In the past few weeks, I have been asked by several people to discuss some simple, easy-to-do abdominal exercises that help strengthen the core. I am very specific when I say core as opposed to abs. The region referred to as the core in Pilates stems from the lowest rib to just beneath the hips. The muscles that comprise this area help support and stabilize the pelvis, back, and internal organs. Controlology, the idea that all movement begins with the core and the basis of Pilates, is used to neutralize the pressure on the lower back–the most common area of pain these days–by strengthening the obliques, transversus, iliopsoas, hip flexors, gluts, and spinal erectors. The rectus abdominus, that showy superficial muscle that gives “six pack abs” plays a minor role in actual core stability and strength.
As many people struggle with increasing back pain, it becomes integral that a few minutes every day strengthening the core to minimize the damage done by sitting hunched over at desks, in cars, etc., habits that create bad posture and, therefore, weak abs and unstable lower spines, pelvises, and hips. Poor posture also tightens the hamstrings and lengthens the muscles of the upper back. Since everything in our bodies is integrated, it is important to work from your “center” outward. Each time you exercise, you should start by “engaging” your core. This means pressing the bellybutton in toward the spine and lifting it up toward the heart, creating a zipper effect that lengthens the lower back (alleviating pain), cinches in the rib cage (think “corset”), and neutralizes pelvic tilt.
Go ahead and give “neutral spine” a go before trying the exercises below. Lie on your back, knees bent, heels toward your gluts. Relax the arms down by the sides. Become aware of the natural curve in your lower back. Think about it for a few breaths. Then tuck your chin down slightly, lengthening through the back of the neck. (NOTE: chin should be about a fist’s-width space from the chest; or you should be able to squeeze an apple or orange in the gap. This prevents neck strain.) Inhale through your nose. On your exhale, scoop the bellybutton down and up. Eliminate as much space from between the low back and the floor as possible without tilting the pelvic bone too far forward (referred to as a posterior tilt). Inhale and relax back into your natural curve. Try this a few times. If you have difficulty slipping a hand beneath your lower back when your abs are engaged, you are doing it right!
Ready for the exercises?!
The One Hundred
This classic Pilates move targets the abs, creating strength, developing trunk stabilization, and stimulating the circulatory system and warm up the body. It is named for the breath employed during the exercise. Inhale through the nose 1, 2, 3, 4, 5–exhale through the mouth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for a total of 10 breaths. It is okay if you aren’t there yet. Start with five full breaths and work up to the full 10. Even if you forget which way to breathe, the idea is to breathe! Practice this several times before moving on.
Start in supine position (i.e. lying on your back), knees bent, feet toward your gluts, palms face down on the floor, chin tucked. For those who have back problems, do the exercise with the feet on the floor, gradually working toward the next step as you develop strength. For those without back problems, lift the legs, knees bent to a 90-degree angle so that shins are parallel to the floor. Engage the abs, scooping the bellybutton down, and lift the shoulders as high as you’re able, maintaining a proper distance of chin from chest. Look at your knees. Lift the arms so that they are parallel to the floor, palms down. When you are ready to begin, pump your arms sharply with every breath (pumping up and down 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 on both the inhale and exhale) until you have finished the exercise. Important: be mindful of your lower back; it should not lift from the floor. When finished, return to your supine position and take several deep breaths in.
The Ab Oval
Bring the fingertips behind the ears. Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor. Again, maintain that scooped belly and neutral pelvis as you progress but also check your shoulders. The shoulder blades should be pulling down the spine as if being tucked into your back pockets. On an inhale through the nose, twist to the right as far as you can, lifting the shoulders, keeping elbows wide. On a long exhale through the mouth, lift the shoulders up and over until you are twisting to the left, elbows wide, before relaxing down to the ground. Begin again, this time going left to right. Imagine that you are drawing an oval through the air with your nose and that you are trying to lift your shoulders up and over a golf ball (or, if stronger, a tennis ball) as you go from side to side. Be mindful that you do not relax the shoulders onto the ground until you have finished the oval/exhale. Do 6-12 total reps, alternating sides. This exercise works the abs and obliques, emphasizing the latter, while developing pelvic stability during spinal rotation. Think twist and lift!
