Do you remember how Jay Leno used to walk up to people on the streets of NYC and ask random questions? And then the answers would be SO ridiculous and incorrect they made you cringe? Yay for showing the stupidity and ignorance of American people for entertainment. But just for fun, let’s play.
“What parts of your body make up your core?”
$10 says you’re thinking that the answer is abs.
Nope. (Insert loud buzzing noise here.)
Core. Powerhouse. Center. These words are interchangeable in the world of Pilates, but they all refer to that super important central part of the body which when used properly provides strength and stability of the entire body for great function and alignment. Anyone who has taken a Pilates class has heard something like this: “Start with your core, engage your core, use your core, squeeze your core, don’t forget about your core…” Always. More. Core.
Now raise your hand if you’ve ever wondered…..Ummmmm. What’s my core??? And how do I engage it?
First of all, I can assure you that you’re not dumb. This whole concept of acknowledging our abs as our cores has been around for a really long time. I’m pretty sure Jane Fonda was throwing those words around back in the 80s…while seriously rocking those leotards and leg warmers. And it’s not that your abs aren’t part of your core–it’s just that there is much more to it! And really working your core in its entirety does so much more for your body than just doing a thousand crunches per day. Yuck.
Your abdominal muscles do make up part of your core, but there are several areas involved. So first of all, I want you to think of your core as being 4-dimensional. The front is the abdominals (really the transverse abdomens), the back is the multifidus, the top is the diaphragm, and the bottom is the pelvic floor. Pilates Sports Center, which is where I obtained my certification as a Pilates Master Trainer, refers to it as a cage — so I always envision it to be a pretty birdcage right in the center of my body. And don’t worry, we are going to break down each of those parts and understand how they all work together.
Abdominals/Transverse Abdominus: Ok, let’s get one thing straight. We are not talking about your six-pack muscles, otherwise known as the rectus abdominus. We are talking about the transverse abdominus, or TA. The TA is located way underneath all the other abdominal muscles and wraps around the sides and front of your abdomen, attaching to the lower ribs and the top of your pelvis. It looks like a smile from hip bone to hip bone since the fibers run horizontally. A great way to find this muscle on your body is to place a finger about two inches in on both sides of the hip, press down, and cough. You will feel the TA fire immediately. (This is the muscle that gets SO sore following a bug that keeps you coughing all the time!) Another way to feel it is to exhale as if you are trying to fog up a mirror. You know, open mouth, making a “Haaaaaa” sound until all your air has been expelled. There it is! When used properly, the transverse abdominus muscles pull the abdomen in and create intra-abdominal pressure and stability.
Multifidus: The multifidus (or multifidi in plural) are actually tiny but powerful muscles that connect between two or three vertebrae of the spine and co-contract with the TA. You may hear people refer to the erectors or the erector spinae, and those muscles just lay on top of the multifidi. If you work with a Pilates instructor who uses the term “neutral spine” while teaching, then you will be working your multifidi. When we work while maintaining a neutral spine, this allows our multifidi to fire and therefore strengthen. Imprinting the spine, or pressing the lower back into the floor which causes your tailbone to tilt up, does not allow engagement of those deep spinal muscles. (Side note: The teaching of neutral spine is typically found in progressive Pilates classes as opposed to classical, which teaches more imprinting. There are many debates as to which version is better, but I believe it is a situation of personal preference and needs. Find what works for you. I personally teach a combination of the two styles depending on clients or classes, and I think everyone needs to make a conscious effort to strengthen the multifidi).
Diaphragm: Before my Pilates training, the only time I ever thought about my diaphragm was back in 6th grade choir. Obviously we use it to breathe, but what the heck does it have to do with core work? Well, the diaphragm is a bell shaped muscle which assists in breathing. Honestly, most people don’t even realize it’s a muscle. But the shape of the diaphragm changes greatly with proper breathing — it flattens out during inhalation to allow air into the biggest part of your lungs, and it pushes out all those internal organs of the belly during contraction. And that proper breathing is crucial for that important intra-abdominal pressure, as well as an integral part of the Pilates philosophy.
Pelvic Floor: Oh, the dreaded kegels! The plight of women, especially those who have birthed children. But seriously, you don’t want to lose pelvic floor stability. Those muscles literally help hold your internal organs inside of your body. Remember how the TA attaches to the lower ribs and the pelvis? Well then, yeah. The pelvic floor muscles are right there at the base of those lower TA fibers. Don’t play dumb — you know how to do the exercises. We’ve all had to stop midstream for some household emergency or child screaming unexpectedly. Do the elevator exercises and keep those muscles strong. A little leakage during exercise is not normal, no matter what people may tell you. So add those kegel exercises to your Pilates work and your core strength will improve exponentially. And guess what? Guys have pelvic floor muscles, too. I’m just not going into specifics of how you feel it because A) I’m a girl and B) I just can’t bring myself to type it. Google can help you out, though.
I think sometimes we instructors assume that everyone knows the things we consider basic Pilates and body knowledge. We live and breathe this method daily, but most people do not have the same body awareness as people who complete 450 hours of training to be Pilates instructors. I actually love having the opportunity to help a client discover this knowledge and learn which cues help them activate their core muscles. Not only is it a really cool Oprah-lightbulb-moment, but now that person is equipped with the information to help them live and move better.
Over my years of teaching in both private and class settings, I’ve learned the importance of taking an extra 15 seconds to remind people that our cores are more than our abs. I’ve made it a point to invite people to speak with me after class for a longer explanation or to attend a Pilates intro class just to get a better understanding. Because for that extra 15 seconds or five minutes of my time, people can better understand core engagement and hopefully increase their quality of life.
And you know, in case Jay Leno decides to pick up his act again, we can make America look way smarter. High five.