The Lock Down: Abdominals…How Much and Which Ones to Engage?
You’re a good girl. You’re a good boy. You do as you’re told and even more. You’ve made a supreme abdominal connection and you can keep it. But…are you maybe doing too much? Is it possible to engage your abdominals too much?
Yes. Yes it is. Like in the Efficiency articles (see Efficiency Part 2: Only As Much As Is Necessary) it is important to do only as much as necessary. No more. No less. Why? How? How can someone like me who appears to be an over-achiever to the max actually say this? Because it can’t be about over achieving. It has got to be about doing exactly what is needed at exactly the right time. No more. No less. Just right.
Let’s not waste any energy at all. In the effort to balance…that means conservation. Efficiency.
So…you’ve been told to…
- Scoop more!
- Pull your abdominals in deeper! Deeper!!!
- Close your ribs! Keep your ribs in!
Well…how about only make the abdominal connection that is necessary to either stabilize or mobilize the torso…the ribcage or pelvis and what’s in between (the lumbar spine and abdomen)?
Think about that: what little do you need to do to accomplish the task at hand. That’s not being a “slacker”. Again, that’s being efficient. Energy is limited. That’s The Truth. We must conserve. In which case…
When you do The Hundred…how much do you need to pull your abdominals in and up? And which ones do which?
1 – Are you so stuck on the upper abdominals and “closing the ribs” that you have shut off your diaphragm, but you still can’t really lift your upper back (curl your chest up) because your lock-down on your diaphragm has locked up your thoracic spine?
2 – Are you even connected into your lower abdominals to stabilize your pelvis against the weight of your out-stretched legs?
….not to mention…your abdominals play a crucial role in your movement or seeming-stabilization…but not the role you think they do. They are such thin muscles…not what you would imagine at all. They are not like glutes or quads or psoas or iliacus. They are thin like a summer top or a pair of support-hose. They can’t do what you think they are supposed to be doing…what you were taught they are to do. They merely assist. They aide in intra-abdominal pressure helping to give support to the entire trunk. Consider the support to the spine, now. That support allows the back muscles to work efficiently. In addition, abdominal engagement (TA and IO and ExO) pull on the thoracolumbar fascia thereby “stiffening the lumbar spine for greater efficiency of back muscles, too!
Abdominals are not the major heavy lifters you might think they are. Consider them more as “efficiency instigators”. They help keep your innards relatively supported so that other muscles can be efficient. That’s awesome!
Or what about in exercises where the abdominals are the movement motivators…like in The Saw? In the most broad sense…the rectus abdominis (along with gravity) draw the spine and torso forward into forward flexion, the external obliques and all upper fibers of the abdominals as a group (along with mid and upper back muscles) twist the upper torso while the internal obliques and all lower fibers of the abdominals as a group (along with lower back, hip and leg muscles that connect to the pelvis) twist the pelvis to seemingly stay stable. How much purposeful action of your abdominals (all) do you need for this exercise? Are you looking for a gut wrench or for support and mobility. Right…support and mobility. With that…see how little you need to use of each muscle…and seek how many muscular actions you can recognize
You see, the very common thought that “the abdominals do everything in Pilates”…is a sincere misunderstanding. Most often, your abdominals are working to help stabilize the trunk so that your legs or arms are more efficient. Or are working to help the back muscles be efficient. Sometimes they are primary mobilizers, of course…but…no one muscle or muscle group does anything. All muscles work all of the time.
Yes…all muscles work all of the time. In which case no one muscle or muscle group needs to overwork. However, we seem to think that the abdominals have to work more more more more.
So, that brings me back to the lock down…
How will you or your clients breathe if you lock down your abdominals? All of your abdominals either originate or insert into your lower ribs. Your diaphragm also originates at your lower ribs. In fact, your transverse abdominis and your diaphragm actually interdigitate. That means…they are utterly connect.
Now, Pilates people often instruct clients to “close your ribs”, “knit your ribs together”, “pull your ribs in” or some such thing. Pilates instructors are taught to see ribs poking out in the front as a bad thing and to clip them together. In my article “Those Pesky Ribs Poppin’ Out All Over The Place” I talk considerably about what this is and how to honestly and effectively address the imbalances of the ribs you see. There is no need…absolutely no need to close, knit or pull in ribs because if you do…you limit your lungs from expanding.
When you inhale, many muscles attached to the rib cage contract causing and expansion of the chest cavity. Expansion is the key word here. Then the diaphragm contracts…dropping down towards your abdomen. You see…your rib cage must expand…expand. Not close, knit or pull in. Otherwise you cannot take in the appropriate amount of air.
Therefore…because your diaphragm contracts and actually lowers down…you must not lock down your abdominals because then you cannot allow your diaphragm to work.
