Rethinking and Re-feeling Pilates Abdominal Exercises

Pilates Abdominal Exercises

Please don’t google the above phrase.

Ok then, do google it, but I’d say “fake news”.

Here is the summary of what google will tell you.

There are Pilates abdominal exercises and they’ll work your core and flatten your stomach.  You will be sculpted and toned if you do them.

If you want sculping, my advice is talk to Anthony Gormley and if you want toning, find a piano tuner.  If you want a flatter stomach try God, because Pilates doesn’t work miracles.

So what is the point of a Pilates abdominal exercise then?

What does Joseph Pilates say?

He didn’t talk about Pilates abdominal exercises.  He didn’t refer to about Pilates either!  Joseph Pilates called his method Contrology. I wrote about this in a very early blog post which you can read here.

Joseph Pilates was absolutely passionate about his exercise method and believed in full body exercise with no body part more or less important than any other.  He worked out that flexibility and strength in the spine is vital and understood the importance of posture, flexibility and breathwork.  However, Joseph Pilates did refer, to “abdominals drawn in”  on many of this spine curling exercises.  Apart from that, he didn’t generally single out muscles to be consciously contracted.

I went back to his 1945 book for this blog post and yet again was impressed by his prescience and how well the original exercises work the whole body.  They are very advanced, making them difficult or impossible for most of us to do.  I  teach the original exercises quite sparingly in classes but quite often use them in a 1 to 1 sessions.

The original 34 matwork exercises are outlined in one of Joseph Pilates’ two books: A Return to Life  Through Contrology.  He published this in 1945 and there are some nice commentaries on the book here at the Good Reads website

If Joseph Pilates didn’t talk about Pilates Abdominal Exercises, where did the idea come from?

I don’t know,  but here is my untested theory.

At some point, part of the body beautiful meant having a flat stomach.   Maybe this is a really old concept.  After all women have worn corsets for centuries.   Perhaps, with increasing waistlines and fat levels around the midriff, it because fashionable to possess the very thing that fewer and fewer people actually had.  Perhaps an increasing interest in exercise per se meant that bits of the body in general achieved greater prominence and significance.

When I moved to Leeds in 1991 there was not a single gym that wasn’t a specialist boxing gym or serious weightlifters gym.  Now they are practically on every street corner.  Once there was sport.   Now there is exercise, marketing and social media, and we are taught to hate our bodies and want to change them.  I have written about this depressing trend for demonising and fetishising parts of our body in this blog.

Into this mix entered Pilates.

Many of the original Pilates exercises look like abdominal exercises and the marketing myth was born.  Do Pilates for a flat, or flatter or “abs”.  Pilates to sculpt your body.   It has been retrofitted into some kind of “toning” format.  Abs eh! Even the word abdominals has been trimmed down hasn’t it.

Pilates and the Core

Don’t get me started.

Ok just this.

The core is not the abdominal muscles.

The abdominals, the core and Pilates have been blended together.   Alongside this is the view, the assumed fact,  that the core is the abdominals, ergo if you have a flabby belly you have weak abdominals and a weak core.  Sadly there is a further  ergo, one I hear a great deal.   People “accuse” their weak core of being the cause of various alignments including pelvic floor dysfunction, hip pain, knee pain and back pain.    Most people have not had their “core” assessed and found to be weak, still less been told that is the cause of their problems.

More on that story later here.

My chequered relationship with the so called Pilates Abdominal Exercises

I knew all of the classical repertoire, that is the original Joseph Pilates exercises from quite early on in my teaching career.

This picture is, quite literally the poster child of Pilates Abdominal exercises although it omits another famous one: The Hundred.

Pictures of a typical Pilates Abdominal Workout

I have been teaching since 2004 and in 2006 I had my second child.   A few months after Elinore was born I started practising for follow on qualifications and teaching other classes involving abdominal work.   Sadly,  I didn’t have enough understanding of my own body and overdid things.  Part of me felt pressure to do all of the exercises during training because it was expected that we could do everything.   I knew they weren’t good for my body, but I underestimated how much harm it would do.   Nobody forced me to teach classes of course  but it was my livelihood.

As a consequence I have a unhealed abdominal separation of 2.5 fingers.   The official term is diastasis recti.  It has made my back very stiff, my abdominals weak and I have an umbilical hernia.   I can’t do the big hitting, fashionable Pilates abdominal exercises due to lack strength, lack of mobility in my spine and they risk making my injury worse.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…..

Going back to the picture.  They look like abdominal exercises, they feel like abdominal exercises so they must be Pilates abdominal exercises right?   I never really queried that although I did query the need to do them.

What has changed now?

Osteoporosis.

That is, I have Osteoporosis and as a consequence of that I’ve massively increased the strength training I do in the gym.

