Lower Abdominals: How can we teach our clients (and ourselves) to connect?

May 6, 2010 at 9:27 am 39 comments

It’s not difficult connecting to your upper abdominals.  All you have to do is exhale deeply, cough, laugh or round forward.  It’s not even that difficult connecting to your middle abdominals.  All you have to is “suck” your waist in.  But what about your lower abdominals?  You know, the ones that pooch out when you want them to plaster in!

First of all, let’s discuss the anatomy of abdominals a big.  There are no upper, middle and lower abdominals.  IT’s one of those fantastic lies we teach.  A great image, but not the truth.  Again, it’s trouble when teachers believe the lie and don’t understand the truth; don’t know that the lie is an image or teaching tool.  So, let’s get to the truth.

We’ve got Transverse Abdominis, Rectus Abdomininis, Internal Obliques and External Obliques.  No where in there do we have upper, middle and lower abdominals.  However, we can clearly feel a sectional-like connection or lack of connection.  What’s that about and why is it so challenging to connect in that lower area?

Our “Upper” Abdominals are the origins and insertions of abdominals into our ribs.  One of the functions of our abdominals is to assist the diaphragm in respiration.  Hence…if you’re breathing you’ve already got lots of practice using these.  You’ve been connecting with them you’re entire life.

What about “Middle” Abdominals?  They’re what we consider our waistband.  It seems people can find a solid connection there, too.  Is it because everyone’s seen people “suck” their guts in?  We’re always trying to make tinier waists?  Is it because the transverse abdominis that wraps around your midsection/trunk is a major contributor to exhalation, so, again, that muscle is trained a bit?  And, indeed, we focus tremendously on the transverse abdominis in Pilates.  That deepest layer of abdominals needs to be very strong to contain our organs (intra-abdominal pressure) and lift them up against gravity.

Then there are those “Lower” Abdominals.  You’ve got plenty of abdominal muscle to work there.  No less than those upper abdominals, but gravity is a great challenge.  The internal obliques originate, the external obliques insert, the rectus abdominis originates, the transverse abdominis originate.  Plenty of muscle to work with.  However, you have gravity pulling on your intestines (and you have a lot of intestines to manage the weight of), gravity pulling on your bladder, gravity pulling on your entire torso.  And you…you have to keep it upright.  We’re well trained in pushing our lower abdominals out.  We’re meant to be able to bear down multiple times a day, but we’re also meant to connect and lift those abdominals up to contain our organs, lift our spine and take some pressure off of the hip socket.

Now we know why it is difficult to connect.  How do we encourage and develop a connection?

First, teachers must cue these abdominals.  When we teach, we must make our clients aware that there is a connection to be found.  It will take a lot of time to get it, but we must alert them to the possibility.  Most people don’t even think about this.  They ignore their lower abdominals except to admonish them for not looking the way they dream of them to be!  So, first:  Awareness!

Next, cue even more.  What?!  Didn’t I already say cue?  Yes.  Too much “teaching” is repeating technique over and over.  It’s a waste of your and your client’s time.   It doesn’t need to look perfect.  What they really need is movement of arms, legs and torso while desperately practicing an abdominal connection.  So cue more.  More than you’d think.  Until you think you’re cueing too much…and then cue even more.  Get your client to make an abdominal connection.

Cue with words:
Scoop your abdominals in and up
Deepen your abdominals in and up
Draw your navel in and up along the inside of your spine

Notice how all of these cues are “in and up”?  It’s the “up” that’s going to eventually get those “lower” abdominals!  Remember that gravity is pulling on them.  Gravity pulls down.  We need to cue up.  If you neglect the word “up” in your cueing, you will never lead your clients to work against gravity which is everything in Pilates…and life.  Cue “in and up” always…often…incessantly.  (I think I’ve made myself clear.)

Cue with images:
Imagine there is a big metal snap and a thick zipper that begin 2 inches below your navel.  First, connect that snap from the front right into the inside of your low spine.  Then keep that snap shut and pull that zipper up your abdominals and inside of spine.  The moment you finish…don’t let it go…do it again.

(Notice how it’s a complex image?  It has a beginning, middle and end.  It’s more than one sentence.  There are no assumptions, yet it is still concise.)

