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

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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.

Pilates: It’s Not Just for Women!

One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that Pilates is just for women (another one is that it’s easy, but that’s a whole other myth for another day). Although women outnumber men in most Pilates classes – my classes tend to average one or two men to every dozen or so women – the benefits to men are just as prevalent. In fact, Pilates was created by a man (boxer Joseph Pilates).

Pilates is based on functional fitness, which can help to increase strength, balance, flexibility, coordination, endurance and range of motion throughout the body. Focused on building core strength – through the abdominals, back and hips – Pilates engages the smaller muscles in the body that are often missed in weight-based strength workouts. The exercises are designed to hit the deeper, often under-developed muscles that lead to weaknesses, and potential injuries, in the body. And if you’re doing your cardio, you may even (finally!) find the solution to uncovering that sexy six-pack.

Many athletes have turned to Pilates to help them improve their game. A strong core allows athletes to lift heavier weight without compromising form, and improved posture can also lead to more efficient breathing. In fact, sports-specific Pilates classes have started to pop up across the country, focused specifically in improving your golf or tennis game.

Still need a little convincing? Professional athletes who have turned to Pilates include:

  • Basketball players Jason Kidd (see what he has to say about Pilates here), Lebron James and Kobe Bryant
  • Football players Calvin Johnson and Ruben Brown
  • Baseball players Curt Schilling and James Loney
  • Golfer Tiger Woods
  • Rugby player Ugo Monye
  • Hockey Player Carlo Colaiacovo

Many professional sports teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Jersey Nets, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders, also include Pilates in their strength and conditioning regimen.

So, men, don’t be afraid of that room full of ladies. You’ll gain strength, flexibility, coordination, and improved overall sports performance – and maybe even finally see that six-pack you’ve been working toward. You never know, play your cards right, you might even get a date out of it (just don’t be creepy about it!) 😉