“Engage the bandhas!” My yoga teacher, Christine Dennis, reminds us of this often in class – it’s almost a mantra. Bandha is the Sanskrit term for “body lock” in Hatha Yoga. Christine is usually referring to the bandhas that involve the pelvic floor muscles and the abdominals up to the diaphragm. In plain English, she means “engage your abs”!
Activating these muscles essentially creates a supportive “corset” for your torso. This protects your back and helps stabilize your body. When you engage your abs and strengthen your core, you make daily activities easier. More important, you help prevent injury during both day-to-day activities and exercise. At my age, I’m all about preventing injury, especially back injury.
And (spoiler alert for an upcoming post on osteoporosis) weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective things we can do to prevent bone loss as we get older. In fact, studies have shown that strength training may even help build new bone. Of course it also builds muscle mass to keep us lively and energetic.
So now is the perfect time to delve into how to engage your abs! With esprit de core, you will be able to strength train both effectively and safely!
Meet Stephanie, Pilates teacher par excellence and former ballet dancer
Naturally, I turned to one of my fabulous Pilates teachers at Prashanta Yoga for this post. Meet Stephanie Slater, who has helped me properly engage my bandhas for almost eight years now. Stephanie has been teaching Pilates and yoga for over fifteen years. And she has practised it even longer, while dancing with The Royal Danish Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada and Montreal’s La La La Human Steps. Trust me, she knows of what she speaks! And she has perfect posture that I would die for.
As a holistic nutritionist, I particularly appreciate her view of our bodies as integrated systems. She discusses how addressing imbalances or weaknesses in one area of your body can improve and resolve issues in another. And often our cores are our weakest links. I hope you enjoy this Q&A with Stephanie and feel inspired to engage your abs!
Now let’s get to the core of the matter…
To begin, I asked Stephanie to briefly describe the abdominal muscles and their roles. The four layers of muscle that make up the abdominal core are:
- Rectus Abdominis (the most superficial layer, commonly known as the “six-pack” muscles)
- External Obliques (the second most superficial layer)
- Internal Obliques (the second most deep layer)
- Transversus Abdominis (the deepest layer)
The muscle fibres of each layer move in different directions: vertically, horizontally and diagonally. This facilitates a broad range of movements in the torso. Each of these muscle layers plays a crucial role in supporting healthy movement of the spine in all directions. All layers are also integral to stabilizing the spinal structure and pelvis.
I will often give my students the visual of a British Flag to help understand the direction and location of these four layers of muscles.
The proper usage of the abdominals is essential to core strength development and that is where Pilates rules!
Why is esprit de core so important?
Maintaining a strong core is vital for spinal health and for healthy movement overall. It provides stability to sustain a balanced body and allows other muscles and structures to function properly. When working with athletes (hockey players in particular), I see many groin and psoas (hip flexor) injuries. Often this is due to over-usage as a result of improper core function. When the abdominal muscles are activated properly, these types of injuries subside as muscles that have been improperly acting as primary stabilizers no longer need to perform this role.
Another common complaint is back pain. Although it can be a very complex issue, core strength is integral to proper posture and movement of the spine. When we are able to strengthen the deeper core muscles of the abdominals (transversus), they act as stabilizers for the pelvis and spine. Abdominal strength optimizes our relationship to gravity and fosters longevity and health of the body, the spine in particular.
Why does back pain tend to become more prevalent as we age?
Back pain and injuries have a myriad of causes. However, many spinal issues don’t just suddenly appear. For the spine to function optimally over the long term, it needs to be supported each and every day. Many of our common activities are not optimal for spinal health, especially when core strength, stability and mobility is lacking. Prolonged sitting, poor posture, improper lifting techniques and even restricted breathing can cause issues.
The spine is a fascinating and complex structure. Without going into too much detail, the natural curves of the spine can become compromised when we relate to gravity poorly over long periods of time. This, in turn, affects the inter-vertebral discs that act as shock absorbers for the spinal vertebrae and protect the nerves that run down the spine. I think this is one reason why back pain becomes more prevalent as we age. We can avoid this scenario, however, if we develop the proper core strength to support the spinal structure and alleviate the burden placed on the spinal discs.
Can soreness or tightness somewhere else in the body be due to problems with the core?