Who cares? You’re looking for great abdominals…you can’t let go of your abdominals? Well…you’ve got to care. Without your diaphragm getting it’s full effort and movement…you have a weak diaphragm which is of far greater concern than weak abdominals. You must be able to take in enough oxygen to live! And breathing is what does that. Great inhalations with movement of the abdomen are necessary.
I can hardly tell you how many Pilates teachers tell me that they’ve found out that they have weak diaphragms. If you are locking down your ribs and abdomen and only doing “lateral and back breathing”…then you have a weak diaphragm, too. Yes, I did discuss this briefly in “At Long Last…The Pelvic Floor Article” and I will discuss the mechanics of breath more in the future, but though you’ve been taught not to breathe into your abdomen…you must.
And…of course, when you can’t inhale because your diaphragm is being hindered, a major signal is sent throughout your nervous system telling you that you are not OK. The lock down on your respiratory system that you’ve created puts you in the same state as full-on anxiety. So, when we lock our abdominals and diaphragm…we increase the state of anxiety and create tremendous imbalances…that we were supposed to be balancing in Pilates. Hmm…
That means…we go back to: The Hundred: How much abdominal effort do you really need to stabilize your torso (including pelvis) while your legs are extended and uplifted and arms are pumping up and down…while you breathe? Right. Not as much as you’d think.
You fear that you or your clients will lose their support and hurt your back if you don’t hold your abdominals tightly while you inhale? I know you’ve been taught that; however, that’s not the case. It’s amazing how much support you actually have quite naturally if you have a full inhale. You see…if you allow your ribs to expand and your diaphragm to drop upon engagement (“allow” because these actions happen naturally if you don’t hinder them), then your thorax fills with air creating great internal support. You have all of the support that you need.
Consider how much support a balloon has. When empty of air, it’s floppy.
When it has a little bit of air, can you squish it around? Yes. Not much support. How about when you blow it up with a lot of air? More support? Yes. A lot of support. Same thing with your torso when you fill your lungs up with air.
It’s that simplistic.
So…pull your abdominals in and up only as much as you need to either stabilize or mobilize and still be able to inhale! And it’s primarily your lower fibers of your abdominals that can stay pretty strong to help “stabilize” your pelvis against the weight of your outstretched legs.
Now…a full inhale can only really happen if you have a sensational and full exhale…and that’s where your greatest abdominal effort can come in! Hooray! At long last in this article we get to engage engage engage!!! A powerful and complete exhale will allow for an effortless and full inhale. But which abdominals and how much? Well more of your lower and middle fibers of your abdominals, actually. If you initiate from your upper abdominals as anyone who closes ribs does, then you actually cut off your exhalation.
Goodness. This means that we have to have a real mind-body experience…and encourage our clients to have one, too! And…that means every move of every repetition of every exercise. Hmm…Pilates gets more and more awesome, doesn’t it?!
Enjoy the great effort of doing great Pilates!
***As always…if you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you and share with our colleagues! and…
Workshops – Sessions – Downloadable Products…
Please take a look at THE MUSIC OF PILATES. It’s an aural workshop and manual of Joseph Pilates’ actual rhythms for the mat and reformer exercises. These rhythms and accents will make your teaching more effective and your clients’ experience much easier.
Though this is using Joseph Pilates’ rhythms…this work applies to all styles of Pilates. It’s universal.
In this workshop, you will learn…
1 – the value and purpose of each of the Mat and Reformer exercises at what is commonly referred to as the “Advanced” exercises
2 – the rhythm and accents that Mr. Pilates coordinated with these exercises
3 – the purpose of those rhythms and accents
4 – how to count the rhythm of each exercise
5 – how to coordinate the counts with each movement of each exercise
6 – how to teach in rhythm and create a successful workout
We all need tools to make teaching and learning easier…this is a great one!
More information: http://www.TheVerticalWorkshop.com/html.showcase.php
Want a free sample? http://www.TheVerticalWorkshop.com/html.showcase.php
(And…you will see a link to it all in the sidebar of this blog)
Full info listed under “Workshop Calendar” at http://www.TheVerticalWorkshop.com
New York, NY: August 4
Austin, TX: August 24 & 25
New York, NY: September 17
Red Hook, NY: September 21
Boston, MA: September 22
Warren, VT: September 28 & 29
Fair Haven, NJ: October 20
Birkerød (Near Copenhagen), DENMARK: November 8-10
And more to come in the fall/winter 2013…but this is a good start.
The Vertical Workshop Pilates Teacher Intensives:
Boston begins: November 15-17, 2013
email info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com for information!
Workshops at your studio?
Sure…Just ask: info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com and I’ll be glad to discuss the details!
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