There are a few things regarding exercise that I truly believe are accessible to everyone. I’ll talk about cardiovascular exercise another time but for now I want to talk about working the deep muscles of the trunk–in this case, I’m focusing on the transverse abdominis. This thick band of muscle is the deepest of the four abdominal muscles, provides thoracic and pelvic stability, and compresses the ribs and viscera.
Pilates focuses a lot on the TA due to the immense strength and stabilization force it creates. To give a good example of its power, and why we as instructors call it the powerhouse, the TA is one of the main muscles recruited to help a woman deliver a baby (the pelvic floor muscles being the others). When I was dancing, a college professor told me that by controlling this muscle, you can really control every movement in your body, making you strong and and your movements efficiently powerful. This is something that Joseph Pilates discovered over a lifetime of studying movement, which fed his understanding of the body, body mechanics, and effective movement. His method, called Contrology, looks at the body as it is now and emphasizes the connection of mind and body through concentration during movement that results in the healing of the body, the improvement of the mind, and the elevation of the spirit.
In layman’s speak, that means that anyone can do Pilates. Pilates himself was a sickly child who could not get out of bed and therefore needed exercises developed by his doctors just to be able to do so. Because of this, he made it a lifelong goal to study movement and became an avid athlete, studying a wide variety of disciplines including swimming, running, gymnastics, yoga, dance, and many more, all from which he drew a knowledge base that became the foundation for his Method.
There are two exercises that I like to start everyone off with because I feel that they are accessible to all levels of fitness: the Pilates bridge and the 100. These two exercises connects a person with their core. For those who are brand new to exercising or Pilates, and may not be aware of the neutral position so often discussed in Pilates, here is an excellent demonstration of how to find it:
I consider the Pilates Bridge to be a foundation exercise from which everything is built. It lengthens and moves the spine, stimulating the creation of synovial fluid which helps keep all joints limber, accesses the deep muscles of the core and pelvic floor, and strengthens the muscles of the abs, pelvis, glutes, and thighs. A modification for those who are just beginning is to start with the lower back only, and over time gradually increase this movement to include the middle and upper back till you reach the full position.
The other exercise that I consider to be important is called the One Hundred. This is the exercise that begins every Pilates workout. It oxygenates the blood, stimulates circulation, and activates the deep core. Try the beginner version shown in this video until you’re ready to move to the next step.
Two other modifications for those who are not ready to extend the legs in the regular (non-advanced) exercise: when ready to lift the shoulders, 1) keep the feet on the ground or 2) keep the knees bent until you’re ready to extend the legs (first up to the sky and then out to that 45-degree angle). Make sure as you work you maintain that neutral spinal position and have patience with the exercise. Developing strength over time is safe, effective, and reduces the risk of injury. When in doubt, always start small and slow!