It is entirely possible that soreness and/or tightness somewhere else in the body could be due to insufficient engagement of the core. When a person begins to compensate due to weakness, it is usually to the detriment of the whole structure. The burden of the weakness is commonly shifted to other areas of the body that are not necessarily designed for the task they are being asked to perform.
I spoke earlier about the psoas muscle, for example, which is the deepest muscle of the body. The psoas and the rectus abdominis (“six-pack”) are both hip and trunk flexors. This means one of their roles is to move the body into a position that decreases the angle between two body parts. For optimal results, the psoas and rectus abdominis should stimulate and reinforce each other but often they are imbalanced.
What are some examples of these imbalances and their effects?
If you are a runner for instance, the psoas muscle is working in overdrive. If the core muscles aren’t firing properly during an activity like this, the psoas will be overburdened. The psoas will then shorten and pull the lumbar (lower) spine out of alignment, causing both hip and back pain.
On the other hand, too much strenuous and repetitive exercise of the rectus can also cause the muscle fibres to adhere to the tissue causing lack of movement in that area. Over-exercise can pull the rib cage forward. This can throw the thoracic spine (upper back) out of proper alignment causing soreness and/or tightness.
These are just a few examples of structural imbalances that can occur when the core muscles are weak or not firing optimally. In my experience teaching, I work with clients with many different types of injuries. And I find Pilates plays a key role in balancing out the workload among different muscle groups and offers proper breathing techniques to facilitate this process.
How can we engage the abs and strengthen the core?
It’s important to stress that we must first understand how to properly stabilize the core muscles of the body before beginning the process of strengthening. Begin by simply lying on a mat with your feet and knees hip-distance apart and notice the natural curves of your spine. We want to maintain and protect these curves throughout our Pilates training.
The pathway to the abs is through the breath, there is no question.
Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing the ribs to expand at the front, sides and back. Follow this with a long, slow exhale through your mouth. By exhaling through the mouth we are able to control the breath with more accuracy and activate the deeper abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis) in the process. By using this breath pattern we can then move on to the strengthening aspect of our training.
There are many ways to strengthen the core muscles. It is important to do so from many different relationships to gravity, as this is how we function in the world. If we do exercises from a supine position (chest up, back down), then it’s important to also engage these muscles from a prone position (chest down, back up). This helps to strengthen muscles in a balanced and organized manner. While strengthening the core, we often come up against injuries that we may be dealing with. So it is important that strengthening exercises be safe as well as effective.
What are some safe and effective exercises to engage your abs?
These are four of my favourites. I have provided the beginner version as well as more advanced progressions.
[Click on the name of each to link to a video demonstrating the exercise.]
By moving the limbs in opposing directions while maintaining a neutral spine, we strengthen the deeper core muscles and teach them to fire properly while in motion. If you notice the abdomen “pop” out as you perform this exercise, it means that only the superficial muscles are engaging. This is where the Pilates breath is very helpful. Exhaling as the arm reaches back and the opposite leg lowers is imperative to engage our deeper core muscles, the transversus.
Advanced: Once you master this, try it with straight legs or, even more advanced, with both legs moving together. Make sure to always maintain a neutral spine.
Pilates Table Top
As I mentioned, we want to engage the centre from many angles. So if we flip the Dead Bug position around we land in Table Top. As we extend opposite arm and leg, all of the principles described above apply here. Maintain a neutral spine and use the breath to draw the abdomen up and in to support the torso and stabilize the core.
Advanced: An advanced version of this exercise is to come into a straight arm plank position and start by lifting one leg at a time. For a very advanced version, reach the opposite arm forward at the same time as the leg.
Low Side Bridge
In side bridge we engage the internal and external obliques more deeply. This has the added benefit of strengthening and supporting our shoulders and upper back.
Advanced: Low side plank would be the advanced version of this exercise, becoming a full body strengthener.
Modified Low Plank
When we hold a plank closer to the ground, there are more core muscles being recruited to stabilize the entire body. When this exercise is performed on the knees (as it is in modified low plank), it lightens the load on the abdominals but is still a very effective way to engage them and build strength.
Advanced: The advanced version is Low Plank, where you perform this exercise with your knees off the ground and straight legs.
If a person had time for only one of these exercises, which would you recommend?
