Pilates Core. I don’t cue it, so what do I teach then?

A Pilates Instructor who does not cue the core?

Here is a short piece on what I do teach and why, instead of the explicit teaching points such as “pull in your abs” “engage your core”, “brace your abs” etc

I don’t explicitly ask you to work your core, strengthen your core, use your core

Yup that’s me.  Not a fan of the Pilates core

It is tempting. I could market my business via the notion of Pilates core strength, or,   Pilates to solve your weak core

In my last  post I talked more about why I’m not a fan of core cueing.  This post is more about why I do what I do

How does the body truly achieve stability and strength?

All animals have strength and stability in relation to the environment.  It is not from the inside out as core strength implies, it is from the outside in.

This applies to single cell bacteria whose basic stability is formed, essentially, through having a cell membrane to delineate cellular processes from the outside world.  You might consider the DNA of  the bacteria to be its central essence but no wall,  no cell, no nothing.  Well not nothing, just a few nucleic acids and amino acids forming in a primordial soup of, thermal vent heated sea water 4 billion years ago.

I guess you could say we’ve moved on a bit since then but we still gain stability via our relationship with  the environment, not via what is emanating from our centre.

Fascia and Biotensegrity

the human body as a biotensegrity model
The true Pilates core: biotensegrity model of the human body

Talking of moving on, the latest research in fascia science is telling us that the body doesn’t actually move according to the traditional model of contraction / relaxation of muscles and resultant action at the joints.

We are into paradigm shift territory here.   The body is a tension / compression structure not contraction/relaxation structure.

You’ll be thinking: I don’t understand and frankly Alison I don’t care!

For the record I don’t fully understand either. I’m in the process of getting more of an angle on fascia science but even the basics influences my teaching.  What I chose to teach and why.

The idea that we, for example,  pick up a book  by contracting muscles to bend the joints in our the  fingers, thumb, wrist and elbow is nominally true  but only that.  The action at the joint is  only one cog in the gigantic wheel that is real movement.   In  time,  the very principles of movement and strength training need to be revised.

Here are the salient points, and they  influence how I  teach for strength, stability and movement:

  • we are a body/mind that operates as a whole
  • the nervous system embeds the entire fascial network. Movement influences everything, albeit in a subtle manner via the nervous system.
  • move one bit of the body, and you move another
  • fascia resp0nds to gentleness.  That doesn’t mean that all movement has to be gentle, but it does mean that small and gentle is relevant, effective and necessary (Pelvic Clocks anyone??)

Here is a link to a reasonably concise article describing Biotensegrity https://www.massagemag.com/biotensegrity-the-structural-basis-of-life-129777/

Inner core vs Outer core

Inner and Outer levels of  stability are a very real thing,  although the use of the word core is unnecessary

Inner unit of stability

Involved here is the diaphragm which is chiefly a muscle of breathing together with other muscles that surround the lower back, internal organs and pelvic contents: bladder, rectum, uterus, cervix etc.   The movements generated by the breath are inherently stabilising

True Pilates Core : gif showing the relationship of the diaphragm with the pelvic floor

If you want to work with the inner elements of stability then you absolutely must work with the breath.    You can work these muscles in isolation but if you want stability gains then  you need to go after improving their coordinated action:  the breathing   Many of use would benefit from a greater focus on our breath.   For its own sake and because good breathing is the foundation of good functional stability

Side note and out of the scope of this article, but the very foundation the absolute basis of improving Pelvic Floor health is breathing  I touch on this subject here: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/twelve-different-things-to-help-my-pelvic-floor/

Outer Core aka Everything Else

Pretty much everything contributes to the outer core.

Think of it as  the Emperor’s Old Clothes.  His actual, real ones, before he acquired his New Clothes: the core stability outfit

Core Stability is the re packaging of Stability.  When your physio talks to you about poor core stability they are talking about a real thing.  You are unable to stabilise your body appropriately given the loads placed upon it.    You need to do some rehab or maybe even general exercise.

