at the moment to incorporate more structured exercise into their days.  So we’ve been talking about NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis – the impact on your calories and energy of everything you do that is beyond structured exercise or what your body has to do to stay alive such as breathing, sleeping, eating etc.  NEAT includes standing, fidgeting, walking around, shopping, house work – anything that requires your body to move outside of formal exercise. 

There are many articles and papers that explain the weight loss benefits of NEAT such as this and this but you can turn NEAT into an everyday workout that will serve you beyond calorie loss, it can relieve you of achy joints, build stronger muscles and improve your posture and flexibility.  You simply need to ensure that while doing any NEAT movement you maximise it by putting in place the ABCs of Pilates and create a daily habit anchored to activities you do anyway – they just happen to boost your balance, posture, strength and flexibility.  Here’s a few ideas that go beyond ‘take the stairs not the lift’ and ‘get off the bus a stop early’:

Strength, balance and posture:

  • Stand on one-leg to brush your teeth, or do calf lifts floating up and down on your toes – brilliant for balance and great for the legs!
  • When you walk or stand think about your posture and alignment (until it becomes a habit then you can forget about it, you’ll just do it naturally). Roll your shoulders back and down, keep your shoulders in line with your hip bones and on your exhale feel a light engagement of your tummy and bum muscles 

Create a daily stretch habit:

  • Before you walk up the stairs use them to have a stretch – place one foot on the first or second stair keep your chest upright and tuck your tailbone under for a hip flexor stretch
  • Before eating use the table or chair– as long as you can hold onto it without it slipping – to hold onto as you hinge 90 degrees at the hips lowering and flattening your spine and extending your arms for a back and shoulder stretch
  • When you load the dishwasher, before you stand, touch the floor with your knees only as bent as you need to reach the floor and have a hamstring stretch 
  • Shake out your wrists and legs for 30 seconds when you do something you do every day – boil the kettle, check your phone, go to the loo

So give yourself permission to stop feeling guilty about lack of exercise and start making the most of your everyday movements – you’re already burning calories and building stronger muscles and bones without even knowing it so now make it intentional.   

#neat #neatbeyondweightloss #pilatesneat #everydayexercise #beyondthegym #strongbones #strongmuscles #flexibility #posture #pilatesABCs #formandfunction #qualitymovements #movewithintention #shakebreak #stretchbreak #movementbreak #everydayworkout #pilates

Gain a broader perspective and create calm

Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

When you feel really worried about something you’ve probably experienced tunnel vision – when your brain can only focus on one threat even your vision narrows.  The opposite is also true. When we’re in a relaxed state our peripheral vision (PV) widens because it’s connected to our parasympathetic nervous system. When we’re calm, we can take in a bigger picture and absorb more of what’s around us. That’s why athletes hone their Peripheral Vision to gain a competitive advantage in fast paced sports. So by tuning into our peripheral vision we slow the world around us and create calm and a broader perspective.  

Not only that, as we age we lose about 1–3 degrees from the edges of our visual field every 10 years. By 70–80 years of age, most of us have lost 20–30 degrees from the edges of our visual field. This is partly why we fall more as we get older.  It’s seen as ‘part of the ageing process’ but there are lots of exercises we can do to improve our peripheral vision.

Here’s a couple of exercises to try:

Clock face:

Stand or sit comfortably and take three deep breaths, relax into the exhale, do a body scan and release any tight muscles.

Pick a target to look at – a picture, something you can look at clearly.  Now imagine that’s the centre of a clock face, without moving your eyes what can you see at 12 – take in the shapes and colours for a moment, now without moving your eyes what can you see at 3, take a breath, now 6, breathe and now 12.  Finally what can you see at both 3 and 9 simultaneously?

Finger wiggle: 

  • Maintain focus on that same spot from above, again keeping your head still, bring your fingers up to your sides.
  • Move your arms up and down forward and back while you wiggle your fingers until they go out of your vision range then come back in.
  • The idea is that you tune into your peripheral range and train the brain to make the field wider with practice. 

When you next take a break incorporate a few deep breaths and a peripheral vision exercise and just notice how you feel before and after.  

Further reading: This is a good article on PV along some more exercises to try and for the science take a look here

#peripheralvision #peripheralawareness #braintraining #motorskills #relaxationtips #creatingcalm #mindandbody #zenergyactive #eyeworkouts #brainworkouts #zenpilates

Stress awareness month

Stress Awareness Month has been held in the UK every April, since 1992 to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. According to the Mental health Foundation 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

The relationship between mental health challenges such as stress and the impact on our physical health is becoming more widely understood. For example stress has been directly linked to health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems.

Understanding what causes us stress, recognising the signs that we’re feeling stressed and putting in place effective steps to avoid or counter stress in our lives is something that can take years to develop. For me discovering the mindful movement and breathing techniques of Pilates was an essential part of my stress management when I worked in the Corporate world but we all have to find our stress management techniques for ourselves.

The Stress Management Society has loads of incredible resources on their website including this 30 Day Challenge Hints, Links and Tips guide to help navigate this journey. Of course some stress is useful – warning us of danger etc but ongoing chronic stress can have devastating and debilitating consequences, so be reassured there’s loads of resources out there and remember it’s a really common issue that many of us experience.

#stressmanagement #stressawarenessmonth #stressmanagementsociety