I have focussed on deadlifts, bench press, assisted pull up, dead hang, and more recently, back squats.

Guess what?  The Pilates abdominal exercises have got easier, smoother and more graceful.  Admittedly not perfect but significantly improved without the slightest attempt to focus on abdominal strength or even practice those particular exercises!

It was at this point I finally questioned the notion of the Pilates abdominal exercises being abdominal exercises at all.   I had, years ago, fallen into the trap of assuming that the exercises that I felt in my abdominal muscles were abdominal exercises.  Also part of the big trap was to assume that what I could see, that is, the front of my body, was what mattered.

I really should have known better.

Rethinking and Re-feeling

Old thinking

The narrative of the contracted abdominals holding you up in a abdominal curl is very persuasive isn’t it?   We feel the abdominals, we expect the abdominals to work, we are aware and focussed on that area.

If all the other bits are so vital in the Pilates abdominal exercises,  how come we don’t notice them?  Well,  we notice what we set out to look for and we are at a point, culturally, in which we really notice the abdominal muscles.    Most of us are eye dominant and notice more easily what we can see.

The human body is far stronger at the back compared to the front and our backs tire far less readily than the muscles sat the front.  This means that the threshold for feeling anything in the back is greater.    Just like, if you pick up a pen in your hand, you don’t notice it, but you will notice  a two kilogram weight.  The pen doesn’t meet the threshold for the us noticing the hand.  This is a very big deal.  We spend our lives not noticing the back of our body because it is at the back, out of sight, and despite our neglect, the back is still pretty strong and gets on with the so called Pilates abdominal exercises without much complaint or us noticing.

New thinking

Not just mine, but for all us.

Most exercises are full body exercises.   Even lying on your back and doing a pelvic tilt involves, albeit remotely, a response in the soles of your feet and the arms.  This is part philosophy, part choice, and has always been the bedrock of  yoga practice.

What happens in one place is matched elsewhere.  The body is held up and moves via tension and compression.  Shortening and equivalent length.   Work in the abdominals, for an exercise like Single Leg Stretch (see the above picture), is played out in the back of the body too.  As you curl forwards the spine lengthens and at the same time, the abdominal muscles shorten.

Going back to feeling, the back might tire more easily, but during exercises where you lie on your back, you have the sensation of the mat to notice and therefore to react to.   We need to start noticing that!  This is the re-feel.

Biotensegrity

This new way of perceiving exercise is borne out of the tensegrity theory of movement.  Very briefly, this theory states that we a 3D system of muscle and fascia that moves via compression and tension, with bones to give solidity and joints to provide a fulcrum for certain movements.     I was well aware of the theory and had considered it in relation to the Pilates I taught.   Foolishly  though, I was so busy being scared of so called abdominal exercises in general that I didn’t reframe them in any way.  I mostly ignored them.

The rethink is,  the spine lengthens forwards and the shoulders cradle you from behind and assist too.

This Thomas Myers YouTube clip is  best I’ve found so far that describes biotensegrity.  It is  somewhat long at 20 minutes but clear and if you are interested in how our bodies work, well worth a look.

Using the original classical approach

Joseph Pilates wanted everyone to practice his Contrology in a particular way.  He wanted us to perform all the exercises in a particular order and  totally involve yourself in a full body workout.  It is still widely practiced, and known as Classical Pilates and I wonder if this would atomise Pilates less?   Some Pilates disciplines  dissect out the exercises and pick and chose.  This is my approach. to select certain exercises for certain outcomes.    This is great in that I can choose the Pilates to meet each body where it is, rather than to “force” every body, regardless of capability, fitness or injury, to do the original exercises.  However,  I wonder if that is an approach more likely to throw up a mini abdominal sequence?

What now for my teaching?

I am still not going to teach classical Pilates, despites its impeccable provenance and proven benefits.   Nor am I going to teach more of the Pilates abdominal exercises.   There are other reasons why they aren’t an ideal choice for group classes.   Two reasons, although  there are more, are that lots of belly fat makes them harder to do.   The rounded spine is the shape our spine is in during ” a day at the office” and isn’t the go-to shape that I want participants to make in a Pilates session.

If I have benefited from increased back strength, maybe everyone else can too.   I already teach plenty of back strength exercises in my studio.  In class, but I want to do the same although it is harder to do in class largely devoid of equipment.    It is not impossible, just trickier and we cannot go as heavy or as strong without equipment.

I plan teach so called Pilates abdominal exercises from a full body perspective.   I will mention the abdominals, draw attention to them, but they won’t get top billing.

I’ll wrap up with a short clip of me doing 3 exercises, known as being abdominal exercises, but cued without the mentioning the abdominals at all.    In the clip are Spine curl, Roll Up and Leg Pull (aka Plank).

Author doing the  Pilates Roll Up exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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