How To Properly Engage Your Core
Having a strong core is something we have come to admire. This may be in part to the fact that we spend time on Instagram and Pinterest gazing longingly at people with perfectly toned midsections (you know it’s true..), but that is not the true reason why having a core should be so celebrated. The abdominals are called the “core” because they support the center of the body. In Pilates, the midsection is referred to as “the powerhouse.” Joseph Pilates named it as such because he firmly believed that the abdominals and center of the body was where all the power of the body came from. He knew that having a strong core was the most essential thing.
The core of the body must be strong because it is a direct link to your body’s well being and a healthy life.
The powerhouse consists of everything in the box of your body. The box can be imagined as going from shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, and everything in between. In Pilates you must always move from the deepest level of abdominal engagement, and this will allow your body to safely move not only during a workout, but also day in and day out in life.
It is easier to see some muscle definition at the very top of the abdominals, because those are the rectus abdominals, which are the most superficial layer. Strengthening them is great, but they aren’t key for supporting the spine and creating a strong base for the body. Working from the deepest layer, or transverse abdominals, is essential. These muscles wrap around the midsection like a band and are a direct link to your powerhouse and body’s strength.
So why is it really that important you ask? I like to imagine the body like a potted plant. If the abdominals are strengthened, the pelvis can more easily fall into it’s natural alignment. The spine can then lift up out of that aligned pelvis and be supported by strong abdominals. You are giving your potted plant the base and the sunlight to grow tall and strong. Make sense? This is often why people may gain an inch in height from doing Pilates. The strong core muscles have lifted and supported the spine. With weak abdominals, the body can hunch and fold down into itself. If this isn’t addressed, the spine will begin to maintain that shape, spinal discs can become more easily compressed, shoulders hang forward and unnaturally stretch the muscles of the back, and bad habits are formed.
I personally noticed when I was standing that I would sit into one hip. I began having pain on that side in my hip flexor. My body became misaligned. Instead of focusing on “hip exercises,” I focused on my core work and almost immediately began to stand taller with proper balance and weight distribution. I’m preaching the wonders and necessity of a strong core because it is this important. Having experienced what my body is like without strengthened abdominals and with it, I can attest it is night and day. I have been teaching Pilates full time for 10 years and cannot begin to explain the changes I’ve seen in people’s bodies. Injuries are rehabilitated, rounded and hunched spines are straightened, other athletic endeavors improve (golf, tennis, running, swimming), even sitting in a car becomes more tolerable, everything becomes stronger, more powerful, healthier and safer.
Ok, so let’s cut to the chase. How do you properly engage those muscles?
Imagery and visualization is key.
The abdominals can be tricky to understand at first, so I’ve found that imagery is everything. Try lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Now draw your belly button into your spine, then lift it up along your spine, scooping the abdominals up. I often tell clients to imagine they are wearing a corset and everything is being pulled tightly in and up. It feels like you are “sucking everything in,” and that is a correct feeling! What I’ll challenge you to do however, is make that muscular. Don’t think about pulling your “belly” in, pull your strong abdominals in and draw them actively up along your spine. Use your abs to “hollow out” your stomach like you are creating a bowl. The reasoning for this is we are focusing on getting those deep transverse abdominals to engage.
Breath, breath, breath!
The action of drawing the core actively in and up, (as well as visualizations such as the “corset”) tend to lead people to hold their breath. No fault there, that is totally normal! When you begin practicing the proper engagement of the muscles, begin by taking an inhale through the nose (because that is how we are properly meant to breath) and on your deep exhale, draw those abdominals in and up. Use the exhale to help you find that deep scoop. Practice that a few times. Once it is beginning to feel more natural, challenge yourself to find that active scoop with the abdominals and breathe naturally through the nose. It’s not easy, but it will become more natural with time and practice.
Speaking of practice…
This takes time to feel comfortable with. When you first begin, you may not be sure you are doing it right, but that is because the core muscles are still figuring it out and strengthening. Make your “powerhouse” be a present element in your mind. When you are walking around the supermarket, scoop those abs in and UP- sucking in your stomach doesn’t count, pull those bad boys up along your spine with that strong muscular engagement! When you are sitting at your desk typing, put that imaginary corset! When you are walking, in yoga, at the gym, running, or even lying in bed, engage your abdominals. It seems odd and you will forget at times, but the great thing is, the stronger they get, the more present it is in your mind. Once they begin to get strong, they more easily engage. When I first began Pilates, I wasn’t sure if I was feeling my abdominals when I practiced my “navel to spine” engagement. Today, if I cue someone ELSE to engage their abdominals, I almost get winded because mine start to burn from automatically kicking in. I’m telling you this because I started from the beginning as well and had to learn the proper process and I cannot attest enough to the fact that practice will lead to results!
Your body is meant to move with a strong, strengthened midsection and it is the base of your body. Consistency is key with anything, but especially your muscles. Give your body that extra love it needs and begin living as the healthiest, strongest YOU.