Cue with your hands:
Always with a flat palm, place your palm sideways just below the navel, but not so far that you are getting into “dangerous territory”.  Put considerable pressure in and scoop your palm upwards.  Teach your client how to use his/her own muscles.  Of course, don’t put so much pressure on that you hurt your client.  You’ve got to develop a sense of how much pressure to use.  If you’re unsure, practice on a colleague or friend.  Your hands are a valuable tool.

Be patient, encouraging and repetitive.  That’s vital.
Repeat the same exercises each week.  If you cue your clients deeply encouraging physical progress, changes will happen.  If you skip around every week trying to keep your clients excited…they will never ever make these connections and positive changes.  They will get bored and frustrated and so will you.  Be patient, repetitive, encouraging and get results by cueing deeply.

The Half-Roll Down is the most precious exercise in Pilates.  It’s a simple and wonderful exercise to connect into the abominals and open the lumbar spine.  One the lumbar spine more flexible from muscular action, once there is the ability to flex and extend, then there is also the ability to lift and separate those bones from each other.  Then there is more flexibility and strength, more ability for lateral flexion, rotation, more lift, etc.  The “lower” abdominals connect more.  It’s remarkable.  Do The Half-Roll Down on yourself and your clients every session, even multiple times, until there is an abdominal connection, lumbar movement and lift.  Of course, do not do this exercise on those who it’s contraindicative.  If you have any questions about who should do it…ask me.

Let me know when you’ve made your ” lower” abdominal connection!

****I’d love to know your thoughts!  Please drop me a comment, question, concern!  Enjoy!!!****

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39 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nicole  |  May 6, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Another great article Shari! I think your right that too much time is spent on repeating technique over and over and not enough time on making the connections. Thanks again for the encouragement and reminders.

    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:39 pm

      Thank you, Nicole! As always, it’s great to know that this is helpful and extremely satisfying that we can close the many miles between us all and share ideas!
      – Shari

  • 3. Meg  |  May 6, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks for this blog post Shari! I like that you gave different forms of cueing bc everyone learns differently. 🙂

    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:24 pm

      Hi, Meg! Everyone does, indeed, learn differently! It’s great when we can share cues and ideas!
      Thank you, Meg, for your continued support on this blog!
      – Shari

  • 5. Aliceann  |  May 6, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    A great and timely article for me. Thank you! I love the snap and zipper visualization. I’ll use it tomorrow in my mat class!

    • 6. theverticalworkshop  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:26 pm

      Hi, Aliceann! I’m so glad it’s useful to you! I used to do tailoring as a side-gig (especially for this great NYC harpist) when I was performing. When I got into Pilates, those snaps and zippers, hooks and eyes came in handy for images and continue to! Have fun!
      Thank you, Aliceann! I miss you, but love seeing you here! Please stay in touch!
      – Shari

  • 7. Elena Bartley  |  May 6, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    As always I like your articles very much…..as I recall Romana..say once, say it twice, say it a million times and then say it again…..
    I have a request for you when ever you have time…..the over contraction of you quads when flexing the hips….the psoas is doing its job flexing the hip…how can I not overuse the quad…??? is it because of the abdominals …or tight hamstrings or rigid lumbar spine???
    sometimes I wonder????

    • 8. theverticalworkshop  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:29 pm

      Hi, Elena,
      I will absolutely write more on the over-contraction of quads in hip flexion. I wrote a blog a few weeks ago called “Pilates Myth: Get out of your hip flexors” (I might have paraphrased the title.) In it, I talk quite a bit about the rectus femoris (the one quad that is also a hip flexor) and the iliopsoas group. If you’ll read that and then let me know what other questions you might have, I’ll be really glad to answer and discuss them with you! Let me know what you find!

      And thank you for participating! Please continue to comment, ask questions and offer up topics to discuss!
      – Shari

  • 9. Natalie  |  May 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Great article Shari. The lower abs connection is very difficult for so many people and I think you made some interesting points on how to cue patients. I recently started using half roll downs with some of my physical therapy patients to get that connection. I have found it to be successful in most cases. The other exercise I started trying to teach was initiating a bridge (only as high as the lumbar spine). I have the patients focus on weight through the feet (lifting the arches) to activate the hamstring and quiet the hip flexors and then have them initiate the bridge or pelvic tilt by scooping the lower abs. I have done this with patients who can’t handle the half roll down either because of contraindications, pain, or simply its a tough exercise for them. I have found if I repeat it a million times it starts to stick that the motion occurs from the lower abs. It seems to work and I then progress them to the half roll down…..which I love for myself and patients. I think it feels great on the spine!

