Exercise You Can Do Anywhere: Plank

The Plank is one of the most versatile full-body exercises you can do. As I tell my Pilates classes, the beauty of the Plank is that it never gets easy, just easier … and when it does, there are plenty of ways to make it harder.

Basic Plank: Get into a push-up position, with arms directly in line with the shoulders. Tuck your abs in tight, and maintain a straight line from your head down to your toes. The key here is to focus on maintaining a flat plane – as I like to say, no butts and no bellies (this takes the tension away from the abs, instead putting pressure on the low back or the shoulders).

Depending on your fitness level, there are a number of variations:

  • To make it easier, you can change your position to hands and knees, forearms and toes, or forearms and knees.
  • To make it harder, you can lift one foot, one arm, or one arm and the opposite foot at the same time.
  • If you have a Swiss ball, you have a few more options. To position the ball at the upper body, you can keep both feet (or knees) down on the ground, with forearms or straight arms on the ball. To position the ball on the lower body, you can roll out so that the ball rests anywhere below the knees (out to the toes), with straight arms (top of a push-up position).
  • If you have a medicine ball of any weight, you can do several variations to the Swiss ball Plank. One option includes placing both hands on the medicine ball, with the weight either in your toes or knees. For another, you can place the toes on the ball, upper body balanced by the hands or the forearms.
    • Feeling adventurous? Place the medicine ball under one foot, and extend the other foot back and off the ground. It may take a few tries to get the footing down, but you can get adjusted easier if you start with the ball against a wall. To switch feet, bring both feet onto the ball, and roll to the other side so your body is still in proper alignment. It’s TOUGH!
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Yes, You Do Have Abs. Everyone Does.

Having taught Pilates for close to seven years now, there is one comment I’ve heard a lot: “I don’t have abs.”

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: yes, you do. You might not be able to see them (but seriously … do you know what your body fat percentage has to be to see a six-pack?), but I promise you, they are there. So, what can you do to strengthen – and possibly even whittle – your middle? Here are a couple great Pilates exercises proven to do the trick:

Rollup Start lying on the floor, with your legs straight and your arms outstretched behind you. Inhale, lifting your hands to the ceiling, and exhale as you pull your body forward, reaching toward your toes. Inhale the hands back to the ceiling, and slowly lower yourself back to the floor. Make sure your legs stay grounded the entire time – if your feet pop up, you’re using your legs, rather than your abs, to lift you up (that’s the hard part).

Double straight-leg stretch (a.k.a. leg lift)Start lying on the floor, with your feet extended to the ceiling. If you have any back issues, you can place your hands underneath your hips for additional support; otherwise, they are fine flat on the ground. As you inhale, drop the legs straight forward until your low back tells you it’s time to stop. Once you hit that point, exhale to return the legs to your starting point. To make it harder, you can lift your head and shoulders off the mat, and lightly rest your hands on your ears (never pull your neck).

Criss-cross Let’s start by saying this is NOT a bicycle crunch – it’s a reach with a twist. Start with hands behind the head, legs bent at 90 degrees. Twist so that one shoulder (not elbow) reaches toward the opposite knee, and sw

From the Archives: Plank Your Way to a Strong Core!

And oldie but goodie for you today – one of my favorites, the Plank!

The Plank is one of the most versatile full-body exercises you can do. As I tell my Pilates classes, the beauty of the Plank is that it never gets easy, just easier … and when it does, there are plenty of ways to make it harder.

Basic Plank: Get into a push-up position, with arms directly in line with the shoulders. Tuck your abs in tight, and maintain a straight line from your head down to your toes. The key here is to focus on maintaining a flat plane – as I like to say, no butts and no bellies (this takes the tension away from the abs, instead putting pressure on the low back or the shoulders).

Depending on your fitness level, there are a number of variations:

  • To make it easier, you can change your position to hands and knees, forearms and toes, or forearms and knees.
  • To make it harder, you can lift one foot, one arm, or one arm and the opposite foot at the same time.
  • If you have a Swiss ball, you have a few more options. To position the ball at the upper body, you can keep both feet (or knees) down on the ground, with forearms or straight arms on the ball. To position the ball on the lower body, you can roll out so that the ball rests anywhere below the knees (out to the toes), with straight arms (top of a push-up position).
  • If you have a medicine ball of any weight, you can do several variations to the Swiss ball Plank. One option includes placing both hands on the medicine ball, with the weight either in your toes or knees. For another, you can place the toes on the ball, upper body balanced by the hands or the forearms.
    • Feeling adventurous? Place the medicine ball under one foot, and extend the other foot back and off the ground. It may take a few tries to get the footing down, but you can get adjusted easier if you start with the ball against a wall. To switch feet, bring both feet onto the ball, and roll to the other side so your body is still in proper alignment. It’s TOUGH!