If you are short on time and have mastered the Pilates technique while performing these exercises, I would recommend choosing Modified Low Plank or (if more advanced) Low Plank to effectively strengthen the core. Hold your plank for 30 seconds to one (or even two) minutes at a time.
My job as a teacher is to be cognizant of the abilities of my clients. This requires offering many variations of the above exercises, within a repertoire of sequences which challenge and strengthen the body in various ways. And all the while my focus is on my clients’ maintaining proper technique.
[An aside from me: And she does a great job – yes, Virginia, there is a six-pack!]
What about stretching?
Stretching the core and back is fundamental to optimal performance of these muscle groups and skeletal structures. If we only put our effort into strengthening, we tip the scales too far in one direction, throwing off the balance of the whole. Keeping muscles strong but also limber contributes to the healthy circulation of oxygen and fluids throughout our bodies.
It cannot be underestimated what deep, expansive breathing can do to stretch the abdomen and back. Deep breathing also activates the parasympathetic nervous system that keeps us in a calm state while we stretch. So taking 10 to 15 deep breaths, allowing the ribs (front, side and back) and belly to expand on the inhale and fall back to the centre on the exhale, is a very effective way to gently stretch the muscle tissues while giving the spinal vertebra and facets space to function without hindrance. My personal experience with back spasms has been greatly reduced simply by breathing in this fashion on a regular basis!
What stretches do you recommend?
I have three go-to stretches that I teach on a consistent basis. They stretch the core and back while balancing the strengthening aspect of our training.
[Click on the name of each to link to a video demonstrating the stretch.]
This is an extension exercise that elongates and stretches the abdomen and hip flexors, while lengthening the spine. I suggest doing this stretch three or four times at the end of your Pilates training. This will promote length in the torso and balance out any flexion that was done during class.
Also sometimes called Cat-Dog, this is an extension/flexion stretch that I often teach a few rounds of before performing more advanced weight-bearing exercises. It stretches the core and spine while preparing your shoulders and arms for more advanced sequences.
I teach this twist throughout class to relax and stretch the torso, usually after we have gone through some challenging exercises and the abdominal muscles have been working intensely. It gently stretches the abdomen and spine. If you place your feet mat-width apart (instead of together as the video demonstrates) while you let the knees fall to one side, you may even feel a stretch in the hip flexors. In addition, the wider apart your feet are, the less rotation you receive in the lower back. This is important for people with lower back pain and/or spinal disc pathology.
Is there anything we should be cautious of when working our core?
While we strengthen our core it is imperative that we protect the spine at all times. This could look very different, depending on what injury or chronic issue you may be dealing with. If you have a herniation (slipped disc) in your lower back, for example, it is important to avoid over-flexing the lumbar spine.
Often it comes back to maintaining strength and length throughout the torso so that the spine is always protected by this corset of muscles that surrounds it. There is definitely a place for proper flexion exercises (e.g., sit-ups) within a core strengthening regimen but they need to be done properly so that the spine isn’t overburdened.
I touched on this earlier but I think it’s integral to train ourselves to move with strength and awareness in all directions so that a mundane task, like bending down to lift an object, doesn’t render us immobile with back pain. [An aside from me: No word of a lie, I badly threw my back out about nine years ago just bending over to pick a file folder up off the floor. This is what prompted me to eventually join Pilates classes with Stephanie and I haven’t had an issue since].
How long will it take to see results?
I think that core strengthening should be done alongside most, if not all, other athletic pursuits. It is an ongoing process. After doing it consistently, you will see and feel the results throughout your daily activities. Having had serious spinal injuries myself, I can attest to the benefits of core strengthening. It has kept the progression of my injuries at bay.
Once you become aware of your centre, you start to train the muscles to work at all times, whether you’re sitting at your computer, picking up a heavy object or training for a marathon. When your core muscles support your spine and torso, you can pursue all your endeavours with strength, ease and agility.
The goal is to feel comfortable and strong in our own skin and to heal from injury effectively. We want to use the time we have on the mat to build strength, awareness and connection that will accompany us throughout our lives.
Where can people find you in person and on social media?
I teach my group classes, both Pilates and yoga, at a lovely boutique studio, Prashanta Yoga, located in Davisville Village. I also have my own private practice where I teach private classes to individuals and groups at their preferred location in Toronto. You can find me on Facebook.
Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your expertise with us.
And for making Pilates so much fun!