How many times have you spoken to people who were “only bending down to pick something up” when they hurt their back? Every day we carry out tasks that need core strength, flexibility and mobility—lugging the laptop around, carrying the shopping bags, lifting children, reaching high cupboards or even holding a hairdryer… these activities are easier and pain free if you have strong abdominals, a strong core. Taking care of your core helps keep back pain [which becomes increasingly common as we age] at bay. And Pilates helps you do just that.
Pilates is a full body exercise system that offers different levels of intensity and challenge. What makes it such a fool-proof workout for abdominal strengthening is that all movements require you to engage your deep abdominal muscles, “the powerhouse” as Joseph Pilates, the founder of Pilates called it.
Finding your neutral alignment
To work both your back and abdominal muscles as a team, which is essential for optimal stability, find a neutral position from which to start and finish your Pilates exercises. The simplest way to find your neutral pelvis is to stand with your feet hip-distance apart, or lay on your back with your knees bent.
- Start by noticing the natural position of your pelvis when you are at rest [lying down on the floor].
- Next, gently roll your pelvis back towards the floor.
- Now, tilt it in the opposite direction—you may find you create a space between your lower back and the floor.
- Continue rocking the pelvis back and forth—be aware of the range of motion.
- Start to decrease the range of motion until you feel the pelvis is in the central position.
- This half way mark when the arch is neither exaggerated nor flat is your neutral pelvic position.
This is where you will start and finish each Pilates exercise. By focussing on maintaining neutral alignment when needed, you will be working towards improved pelvic stability.
This is a training position. You will not attempt to keep this all day; you will understand when you need to use it as you become more practices in Pilates.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, in your neutral alignment.
- Gently engage your deep abdominal muscles.
- Without moving your pelvis, slowly raise your right leg into a table top position [Lifting your leg such that the shin is parallel to the floor and thigh is perpendicular to the floor].
- Hold this position for a count of 5 – 10 and slowly bring the leg down.
- Re-visit your alignment as you exhale, float the second leg into position.
When you are sure you can maintain good placement of the pelvis for a count of 20 breaths, you can consider raising both legs to increase the challenge. When doing with both legs, lift one leg first, then the second; never lift both legs together.
If you feel the need to roll your back on the floor, there is a pulling sensation in your lower back, or your can’t maintain the contraction in your abdominals, place one leg back on the ground.
The goal is to eventually maintain both legs lifted for 100 breaths [hence the name]. Once that’s achieved, you can stretch your legs in front of you to increase the challenge.
Single leg stretch
In this form, you are challenging your ability to maintain the neutral position of your spine whilst moving your legs.
- Begin with lying on the floor with your knees bent.
- Slide your right heel along the floor, opening your leg. But stretch only as far as you can stretch, without changing the neutral position of your pelvis. Exhale while sliding out and inhale as you bring it back to the start position.
- Just as the first leg slides into position, start sliding your other leg out.
- The challenge is at the changeover so pay attention at this point. Remember, it is not necessary to straighten the legs.
This was level 1, with level 2 we increase the challenge. In this level, with your knees bent, slowly lift one leg up while still keeping it bent at the knee. When you’ve lifted it fairly up, gradually stretch open your knee so that the toes are pointing up—pay attention to the position of your pelvis at all times, exhaling as the leg extends forward. Draw the knee back in, inhaling as you do.
Eventually, you may increase the challenge by starting with both legs lifted and alternating the movement. Build up to 10 repetitions.
The quality of your movement should be the main focus. Always be aware of your alignment. Notice how the length of the breath determines the speed of your movement.
Four point swimming
This is a full body exercise that not only challenges the abdominal muscles, but also tests your coordination and balance.
Start with standing on all fours [on your knees with palms flat on the ground, like a box]. Your alignment should be neutral, with knees directly under the hips and shoulders stabilised.
Next, exhale as you slide one foot back, along the ground, maintaining your pelvic alignment and not leaning over. Once the leg straightens out, lift it behind you—bringing the foot, knee and hip in line. Hold for a few breaths and return the leg to the starting position, where the knee is directly under the hip. Inhale as you do so.
Repeat, 10 times with each leg. As in the single leg stretch, the challenge is in the changeover. Try not to transfer too much body weight from side to side. Eventually, increase the challenge by sliding the opposite arm forward.
This is another balance challenge as well as a full body exercise. The muscles of the waist, inside thighs, buttocks as well as the deep abdominals are the focus.
Start by lying on your side with one arm stretched out. If stretching the arm is a problem, just bend the elbow and rest your head on it. Ensure that your shoulders, hips, knees and feet are in line. Use the other hand to stabilise yourself by resting it on the floor. The closer your hand is to your body, the harder your stabilising muscles need to work. If you need your hand to help you stay in balance make sure you aren’t leaning too hard on it; you shouldn’t immediately fall forward if you release your hand.
Once you find your balance, exhale to lengthen the whole body as though being pulled in opposite directions, then exhale as you lift either just the top leg or both legs if you can maintain balance.
When you have good balance and control, increase the challenge by resting the supported arm on your thigh. This requires concentration and control for lifting and lowering of the legs while maintaining alignment and equilibrium.
Build up to 10 repetitions then change sides.
This was first published in the April 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing
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