True Core Strength
When we think about the "core" the first image that commonly springs to mind is chiselled abs and the lean lines of a six pack. This muscle group, the Rectus Abdominis (RA) is what thousands of people aspire to tone, sculpt and reveal – you know, the ones that ‘when you melt away that fat’ is magically there! However, in terms of core strength, that pack is superficial, and well, irrelevant.
One thing that RA is not, is a core stabilizer. When discussing building “core strength” “core stabilization” “core control” or just even a “core” RA doesn’t, or shouldn’t *in a Pilates modality*, come into the equation.
the true core layers
There are three groups we are aiming to activate and strengthen to develop core control – The Pelvic Floor, Transversus Abdominis & The Obliques.
the pelvic floor
The deepest level is your Pelvic Floor. You probably have heard this term float around for years (think Kegels), but many people are still unaware, or unable, to activate the pelvic floor. To begin it helps to know where it is, and how it works:
The PF is a web of muscles, situated between your two sitz bones, your pubic bone and the tail bone. It is in the very centre of your body, directly down from your diaphragm. The movement of the pelvic floor is to slightly lift vertically against gravity. Many cues are used here to think of activating, the most popular – “imagine stopping yourself from going to the bathroom (in both senses)”. Think of an entire 360 degree web, lifting or sucking up gently everytime you gently exhale out through pursed lips.
1. PF Engagament
Think of your spine as an elevator, as you exhale try and lift your pelvic floor up from the ground floor (base of your pelvis) to level 10 (between shoulder blades). Inhale to hold, exhale to try and release back to 0. On your next exhale, try to lift to level 5 (roughly your belly button), stay as you inhale and then release. On your next attempt, exhale to level 10, stay to inhale, then as you exhale try to drop to level 5. Try moving between these a few more times. You ideally want about a 25% contraction at all times during Pilates (and any activity for that matter).
the transversus abdominis
The next layer, is your Transversus Abdominis (TA) or otherwise known as your Pilates instructors favourite core muscle!
TA is your strongest core stabilizer. A “corset” muscle, it begins at your Linea Alba (translation: midline) wraps across your ASIS (your bony hip bones) across the lumbar spine (lower back) and hooks into your spinal column. It’s a band, across your lower torso and it wants to activate in the horizontal, i.e. flat plane!
If you have ever said “I want to get my lower belly flatter”, that’s TA that needs to work! The best way I have found to build this activation, is the grab your hip bones, and try to feel like you are pulling (gently) them out to the sides of the room away from your centre. Another way, is to feel like you are scooping across your lower belly from your midline out to your hips with two fingers. The band needs to pull horizontally across the body, not vertically up. What you want to avoid, is seeing any bulging or protruding. Think “scoop” “hollow” “widen”.
1. TA Activation
Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Find your spine and pelvis in 'neutral'. Place hands just inside the hip bones. Take a deep inhale into the back of your ribcage, as you exhale, try to scoop the distance between your hands out as you imagine your hips widening apart to the sides of the room. Try for 5 reps.
2. Tabletop Floats.
Inhale in neutral position. As you exhale, gently float the Right leg up to a tabletop position without changing the abdominals or your spinal position. Inhale to hold, then stabilise and as you exhale float the Left leg up to join. Stay as you inhale and try to gently draw your TA back down towards to spinal column and draw in. Exhale float the legs down one at a time. Try for 10 reps.
The top level now are your Obliques. Those sexy sexy obliques! Referencing here, both your internal and external obliques. They play an important role in connecting your rib cage down towards your hips (i.e.forward flexion aka ab prep: upper body lift when lying down) and developing cross actions (i.e. moving your body on a diagonal). They are important within posture to keep your ribs and shoulders balanced over the pelvis.
1. Neutral + Imprint.
This connects your internal obliques, connecting your rib cage to your hip bones. Find neutral spine and pelvis, with your thumbs on your lower ribs and fingers on your hip bones. Inhale to hold neutral. As you exhale, thinking of your ribs drawing down to your hip bones. You should find that your back flexes gently and the space behind your lower back gently squeezes down towards the floor. Check here that the "abs" havent bulged up towards the ceiling, they should still feel like they are drawing in + scooping out. Inhale to release back to neutral, without popping or extending the rib cage up to the ceiling.
2. Ab Preps
Laying on your back in neutral, with your arms long by your sides, you inhale to nod the chin to the chest, lengthening the back of the neck. Exhale, you flex the upper body off the mat, by drawing your rib cage to your hips, taking the gaze to your pubic bone or mid thighs. As you do so, check again that your "abs" havent bulged up the ceiling, gently try to flatten across the band of your lower belly. Inhale to release the hand back down. Try for 10 reps.
3. External Obliques
Take the fingertips to the side of the temples with elbows bent and wide. As you exhale lift the head and shoulders up to ab prep position (above). As you inhale, rotate your upper body [from the waist up] to the right knee, making sure you keep your hips grounded, shoulders wide & even and your lower belly gently drawn in. You should feel an activation from the right hip to left side of your ribcage. As you exhale rotate back to centre and stay lifted. Inhale and rotate to the left knee. Try for 5 rounds (one round consists of Right + Left).
let the superficial shit go...
These three muscles groups, combined with spine stabilisers are your “core stabilisers”. They are going to strengthen you in an effective manner. They will reward you with a lean appearance through the stomach, help you build connected movement patterns between the upper and lower body and build power and control. Your centre should always be the powerhouse of your body. It’s a Pilates philosophy that you strengthen the centre and then move to the periphery. So focus on that deep core connection – which requires a little more focus than millions of mindless crunches – and let that superficial six pack shit go!!