Happy Planking!

Get Strong Pilates Abs This Summer!

Summer is in full-swing … how are you feeling about your abs? If you’re sitting next to the pool or on the beach wrapped up in a towel, you still have some time to build some abs you’re proud to show off.

One of the best ways to start: break free of your standard crunches. Try these great Pilates exercises to work your core hard, hitting all the muscles from underneath your ribs, all the way down into your hips – and they’ll hit the deeper muscles crunches don’t hit, too.

Here’s a few suggestions to get you started:

Rollup
Start lying flat on the floor, belly button tucked tight into your spine, with arms extended long behind the head. As you inhale, reach the hands toward the sky, and as you exhale, slowly lift the upper body and reach toward the toes, keeping the abs scooped (as if you are reaching over a ball and past the toes). Inhale, lifting the hands back to the sky, and exhale, lowering the body back to the starting position as slowly as possible. Make sure to keep the shoulder blades pressed down and back, and the legs firmly on the floor (they will shift back and forth slightly; you just want to make sure they don’t come off of the floor – if they do, you are using your legs to lift you, versus your abs). If you find yourself struggling to keep the legs down, you don’t have to roll all the way up – as long as the abs are engaged, you are still getting the benefits, even if the upper body is only coming two inches off of the floor.

Single Bent Leg Stretch
Lift your head and shoulders off of the mat, tucking your bellybutton tucked tight to the spine. Position your hands on the inside and outside of one knee, as you extend your opposite leg straight. Release and switch sides, reaching the toes of your extended leg straight in front of you, with controlled motion.

Double Bent Leg Stretch
Lift your head and shoulders off the mat, bellybutton tucked tight to the spine, both legs tucked in, with your fingers extended in blades atop the shins. Inhale, extending arms and legs in opposite directions. Exhale, using angel arms circling the body, and pulling arms and legs back in tight. Halfway through, reverse the arms, with angel arms back, then pulling up and over, legs stay the same.

Single Straight Leg Stretch
Lift your head and shoulders off the mat, bellybutton tucked tight to the spine, legs at 90+ degree angle – one parallel to the floor, the other leg extended to the sky, hands behind the leg. Reverse the legs, drawing straight lines to the front with each leg.

Double Straight Leg Stretch
Start with your legs extended up to the ceiling, with your low back grounded and bellybutton tucked into the spine. Keeping your legs together, inhale as you draw a straight line down, as close to the ground as you can get without allowing the low back to pull up. Exhale as you draw the toes back to the ceiling. You can choose one of three upper body/arm positions: for low back issues, keep hands underneath hips, head and shoulders on the ground; or keep head and shoulders on the ground, hands next to hips; or head and shoulders off the mat, hands placed lightly behind the head.

Crisscross
Start lying flat on the mat, head and shoulders up, hands lightly behind the head, with the knees bent at 90 degrees. Angle the front of one shoulder toward the opposite knee, reaching long (not crunching), then reach toward the opposite side.

Teaser
Start on lying on the back, with knees bent and feet flat on the ground and arms extended straight behind the body. Inhale, lifting the hands up to the sky, and exhale, lifting the upper body to a seated position. Inhale, lifting the hands to the sky, and exhale, slowly lowering the body to start, hands parallel to the ground. Once you’ve mastered the level one, there are several progressions you can work into, as well.

Add these exercises to your regular routine two or three times a week, and you’ll be on your way to feeling stronger and leaner by the end of summer. Remember, diet and cardio play a role in getting those six-pack abs, so watch what and how you eat, and get your sweat on at least a couple hours each week.

A Pilates Primer

 

I came across this great quick reference chart of Pilates exercises, and wanted to share it, because, as always – I’m a firm believer that a strong core is the first step to a strong body, and Pilates is a GREAT way to get there.

Check out the exercises below, and don’t be afraid to try a few based on your level (you’ll see that the chart is color-coded to denote beginning, intermediate, and advanced). Always start with the lowest level or modification, and work into the harder exercises and levels as you get stronger. And be careful with your form: shoulders tucked down and back, open chest when you’re upright, and pelvis tilted, low back down and grounded when you’re on the floor. And always let your muscles drive you through each exercise, never your momentum!

chart_big

 

Roll Your Way to Strong Abs

After yesterday’s post on the importance of core muscles, I figured it was time to share a few more Pilates exercises that target these super-important stabilizing muscles specifically.

Pilates rolling exercises are a great exercise for improving not only the strength of your abdominal muscles, but many other elements that can be used in other activities, as well. When done correctly, you can also gain more control within your movements by being aware of the movement of your muscles and the rhythm of your breath.