    Elena- I should let Shari field your question, however the quads are a hip flexor in conjunction with the psoas. Because it attaches at the pelvis and is such a large muscle it can over-work. A normal strength ratio between the quad/hamstring is 2:1, however most people are 3:1. That means they use the quads for walking, posture, stairs, and life. So when you ask a client to work their lower abs well those big quads are going to get in the way. Thats why I find it helpful to get patient to feel the hamstring working when they are trying to quiet the hip flexor. I’m sure Shari can add more information more eloquently, but bottom line the quads are a powerful large muscle.
    Well Shari thanks again for the great blog!


    • 10. Christine  |  July 11, 2012 at 11:09 pm

      Natalie – I love your idea of initiating a bridge and performing pelvic tilts from this position. I have a client who doesn’t connect with the Half Roll Back and therefore I am going to try this with her during her private tomorrow!

      Thanks – Christine 🙂

      • 11. Christine  |  July 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm

        Just thought I would post a followup – I tried the bridge initiation w/pelvic tilts today and it was great! It was the first time my client has ever felt her glutes, hamstrings, and pelvic floor muscles in her life! Thanks for this fabulous exercise 🙂

  • 12. Frankie Clancy  |  May 11, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Thank Shari for providing such great information. I encourage all my students to check out your blogs. The comment section is also very informative — great questions.

    Keep blogging!


    • 13. theverticalworkshop  |  May 11, 2010 at 4:36 pm

      Thank you, Frankie! What you just wrote means a lot to me!
      – Shari

  • 14. Alex  |  May 11, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Just a quickie….Scoopin Da Pooch In! Is Tougher in extension? because of the length of the muscles?

    • 15. theverticalworkshop  |  May 11, 2010 at 5:38 pm

      Hi, Alex! It’s good to hear from you!
      Well, it is absolutely more difficult to scoop your abdominals in and up during spinal extension. Why?
      1 – When lying prone (stomach facing the floor) and going into spinal extension, gravity is pulling on your abdominal muscles, internal organs and spine making you have to work that much harder to pull your abdominals in, let alone up.
      2 – When sitting, kneeling or standing and going into spinal extension, your asking your abdominals to both stretch and contract at the same time. In truth, your abdominals, primarily rectus abdominis, have a function of slowing down/decelerating spinal extension. The spinal extensors are the accelerators and the rectus abdominis the decelerators. Since it’s not their primary function, this does little to strengthen them and nothing to actually support the movement or lift the vertebrae from certain compression. It can even be pretty passive. Simply the existence of these anterior tissues (abdominals, ligaments, tendons, skin) slows the movement. However, when activated, the abdominals not only do their ancillary function of slowing the movement, but they keep the vertebrae healthily supported and actually slow the movement more effectively protecting not only vertebrae, but over-stretching of anterior tissues.

  • 16. Alex  |  May 11, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    ooooooooooh! I just thought I’d get a “Yep”

    I’m glad I asked, I wasn’t going to bother!

    Turns out there no such thing as a quickie 😉

    • 17. theverticalworkshop  |  May 11, 2010 at 9:06 pm

      I’m glad you asked, too!

  • 18. Alex  |  May 12, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Okay, well in that case, something I forgot!

    Whats a “Snap”? 😦

    Also a bit Random….is “THE SHARI” named after you?

    • 19. theverticalworkshop  |  May 15, 2010 at 10:03 am

      A “snap” is a metal closure on clothing or upholstery. I apologize that I don’t know the term used in the U.K. It’s the heavy gauge metal round disc with a piece that protrudes out, then a button like metal piece that pops and clips onto it closing 2 pieces of fabric together. It makes a sharp sound when it clips on or comes off…a “snap”. What do you call it in England?

  • 20. Alex  |  May 15, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Well after a consultation it could be called a few things, “press stud” “Stud & fastner” “eyelets” all a touch dull and lacking in energy! Wouldn’t you agree?
    But to up the pace a tad it would seem that poppa or popper is the most common term, all of the above doesn’t quite live with “snap” though sadly.

    And you didn’t answer my other question!
    And it came up again this week!

  • 21. Laura Robbins  |  May 18, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Hi Shari,

    I came to pilates due to a back injury, never dreaming it would one day be a career choice. In 5 years of practicing pilates I never knew the lower pelvic floor could contract. Six weeks after a lower abdominal surgery I chose to work with Robin Schoenfeld to do “Body Rolling” http://www.yamunabodyrolling.com . When I woke THE NEXT MORNING I sneezed and my whole pelvic floor contracted. My head popped up from my pillow, I looked at my pelvis and shouted “WHAT!?!?? I didn’t know that area worked!” (may be scar tissue from all the times of slamming my brakes too hard on a bicycle? who knows?)

