AS A PILATES INSTRUCTOR, clients plead with me on a daily basis to help them “get rid of this gut.” Most are coming to me with the notion that Pilates is all about core strengthening and that this will somehow give them flat tummies. After explaining that we cannot spot reduce but that core strength will help them move in other ways that will enable them to shed pounds as well as prevent injury and back pain, they are ready for me to give them a workout they can do at home. This is the part where I look them in the eye and say “NOT YET!!” Working the core is something that your average gym rat (and even some personal trainers) gets very wrong. I’m not just talking wrong as in wasting time–I mean as in you-could-prolapse-an-organ wrong.
Lets talk about “core.”
The definition is somewhat open-ended these days and can pretty much refer to any muscles not attached to your extremities. Pilates practitioners, however, define the core as the deep muscles that surround the contents of the abdomen. These muscles are the transverse abdominis, the deepest layer of the abdominals; the multifidi, small muscles that connect to the spine; the diaphragm, a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen; and my personal favorite, the pelvic floor. Why is this my favorite? Well, it’s a muscle that a lot of people do not know they have because it’s in a part of the body we don’t usually discuss in polite company. It is also the muscle we can hurt the most by doing core stuff wrong!
The pelvic floor is located at the base of the pelvis, and its primary purpose is to prevent your organs from, well, spilling out on to the floor. Think of a cylinder with a dome at the top and bottom. The diaphragm is at the top and the pelvic floor makes up the base. These muscles contract together and keep in all the contents of the abdomen as you breathe in and out. Maintaining adequate strength of the pelvic floor can help prevent some types of urinary incontinence and can even be helpful during and after pregnancy. Also, let’s not forget the benefits a strong pelvic floor can bring to the bedroom (I’ll let your imagine run with that one).
So, we all want flatter tummies–that’s a given. But did you know that almost a quarter of women over 35 experience some trouble with incontinence? In theory, strengthening our core muscles should be the solution to both problems but unfortunately, overworking the wrong core muscles can make incontinence problems worse.
For example, I often see both men and women doing abdominal crunches or trying to simulate exercises they learned in Pilates, including hundreds, criss-cross or single leg stretch. What they do not realize is that their tummy muscles are almost always pushing outward, overly activating the rectus abdominus and the external obliques. If these muscles become overdeveloped, this excess pressure can lead to organ prolapse. This is particularly true if the pelvic floor, meant to hold the organs in, is concomitantly underdeveloped. These exercises may satisfy people’s desire for that “next day soreness,” but the problem is that they are not usually connecting to the deep core muscles but instead overtightening the externals. This will eventually squeeze everything downward toward an unprepared pelvic floor and can lead to a prolapsed organ or an incontinence issue.
A quick way to tell whether you’re engaging externally or internally is to place your hands on your lower belly, right above your pubic bone. Engage your abs and feel what happens. If you find your tummy pushing up against your hands, you are over-engaging the external muscles.
Here are a few techniques to try:
- All fours abdominal “kittens in”: Kneel on all fours with the hands right below the shoulders and keep weight on the index finger knuckle to keep pressure off the wrists. Imagine that you are a pregnant cat. Without changing the position of your pelvis or spine AT ALL, drop your pregnant cat belly toward the floor. Then, on your exhale, pull the kittens in. DO NOT MOVE ANYTHING. As you pull the kittens in and out, become aware of any extra movement happening in other parts of the body and try to keep very still, focusing on pulling the kittens up and in.
- Single arm and leg reach (spinal balance): Take the kittens exercise above, continue to keep the “kittens” in, square the hips and reach the right leg back. Then reach the left arm to the front (DON’T DROP THE KITTENS). Hold 10 seconds and then switch sides.
- Hip bridge: Try this with a squishy ball or yoga block between the knees. As you lift your sacrum off the mat, reach the ball or block away from you, feeling the stretch in the front side of the body. In the bridge, try to connect the ribs together. Do not let them splay out to the sides. Roll back down one vertebra at a time. Variation: Try this on your tippy toes.
- Squat: Here’s an oldie but a goodie. As a society we have somehow convinced ourselves that squats are bad for our knees. However, it is almost impossible to get through life without this motion and it happens to be one of the best deep core exercises you can do. Stand with the legs a bit wider than hip width. While maintaining a straight line in the spine, reach your booty to the back of the room while bending the knees like you are sitting in a chair. Keep the kittens in and keep the chest somewhat upright. When the hips are below the knees, rise back to the starting position.
Working one on one with a Pilates instructor or another certified strength and conditioning coach will help you tap in to many muscles you never knew you had, including everything discussed above. A strong, properly functioning core is the perfect start to a long and successful relationship with fitness. All other types of exercise will become more efficient. Your posture and balance will improve and your back will be safer from injuries. In addition, you can avoid prolapsed organs AND little accidents during hysterical fits of laughter.
Jessie Marshall is a certified Pilates instructor and Mind/Body Director of Bethesda and Northwest Sport & Health clubs.