As with most Pilates exercises, there are options to make them easier or harder – just depends on your level or how your body feels on any given day. Listen to your body, because it will tell you how far it can be pushed. Remember, it’s always best to start at the least difficult level, and gradually work yourself up, making modifications when necessary to keep good form.

Here are four rolling exercises to get you started:

Rolling Like a Ball

Start balanced on the sit bones, knees together, with hands on the hamstrings, opposite knees, or rested on top of the shins. Pull pelvic floor up tight, bellybutton to the spine, with a C-curve through the spine. Inhale, rocking back onto the shoulder blades, and exhale to rock back up to start.

Hint: The closer the legs are to the body, the harder it is to get up.

Hint: Think about controlled motion – you want to use your muscles, not momentum, to bring you up to the top. Don’t throw the legs – you should be able to let go and the legs stay where they started!

Open-leg Rocker

Same body positioning as Rolling Like a Ball, except legs are hip-width apart. Knees can be bent table top, extended straight, with the hands resting behind the legs, anywhere below the knee, or extended straight, yogi toe hold (thumb and first finger wrapped around the big toes).

Hint: The farther from the body the arms get, the harder it is to get up. Make sure your legs are only positioned about shoulder width – any wider, it will throw you off balance.

Crab

Start balanced on the sit bones, ankles crossed in front, with one hand holding each ankle. Draw belly button into the spine, and keep a C-curve in the back. Inhale, rolling back onto the shoulder blades, release and uncross the ankles, then recross. Exhale, and rock back up to start.

Seal

Start balanced on the sit bones, toes touching in front, with one hand holding the underside of each ankle. Draw belly button into the spine, and keep a C-curve in the back. Tap toes three times, inhale, rolling back onto the shoulder blades, and tap the toes three times behind the head. Exhale, and rock back up to start.

Good luck with these exercises – they’re harder than they sound! If you find yourself struggling with these, I always suggest one of two things to my classes: first, you can hold the seated position, eliminating the rocking and instead focusing on the feeling within your abs and your pelvic floor. A second option, if you have access to a BOSU, is to put the BOSU on the floor, black side down, blue side up, sit on it in the center, and simply pick up your feet (hold if you can). It’s actually really tough!

Strong Core = Strong Body

A woman approached me following my Piloxing class on Sunday morning with a good question: “What should I be doing to work my core?” The fact is, just about any kind of physical activity will work your core – how much depends on your form, any resistance added, and making a conscious effort to keep your core muscles engaged throughout said activity.

Now, exactly what do I mean when I say “core muscles”? For starters, they are a lot more than just your abs – they include most of the trunk of the body, including the hips and mid- and lower back. As these muscles make up the center of the body (hence “core”), greater strength allows you to become more stable and balanced throughout your entire body, which plays a huge part in maintaining proper form in your activity of choice.

From harvard.health.edu

One way to become more in tune with your core muscles is to focus on your breathing. Controlled breathing is the cornerstone of both Pilates and yoga practices – and it is directly related to strong, stable core muscles. Focus on the way your core feels as you inhale and exhale – you’ll feel your muscles engaging as you fill and empty your lungs (think of trying to take every ounce of oxygen out of your lungs on your exhale – this forces the body to engage the abs in order to release those last few sips of air).

But breathing and core awareness are important in a number of different activities, as well. For example, when we are riding through heavy climbs in my cycling classes, I encourage the class to tuck their belly buttons into their spine, and feel the difference in their low abdominal muscles as the knees drive up to the body and back toward the floor. The feeling should be similar to that of a bicycle crunch … because essentially, it is (which saves you a little time lying on the floor – and you’re probably getting more work out of it due to the weighted wheel). Another added bonus? Heavier resistance forces harder work from the hips and glutes, too.

When you are strength training, losing control of your core can present huge risks for injury – one of the first things to go when the weight gets a little too heavy is the lower back (which is bad for you, and good for the chiropractor). But by strengthening the lower back muscles, it is easier to keep the balance between the front and back of the body, meaning that you are more likely to maintain proper form throughout each movement.  Breath plays a huge part in instance, too: if you exhale on the hardest part of the motion, you naturally engage the abdominal muscles, making it easier to avoid arching the back (which is not just dangerous from a potential for injury standpoint either … it’s cheating, too!)

That said … another thing to keep in mind is that most people do not do the correct proportion of back exercises to abdominal exercises. We are usually more focused on the abs, because, after all, they are the “vanity” muscles. But from a strength standpoint, the back muscles tend to need to endure more than the abs – meaning that they need at least at much work as the abs, if not more.

Remember, too, that just like any other exercise, you want to balance the time spent working on all of your core muscles – not just your abs. The more balanced your core becomes, the stronger you will be, the easier your exercise or sport of your choice will become … and you will reduce your risk of injury, too.