    It was a revelation. It changed my pilates practice completely. I began using body rolling on my clients. Alignment, scar tissue, connectivity, and a plethora of issues resolved. Sometimes, when placing a client on the reformer and I see their entire right side elevated and skewing forward, I’ll pop them off, do 5 minutes of rolling and then we’re right back to work….ALIGNED. It’s beautiful.

    Yamuna’s studio is NYC, I strongly recommend checking it out. Megwyn White is developing the use of the YBR balls on the pilates equipment (for example: a soft small ball placed between the hip and ribs during Pulling The Straps on the Long Box, can lift and assist in extension, lengthening and toning of the muscles) Beautiful work. And: it feels like a deep tissue massage. 🙂 You can “friend” Megwyn on my FB page.


    Pilates Style, Gratz and a ton of others should be advertising on your blog!!


  • 22. Laura Robbins  |  May 18, 2010 at 12:02 am

    oh and p.s. one great image is that of a “seat belt” of your left and right hip bones contracting towards one another and a SLOOOOW lift on the double leg stretch really nails the “lower” abdominals

  • 23. Jodi Brinkman  |  May 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm


    I am in the process of looking up all the fabulous teachers (“judges”) I had the priviledge of meeting yesterday at the event yesterday in New York. I love your blog already (and I’ve only just read this article!) and can’t wait to dive into some of the the older posts both here and at the Pilates Style blog! You have a very clear voice in your writing that makes it easy to read.

    It’s good to hear the “in & up” cue over and over and over again. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, like ‘what else can I say’, or am I being clear enough to my clients, etc. It’s a struggle at times to get people to really FEEL what I know has made all the difference in the world to me and millions of thers! Sometime I wish I could do it for them! But reading this post gave me the inspiration I need in my teaching to encourage my students, and continue my own practice as well. Thank you so much! You are an inspiration and I hope to work with you at your lovely studio in the future.

    Jodi (the other redhead who competed at Pilatesonfifth!)

    P.S. Sorry wasn’t able to make party afterwards, had clients this morning and dear friend’s party to make here in Cleveland.

    • 24. theverticalworkshop  |  May 26, 2010 at 10:53 am


      Thank you for taking the time to look me up, read my blog and then even comment! Thank you!

      Saturday was a special day! I’m glad we got to connect even briefly and hope to spend time together in the future. I’m actually in NYC, now, not in L.A. any longer (though my business still runs out there, too)…I just have to update my website!

      I’m thrilled that reading this post has given you the encouragement you need to charge on! Take you time and allow your clients to take their time, too. We can’t force change, we can only encourage (though strongly) and allow our clients to change appropriately. Heck…Pilates is always a metaphor for life…this is how change develops in Pilates and in the rest of our lives!

      With that, when we find ourselves, as teachers, frustrated in the “broken record” or struggling to get our clients to get it, it’s often times the right time for us to take a session. It’s important to hear new cues and grow within ourselves. Take a session with a teacher you’ve never worked with before, perhaps at a studio you’ve never been to before. Take a workshop from someone you’ve wanted to work with. Ask questions, reach out…as you’re doing! You’re 100% on the right track! It’s teachers like you who go searching who truly excel personally and professionally as you did this day that you sought out the judges from the event and found this blog and more!

      Please read on, comment, ask questions and all the rest!

      I hope to see you soon!
      – Shari

  • 25. John Steel  |  May 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Keep pitching tolerance. In my opinion what has made Pilates universal, a beloved activity, and a successful business (Joe’s wasn’t), is the innovations and innovators. It has brought science, study, vitality and enjoyment into what was a very strict discipline. I can even see Joe laughing, with a beer in hand, at the blindfolded rolls. You all should be congratulated. I hope to be there next year. Best…John

    • 26. theverticalworkshop  |  June 5, 2010 at 2:58 pm

      Hi, John!
      I think you would enjoy this “Olympic”-like event! It was a hoot and absolutely beautiful having such a mix of people all truly be as one.
      All the best,
      – Shari

  • 27. Liz  |  June 5, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Shari, I love the blog. One of my favorite cues is to say that you are trying to move your abdomen away from a giant melon baller or ice cream scoop. It starts below your belly button and goes up to your ribs. Sometimes I will move my hand over their bodies in a scoop and ask them to try not to let my hand touch. It has been a good visualization for some of my clients! Liz

    • 28. theverticalworkshop  |  June 5, 2010 at 2:57 pm

      Thank you, Liz! I’ve always done the ice cream, but never a melon baller…great summer image! I’m gonna use it!