Many of the muscles that need functional training, that is, training to perform the function of stabilising the body are at the back of the body and often not deep within the body but quite superficial / That is, not necessarily a deep layer in the sense that one understands a core.  And not at the front of the body where the abdominal muscles are

The really important ones are  the calves, the back of the legs (hamstrings),  the buttocks, the mid  and upper back muscles, the shoulder and back of the arm muscles.    The selection of exercises to isolate, strengthen, build capacity for good function in these muscles is absolutely paramount for me.   It is up there with the breathing in terms of just how vital it is for good stability.

Stability is not Rigidity

Some of our loss of function is due to tightness  and stiffness.   All that sucking in, bracing, squeezing and the prevailing winds of fashion imply that buff, toned, ripped is best.  The assumption is that tight,  strong bodies are what we should aim for.

This is not the case.  Stability is gained by supple, flexible strength and stamina, the ability to keep going.   The necessity of achieving greater suppleness is  in itself is a call to arms for working gently, carefully and looking for more ease of movement.    It may be counter intuitive but this  is an element of stability training.    I am constantly on the look out for doable, effective small moves because they teach the body to unlock long lost movement or mobility.

Tightness is not Stability Either

Our society is one of excessive tightness and we manifest this as loss of movement and mobility throughout the body.  From the feet all the way up to the muscles  that attach into the skull.   It is highly significant in the shoulders and  the pelvis.  Legs are super tight relative to the trunk and can place excessive stress on the lower back.  Our shoulders are tight which brings the head forward . Our upper backs round forward.  This can also place greater stress on the lower back.  The upper back and rib cage can get really rigid too: with age, with poor breathing strategies, with excessive abdominal work, too much sitting.

We get foot pain, neck pain and headaches due to tension and tightness.  Here we have another piece of the Stability jigsaw: teach exercise for greater flexibility.  This might mean a conventional stretch type exercise but there is plenty of other stuff to address tightness, not least, strengthening the correspondingly weak areas of the body

Here is what this Pilates Instructor teaches for the Core / Not Core

Breathwork is the very foundation of everything.  check out that Gif above.  The diaphragm, primary muscle of breathing is the inner core.  The movement of the body  via the breath influences everything

Work on reducing tension  in the body: in the feet, legs, hips, pelvis, spine, shoulders in particular

Full body movements because all movement is, on a subtle level, whole body movement so we honour that in class.  For example, take a simple knee roll. Lying on your back, knees bent, legs /pelvis rolling, arms in a capital T , head turning in the opposite direction to the legs.  A whole body movement doesn’t have to be big and dramatic.

Understanding when body parts need to dissociate in order to be effective as opposed to a whole body movement. For example a Shoulder Bridge avoiding the tendency to thrust the ribs and spine up to the ceiling

A sense that calmness and gentleness in movement is as important as “feeling the burn”, which has its place too.   Just so you know (!!) I like a HIIT class as much if not more than the next person.

Getting us to focus on what the body is doing.  In other words, to use our mind body connection.  You could probably write an entire post proposing that that is at the core of our being. We accept it as standard in animals but are very good at denying it in ourselves.  Perhaps we subconsciously want to deny our animal existence.

Recognising that some muscles really do, in general, need to be stronger.  Identifying the muscles is easy enough.  Finding effective ways to get them working is a little more tricky.

Observation is essential

Start with the body, not with the theory.  Look at the bodies in the class and find what they need.    I’ve just given a load of theory, exercise science and information about societal tendencies to stiffness etc.     That is mightily important,  but not as important as me simply standing there, observing the people in class, or listening to what they are saying and asking for and using this as a guide

In the end, it comes back to Pilates

It turns out that Pilates is the most amazing platform from which our bodies can do all of this stuff.  Pilates can be demanding and intense but it can also be gentle and foundational.  It is all there and in the course of a Pilates session we can honour the body whilst adding some appropriate challenge.  We can have relaxation and overt work, do big and little things, full body movements and little tiny chin nod type things.

It all has it’s place and is chosen with care, I can assure you.  Some stuff comes up time and time again but that is not simply lazy planning or no planning, it is because those things are mission critical.  (Pelvic clock anyone?!)

This is my Pilates Core or rather some of elements of my Pilates Core Values.  It is being able to do all of this through exercise  which have  has kept me at it for all these years.  19 so far.    Not that long, some of you will be thinking, but it the longest I’ve done anything in my life apart from being a parent.    I’ve been that for 20








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