The Bridge/Pelvic Curl
Both names are used. This exercise improves spinal articulation, establishes pelvic-lumbar stabilization, and develops ab and hamstring control. Begin in your supine position, knees bent, feet flat on the floor close to gluts, arms firmly pressing down at your sides, palms down, chin slightly tucked. It is important that you do not allow the knees to knock or fall out to the sides. Engage your inner thighs. On an inhale through the nose, curl the pelvis and try and lift the gluts off the floor. On the exhale through the mouth, release back down. Do this three times.
On the fourth inhale, curl up farther to the middle back, releasing on the exhale for another three times. Finally, bridge up all the way to the shoulders. You should be in a straight line from shoulders to knees. Your belly should be flat. Your feet firmly planted, your weight evenly distributed through their four corners. On the exhale, scoop the abs to initial the roll down. Try to get each vertebra back on the floor separately, especially focusing on getting that lower back down before your gluts touch. This takes practice. Do it 3-8 times. Develop awareness of your spine. Eventually, you will be able to start with a full bridge.
To counteract overly strong abs, we must also work the back muscles. This exercise aims at back strength, trunk stabilization, building coordination and cross-patterning, and improving shoulder flexor and hip extensor control. Lie in prone position (i.e. on your face), pressing the pelvis onto the floor and squeezing the bellybutton to the spine to help lengthen the lower back. Try to keep this area long. When doing back exercises, it is very easy to crunch into the lower back. Squeeze the legs together, or if that isn’t feasible, squeeze the heels toward one another. Lift the arms overhead. Forehead rests on the ground, chin still in neutral spine. Maintain visual focus on the floor directly in front of your eyes throughout the exercise.
On an inhale through the nose lift the right arm and left leg off the floor; exhale through the mouth and lower. Next inhale, lift the left arm and right leg; exhale and lower. Continue for 8 total reps.
When, and if, you are ready (remember: listen to your body! You know yourself best!), lift both arms and legs from the ground. Hover and engage the core muscles. When focuses, flutter the arms and legs in a swimming motion, right arm/left leg, left arm/right leg (always opposites!). Your breathing will be the same as The One Hundred: inhale through the nose 1, 2, 3, 4, 5–exhale through the mouth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Start with five breaths and work your way up to a total of 10 breaths. When finished, place the hands beneath the forehead and relax. Then, when ready, press the hands beneath the shoulders and sit back onto your heels, rounding the spine, forehead on the floor, arms extended in front of you. (This is called extended child’s pose.) It is vital that you create space between the vertebrae after back extension exercises.
The Plank/Side Plank
An isometric exercise known for core strengthen and scapular stabilization, plank works every muscle in your body. Be mindful that you breathe throughout the entire exercise. Start by holding plank for 3-5 breaths. Work up to 1 minute.
For plank: Start with wrists (or elbows for those with bad wrists, backs, or deconditioning–you will work up to the hands in time) directly beneath the shoulders and knees beneath the hips. Do not let the hands get in front of your shoulders as this makes the exercise much harder and threatens the integrity of the shoulder girdle. Engage the abs. Tuck the shoulders into your pockets without letting the chest fall through them. Think about this before moving on. Also, do not let your shoulders round to the ceiling. You want to be flat as a table top. If you have a mirror, check yourself visually. When ready, extend one leg behind you, toes tucked under. Then the other leg. You should be in a straight line from shoulders to heels. (NOTE: if this position is too difficult to hold without causing lower back strain, locked elbows, or release of the abs, drop your knees to the floor, maintaining a straight line from shoulders to knees.) Keep the head on the spine. Don’t forget to breathe!
For side plank: Sit on the right hip, right hand on the floor. Again, elbow or wrist beneath the shoulder–do not let it end up beyond you or you will jeopardize the joint. Place the left foot in front of the right foot, knees bent. Take an inhale. On the exhale, push up onto the hand, pressing the soles of the feet onto the floor, until you are in a straight line from shoulder to feet. (NOTE: if this position is too unstable or difficult to maintain, drop the bottom knee onto the ground but keep that straight line.) Lift the left arm up to the sky. Breathe! Lower down carefully and press onto the opposite side of the right hand, bending the wrist the opposite way. Switch to the left side and repeat the exercise.
During these exercises, you may find that one side is stronger than another. That is okay! Remember, the goal is to create symmetry and balance in the body. Push through the burn but be mindful if there is sharp or acute pain. Stop the exercise immediately if felt. If comfortable, try again or try an easier version of the exercise. If not comfortable, discontinue the exercise altogether. Remember, you know your body’s needs the best!