The Lock Down: Abdominals…How Much and Which Ones to Engage?

August 16, 2013 at 2:53 am 13 comments

by John Mayo

by John Mayo

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…

by John Mayo

by John Mayo

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. images-3 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 simple.

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!

– Shari

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Free Range Pilates  |  August 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Lovely article Shari. I think that a full inhale will also tension the thoracolumbar fascia and therefore support the back even more as the diaphragm arises from this fascia.

    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  August 17, 2013 at 10:16 am

      Indeed, indeed…the glory of the full inhale…and the remarkable value of ensuring that every part be in balance with every other!
      Thank you for reading this and writing your thoughts! I appreciate it all greatly!
      All the best,
      – Shari

  • 3. The Body Sleuth  |  August 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Wow! Thanks for sharing. I will be revisiting this article a few times since it is full of detail. Eric Franklin first gave me the idea that we Pilates instructors are overdoing the abs. Since then I’ve had other hints to the same. I tend to keep things fairly basic and not delve into anatomy too much since I like to keep Pilates accessible to everybody. But I learned something recently that I think is relevant to the point that you’re making: when our nervous system is in a calm state (not fight or flight), our breathing creates an up and down pumping action that affects the entire torso. Most of us think of belly breathing as the belly expanding and contracting, but this too is a muscular affectation. Basic healthy belly breathing provides a pressurized massage for the internal organs. Distending the belly outward distracts from that normal process. Which is my way of reiterating your point: don’t try so hard, less is more.

    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  August 17, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Yes, absolutely. Great point! When we allow our bodies to work as they were designed, then indeed, all is quite naturally “massaged”. It’s very special and necessary to allow for the internal massage.

      The “horror” of our modern existence is that we behave more like machines and less like organisms. (I am writing a major article and more (book) about this and lecture on it quite often.) Therefore…we do not have the coordination and balance of strength and stretch internally…well beyond our big muscle groups…far deeper. It is our job in Pilates to re-coordinate. However, we must have a sensational understanding of what that means.

      Thank you so much for reading this post and sharing your thoughts and knowledge.

      – Shari

  • […] seriously enjoyed this web site visit site, they provide lots of excellent info on this […]

  • 6. Mark Vermeer – What is Core Stability  |  October 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    […] The Lock Down: Abdominals…How Much and Which Ones to Engage? […]

  • 7. Sarah  |  October 21, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    I’ve been practising and teaching Pilates for nearly 10 years and have recently started questioning the over-use of rib cage cues. As an individual who has prominent ribs and has experienced that moment of severe anxiety over not being able to breathe during the reformer Backstroke, this article is a welcome breath of fresh air – literally as well as figuratively!!

    • 8. theverticalworkshop  |  October 22, 2013 at 4:37 pm

      Thank you for reading this article…and letting me know that it was helpful to you! And…it’s funny…before someone told you that your ribs are too prominent…did you ever even think of them? No. Somehow, I hope you can erase that tape and create a new one where you do, indeed, decided that breathing is more important.

      There is a time and place for upper abdominal connections for stabilization of the ribcage or to lift the head and chest (head and upper back) up…but…please no lock-down. How much effort do you really need…and still breathe?

      All the very best!!
      – Shari

  • 9. UmmYahya  |  May 14, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I’m a newbie Pilates Instructor and still learning a lot.
    I was taught to inhale through the nose into the lungs laterally, and not into the diaphragm( don’t let the belly pop out while inhaling or exhaling).
    Are you saying that it’s ok to let the belly pop up(towards the ceiling) during inhalation and exhalation?
    I struggle with basic chest lifts as I just cannot curl up my chest. Having had 7 natural births probably has something to do with it, but I think maybe I’m not breathing correctly as well?
    I’d appreciate any advice.

    • 10. theverticalworkshop  |  May 28, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      Hello, my apologies that it has taken me a couple of weeks to write a response to you.

      Thank you for reading this article on the abdominals and the seek for balance of engagement. Efficiency. What I seek to share with you here is that we ought to breathe in Pilates the way we are meant to breathe in life all of the time. That is: we are meant to breathe in through the nose and out through the nose and we are all meant to do “diaphragmatic breathing”. That is how animals breathe. That doesn’t mean you let your “belly pop out”. It simply means that you must allow your diaphragm to actually work appropriately.

      If you look at the action of the diaphragm, there is absolutely no reason why a belly should pop out. But you also must not lock down your abdominals. It certainly makes us consider what is “popping out” and what is simply allowing for appropriate movement so that the abdomen is assisting in breath and support rather than constricting (lock-down of the ribcage with over engagement of “upper abdominals”) or failing to support (pushing the abdominal contents forward and out). So…we must seek a balance.

      The primary engagement of abdominal muscles for support and movement must be the deeper layers of the abdomen: transverse abdominis and internal obliques. While both connect into the rib cage, they will not lock down the rib cage, whereas the external obliques which originate extremely high up into and along the ribs can considerably constrict the ribs if over-trained. Sadly in Pilates there are a lot of cues like “close your ribs”, “soften your ribs”, “knit your ribs together” and such…that hinders breath.

      So, we must diaphragmatically breathe and add to our inhalation with full expansion of the ribcage including the back, side and front. That will mean allowing the upper abdominals to be supportive, but not locked down on the ribcage. When you inhale, you should see an expansion of the ribcage in the front as well as side and back. You ought to see an expansion of the mid torso without a release. That means, again, developing a balance.

      “Developing a balance”. That means that it will be a coordination that takes times. You won’t be poking your belly out. You won’t be closing your rib cage down. You will allow for breath as well as support. Movement and support. Balance.

      It takes time and appropriate understanding. It takes patience and true education.

      I’m sorry to say that most Pilates instructors and those who train people to teach/instruct do not understand enough about how the human body really works and though quite well-meaning teach actions that are ineffective and sometimes damaging. Again, well-meaning.

      So, with that, I’m extremely glad that you have reached out. I hope that helps clarify. Does it? Will you please write back so we can continue this conversation? And email me if you would like to ever do a Skype session for either question/answer or a workout.

      All the best,
      – Shari

  • […] Well then…how must you cue and “use” the abdominals (which is why I am writing this and why you are reading this): “Pull your lower abdominals in and up and lift your lower back bones apart” in all exercises at all times. You see there is no “navel to spine”. That wouldn’t make the correct lateral tension on the TLF There is no “scoop your abdominals in and up”. That also won’t make the appropriate tension. Though it is a reasonable image when the spine is in light forward flexion. And images are really important. But…it misses the important action of the spinal soft tissues. There is “no close the ribs”, “soften the ribs”, “knit the ribs” as those would also skip this vital tension on the TLF and always hinders the diaphragm from working efficiently (remember “The Lock Down:  Abdominals…How Much and Which Ones to Engage?“) […]

  • 12. Joleen  |  November 7, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    Wow, just came across this (excellent, well written) post. As a Pilates Instructor of 23 years, I have personally experienced the over emphasis of abdominal tension in Pilates. Unfortunately for me, it has created several probs with digestion. I changed my cueing several years ago, for those same anatomical reasons you’ve described In this article. Inefficiency of diaphragm (main breathing muscle) also leads to poor movement in all directions of the trunk…and to take it a step deeper, limits unrestricted flow of Prana (or Qi) which can lead to many problems with our organs. I believe Pilates should inspire ease of movement for the entire body. Let’s stop knitting ribs and hammering over-contracted abs. An over-contracted muscle is also very weak. Less is definitely more.

    • 13. theverticalworkshop  |  November 13, 2019 at 11:03 am

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for taking time to read this!
      All the best,
      – Shari


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