  • 29. Enja  |  June 18, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Hi Shari, I haven’t met you yet, but I love the clarity of your blogs. One small thing: Rectus abdominis originates from, not inserts in, pubis/lower abs. Sorry, just love this stuff ;D


    • 30. theverticalworkshop  |  June 18, 2010 at 10:55 pm

      Hi, Enja,
      Thank you for reading, reaching out and absolutely correcting me on my error! Sometimes you re-read and edit and still miss important things like that! I really appreciate your good eye! I’ll edit it right away!
      I look forward to hearing from you in the future! And meeting you!
      – Shari

      • 31. MARY LYON  |  July 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm

        Shari, continue the great blogs. I look forward to reading them. thanks for being such a great Pilates instructor.

  • […] Lower Abdominals: How can we teach our clients (and ourselves) to connect?2010/05/06 […]

  • 33. CathB  |  October 29, 2011 at 4:58 am

    Thanks Shari! I have recently changed the way I cue the abdominals such that I no longer make any reference to the navel at all. I focus my clients’ attention on the area between the hip bones and the pubic bone. Since these are bony landmarks, they are actually easier to connect to than the navel. I have found that cueing the navel invariably results in activation of the upper fibres of the rectus abdominus with a corresponding lack of connection to the lower, deeper fibres. I actually tell my clients to keep the navel ‘soft’ and to think about ‘sinking’ the area between the hip bones and the pubic bone. I work with imagery a lot. Again, choice of imagery (like choice of words) cannot be over-emphasized. To get the right quality and to access the lower, deeper fibres, I cue something like this: ‘Imagine there is a tap root or an anchor located between the hip bones and pubic bone. Allow the root / anchor to sink by it’s own weight (no ‘pulling’ or ‘sucking in’) deep into the floor underneath you (if they are supine). The heavier the root is, the deeper it will sink. The more relaxed you are, the deeper it will sink. The root should feel like it can sink infinitely without getting ‘stuck’. The point is to feel what ‘depth’ feels like. None of this should impede the breath and none of it should feel like you are ‘yanking’ on muscles.’ As abstract as this is, it works every time, and quickly too – once you know how to cue and how to observe. No cueing of the navel. This helps clients to feel what the quality of deep support feels like as opposed to the feeling that ensues when the superficial abdominal muscles engage without deep support. I emphasize the contrast. Hope this makes sense!

    • 34. theverticalworkshop  |  November 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

      Hello, Catherine,

      Any way that you can encourage your clients to lift their abdominals in and up and lift the lower spine is great. Some people find “Draw your navel in and up” incredible effective. Some will wrap a thick band around the waist and lift up. Some will focus low, some middle, some high. Some, like me, will use all of these things because they all work depending on the client, exercise, day. You have to have many tools available to you.

      I caution on the word “sinking” because it gives into gravity. Of course, it could be useful when your client is supine, but you need to be able to translate it into sitting, kneeling and ultimately standing.

      All the best and thank you, again,
      – Shari

  • […] Lower Abdominals: How can we teach our clients (and ourselves) to connect?2010/05/06 […]

  • 36. The Vertical Workshop's Pilates Teacher Blog  |  December 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    […] Lower Abdominals: How can we teach our clients (and ourselves) to connect?2010/05/06 […]

  • 37. Yarit Dor  |  April 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Dearest Shari,

    Thank you very much for this article. I agree completely and funnily enough a cue not from the Classical Pilates world really helped me get more into my “lower” Abdominals. It is taken from Garuda and I sometimes use it if nothing else works on my client : “pull the skin of the lower belly in and up”. I know, it sounds weird but it works for 70% of my clients in a group Tower class.

    Thanks for all the information and generosity. I hope to see you again in London.

    Kindest regards,

    Yarit xxxx

  • 38. Monica Snavely  |  May 28, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Aesthetic Athletics.

  • 39. rossicela  |  July 9, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    Reblogged this on touching the void and commented:
    I like this, thanks 🙂


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