Getting to the Core of Pilates

Posted on March 5, 2024


When is the core not just the core? When you’re doing Pilates… “While the core may often be the first thing to be mentioned in relation to Pilates, we all know there are many more body movements involved, and we rarely just work on the core,” says Flex instructor Karin Ubbiali, who will be taking the Core Education workshop later this month. “Pilates is about universal development, creating space with concentration and movement, however you could say that the core is ‘at the core’ of Pilates, as movement always starts from the centre.”

Even when working specifically on the abs, Pilates focuses on integrating core and spine strength to help with stability and freedom of motion. “It’s not just important, it is essential,” says Karin. “It allows us to do everything we want.”

When strengthened, the core, aptly known as the powerhouse, creates the strong foundation from which movement can flow.

What’s at the core?
Core muscles include the rectus abdominis, better known as the six-pack, with the external abdominal obliques at the side and front of the abdomen. The internal abdominal obliques form the layer underneath, running in the opposite direction, and deepest of all, the transverse abdominis wraps the spine for stability and protection.

Of course, this being Pilates, the pelvic floor, back, glutes and thighs, and other muscles all get called in to work with the abs.

“To hold your posture, when standing, walking, lifting, playing sports, in fact anything, you may not realise it but you are always using your core,” says Karin.

Many of us, however, have weak cores. Some muscles are naturally more used and get stronger leaving others to weaken, and Pilates works to retrain the body to help right that imbalance. Activating the mind-body connection the brain then remembers to use, and how to use, those muscles during certain exercises, balancing and strengthening the body.

Key exercises

The Criss Cross, a rotation exercise that involves twisting of the torso, is one of the five essential core moves in the classical mat repertoire. It looks like the old style “bicycle” done in the gym, but execute this move with the Pilates principles and you’ll reap the benefits more quickly and effectively than any other version you’ve seen before.

This exercises stretches and strengthens the Powerhouse, lengthens the waistlines, wrings the air out of the lungs and powerfully works the oblique muscles.

How to do the criss cross
Begin on your back on a mat with your knees into your chest and your hands behind your head, palm over palm. Practice curling up the head, neck and shoulders off the mat. Aim to rise up as high as the base of your shoulder blades. Keep the elbows wide, the abdominals drawing inward and up, the throat open.

Timing: Muscles need a moment to contract to their deepest potential. Take 3 full counts to curl up, followed by a 3 count hold and 3 more counts to lower down.

To add on: On your final curl up, remain lifted. Pivot the upper body around aiming the right elbow for the left knee and stretching the opposite knee out long. Don’t over twist or rock onto one side of the body. Complete one set to the right and left and then repeat 4 more sets for a total of 5 full sets.

Timing: This is a specifically timed movement. Twist the body and hold your position for 3 full counts trying to lift higher with each count. Repeat the hold on each repetition.

Form: Your goal is to lift higher as you twist not lower. Just as you pulled your knees a little forward in the preparatory move, keep the knees just out of reach of your elbows on this twisting portion.

Focus:  Concentrate on the rotation coming from your ribcage and upper body. Avoid any twisting from your arms or shoulders. Isolating the twist to the core of the body will give the best results.

Tips and Tricks:You may simply perform step one without moving on to the twisting part of the exercise. Reduce your repetitions to 3 sets to begin if 5 is too much.

If you are able to complete this move with ease, raise the level of difficulty by adjusting your hands to cross more fully behind your head. Repeat the series this way.

And for that illusive flat stomach…
Many people are attracted to Pilates and its core education through the promise of a flatter stomach. It is the lower, deeper abs that are most challenging, the ones below the bulge. As always, progressing is about lengthening and creating space not just squeezing, as in many other exercises like crunches. Think belly button to spine and abs to rib cage, while creating length. And it is always worth bearing in mind that getting rid of your spare tyre is also about looking after your diet and lifestyle.

Whatever you do, don’t give up! Core strength and stability is a tough nut to crack, especially at the start. Waking up your awareness, building strength, adding breathing etc, there is always so much to remember. However the more you work on it and the more you are mindful of the way it works in daily life, the faster you will progress.

The Core Education workshop will at on Sunday 25th September, from 3.45 to 5.15. Karin will work to help you understand how best to activate your core and related muscles through various teachings and exercises. Giving you the tools to work towards a flatter stomach and an appreciation of the 100s this will be a valuable 90 minutes. Read more here.

Share this article


Typically replies within an hour