We all want nice defined abs, I mean just check the Instagram tag #abcheck to see the somewhat addictive pursuit of the 6 pack lifestyle. However, beyond aesthetics, having a strong core is imperative to our posture, helping you stand taller with confidence, move efficiently within all varieties of exercise and directly links to a reduction of back pain as the skeleton is positively supported by key muscles, who’s function is to maintain an neutral spine and pelvis – thus counteracting all the negative effects of our busy daily lives (hello desk workers and commuters staring down at your phone).
To help you along with the mission for a truly strong and conditioned core, that is, working beyond hundreds of mindless sit ups and crunches so as to actually give you “core strength”, you need to create mindful movement – that is, connecting into the action of the muscles; focus on staying lifted within the pelvic floor, wrapping your lower belly flat across your hip bones – think of gently tightening a corset around your midsection, and keeping your ribs drawing down towards your hip bones so as to avoid flaring. Then aim to always move with intention, breath and purpose.
These Pilates movements create length, strength and tone, whilst reducing pain and tension – So here’s your six moves for a strong, sleek core!
1. Roll Backs
Set up: Seated position, with the sitting bones heavy, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, a long neutral spine, shoulders over hips, arms extending forwards, shoulders relaxed away from the ears.
Inhale and grow tall through the crown of the head, keeping the upper body relaxed and neutral as you exhale, feel like you are being punched in the stomach and roll behind the sitbones and tail so your lower back is in a flexed, rounded position. Aim to draw the lower abdominals flat across the hipbones so there is no bulging. Inhale to recover the spine to neutral sitting up nice and tall.
The set up for the next four exercises remains the same…
Set up: Lying flat on your back, spine imprinted (lower back gently pressing towards the mat by connecting your ribcage towards your hip bones), legs in tabletop, arms pressing long into the floor.
2. Dead Bugs
With an inhale, keep the bent shape of the leg, and lower one foot towards the floor in a hinge action. It’s hugely important you keep the imprint position of the spine and pelvis, not allowing the back to arch away from the mat, rather gently drawing the abdominal wall back towards the spine. As you exhale, allow the leg to float back to tabletop keeping wrapped across the corset of your waist.
Alternate legs 10 reps.
As a progression, keep the legs squeezed together and move into a double leg drop. This will add more load, so it is important to focus on maintaining imprint, reducing the range where necessary and keeping the abdominals flat rather than bulging.
3. Single leg stretch
Increasing the length of the leg and therefore the load onto the abdominals, this exercise progresses from the dead bugs. On an exhale, extend one leg from tabletop to a long line, reaching the toes far from the head. Inhale to return to tabletop before changing sides. Again, hugely important to keep the imprinted position of the spine and pelvis, keeping the abdominals flat and avoiding a bulging sensation. The lower the leg reaches towards the floor, the more difficult this is to maintain. To begin, aim for a 45 degree angle away from the head, to increase challenge, reach the leg closer towards the floor!
10 reps alternating sides.
4. Double leg stretch
This is a progression from the single leg stretch and to be performed once the single leg has been mastered
Hint: if you feel a tension in your hip flexors, your core isn’t activating to take the load of your legs. Try to focus on the engagement of your lower abdominals, maintaining imprint, or alternatively, slightly rotate the legs outwards so they are in external rotation to see if this releases the pressure.
On an exhale you will extend both legs long away from the face keeping the inner thighs squeezing together (this is a little cheat to help engage pelvic floor- bonus!!). The inhale will return the legs to a strong imprinted tabletop position.
As always, looking to maintain the imprinted spine and pelvis. The extra load of the legs here will generally increase the tendency to arch the lower back or bulge the belly – strong focus on lengthening the abdominal wall, drawing it gently back towards the floor and keep the rib cage knitted towards the hip bones.
We now add on some extra movement, which forces you to engage the core so as to maintain pelvic stability. Additionally, we will include an ab curl prep position, to avoid tension in the neck, make sure you lift the head, neck & shoulders up by drawing the rib cage closer to the hip bones and keep the throat nice and relaxed by steadying the gaze towards the pubic bone.
From the imprint tabletop and ab curl positon, extend one leg long towards the ceiling and the other leg long away from the face reaching towards the floor. You will reach both hands to the top leg to gently grasp and increase the flexion of the upper body. Gently pull the leg towards you for two small pulses as you take two quick exhales, a long inhale swaps the legs, passing long in a scissor movement, to then hold the opposite leg and repeat.
Alternate 16 times.
6. Roll Ups
This one is full body integration, adding mobilization of the spine for complete abdominal engagement and control.
Set Up: Both legs long and extended, the spine and pelvis begins in neutral (marshmallow space between the lower back and the mat) and the arms reaching long overhead so the biceps are in line with the ears.
A deep inhale draws the arms over the line of the shoulders as the chin gently nods. The following exhalation draws the ribs closer to the hipbones as the upper body flexes off the ground and you slowly roll up, one vertebra at a time until the arms are reaching long towards the toes, the spine is in flexion and you are rounding up and over the pelvis. An inhalation begins the descent back down, feeling the movement initiating from the lumbar spine, returning each vertebrae to the mat with the arms remaining in line with the head. As you hit imprint, exhale and return the entire spine to the ground.
Performing these exercises individually, or within a flowing sequence, will give you a strong foundation to building strength in your core, whilst increasing mobilization of the spine and integration of movement within the body.
Enjoy your journey to a sleek, but most importantly, strong core!