Pilates Core with Functional Movements: The Perfect Marriage
Pilates Core with Functional Movements with Paula Morizono, CEAS
We usually think of Pilates as a mindful exercise done supine (lying on the back) on a reformer in a Pilates studio, but I think the real value of Pilates must be applied to everyday life movements. Using correct functional movement with a powerful Pilates core is the perfect combination. A functionally strong body with a strong core knows how to strengthen itself doing everyday activities such as lifting groceries, pushing a vacuum cleaner and carrying babies. Everyday life activities become the impetus for the body becoming stronger and stronger; a resilient body expert in handling everyday life movements. Such a functionally strong body with a powerful Pilates core is the perfect combination that can keep us fit for life.
Why address Functional Movement first?
Many health practitioners and fitness educators address the core first, but I think correct execution of functional movement or everyday life movements should be addressed before moving on to the core. Initiating movement in this order protects the intervertebral discs. The intervertebral discs lie between each spinal vertebra acting as shock absorbers of the spine. If we do not move correctly in everyday life movements, we compromise the integrity of the discs. A crucial key to protecting the discs is knowing how to move in neutral spine position or what I call “home base”. I call it home base because it is the position that we should be in most of the time, placing the least amount of stress to the back. It is a flat/straight versus rounded spine. In this position the discs are most protected from damage.
Teaching core work should start with addressing correct functional movement in neutral back position, then adding abdominal core work to fortify that position. Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs (www.drjeffreycanhelp.com) chiropractor, who has practiced for 40 years and with whom I have worked for the past 20 years states, “this approach makes sense.” He understands that the disc is strongest when the spine is in a neutral position. As long as the back is rounded it will most likely start to put pressure on the spinal nerves over time, despite having a strong core. Thus, addressing the spine first, making sure the disc is in optimal position, then adding abdominal core strength is the right order.
Why is flexion (rounded back) often used when teaching core work?
- In flexion, the abdominal muscles are in a more concentric/shortened position, enabling the student to feel an immediate engagement of core muscles.
- Traditionally, Pilates has been done mostly in flexion, although many teachers now advocate for a neutral spine.
- Some students want quick results and feel if they are doing something where they feel a ‘burn,’ they will achieve their goals more quickly. For example, doing lots of sit ups in flexion will definitely give you a burn; but only being able to activate the core in a flexed position like sit ups will become a problem. The body won’t know how to activate the core in correct “home base” or neutral position, protecting the spine in everyday life movements.
Because you engage your core in one position doesn’t mean it works in any other position
Doing a thousand sit ups doesn’t mean you can tighten the core standing up straight or seated at your work station. The first time I clearly witnessed the inability to translate the core from one position to another was working with patients in a physical therapy clinic. I noticed that even though patients could connect with their core in a supine position they couldn’t engage that same core once they stood up. If the student only engages the core laying on their back in flexion, often that is the only position they can use their abs in. People assume because they can do a strong core workout lying down it will automatically work for them everywhere, but I have not found that to be true. In order for the core to have muscle memory it needs to be worked in the position you want it to work in. For example, if you want your core to work for you while lifting your 40-pound toddler, then you need to stand up and practice picking up something using that same physical action. Movement is very specific.
HIP HINGE: A MOVEMENT EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW
Proper hip hinge is moving from the hip joint while keeping the spine neutral when bending down, sitting down, lifting, etc. One of the first things I ask my students to show me is a hip hinge movement. Why? Because if they can’t do that correctly, they may be hurting themselves every time they bend down to pick up a baby, pick up groceries, sit down and get up from their work station, get on and off the toilet etc. Without getting out of this bad habit, I know they will be vulnerable to back pain despite my efforts to help strengthen their core. An analogy is that the body position is the framework of a house, and core strength is the reinforcement. The structure/framework needs to be sound before reinforcing it or somewhere down the line the house may start to break.
Knowing how to hip hinge helps students sit properly. If you sit properly you know what it feels like to maintain a neutral spine. Those students who sit improperly sit down in a rounded back posture, unaware of their incorrect posture. Hip hinge helps students maintain awareness of their lumbar curvature whether sitting or standing. An effective tool help find a good hip hinge is a dowel, or a broomstick on the back of the spine. Have the student bend down while keeping the stick on the spine. This technique ensures that the student maintains neutral spinal alignment. It can also be used in a seated position.
The following link is of a young man I cued showing him proper hip hinge movement with a broomstick on his back. I felt this was important since he told me his father had back surgery and could no longer function well with his daily activities. Although I was hired to choreograph his wedding dance, I felt impelled to give him this extra lesson showing him how to hip hinge properly protecting his back.
I tell students to start paying attention and use correct hip hinge in their daily lives, striving to make correct movement part of their new normal daily routine, and to be patient as it takes time to create a new habit.
PILATES CORE TRAINING
- Breathing: using the diaphragm and creating IAP (intra-abdominal pressure).
- Abdominal engagement: first in neutral position then later in other positions (flexion, extension, rotation).
The missing link is breathing. Most people have shallow breathing causing overuse of their upper trapezius muscles. I don’t think enough time is spent on teaching breathing technique in the fitness or health field. Without correct breathing, IAP and a strong core cannot be achieved. Mike Reinold has an excellent article on the topic of IAP.
The first step to correct breathing is relaxation and widening of the ribs on the inhale. It takes time to teach students to relax and learn what it feels like to widen the ribs. One of the most effective exercises is having the students sit slumped over in a seated position while I cue their ribs to expand. The ribs need to expand laterally allowing the diaphragm to descend, expanding the thoracic cavity. This creates IAP and stabilizes the spine from the inside out.
I ask students to incorporate this breathing technique into their daily lives by paying attention and being mindful. New habits are more likely to stick if done on a daily basis.
The abdominal muscles have a wide span from the solar plexus area down to the pubic bone and around the back. Most people find the upper abdominals in a flexed position but not the lower abdominals. The more important abdominal area to initially engage from is the lower abdominals about 2” below the belly button at the COG (center of gravity.)
Engaging core at the COG gives better balance and strengthens from the foundation of the spine, the lumbar area. Interestingly, it is also considered the center of the body in Chinese medicine and is an important acupuncture point called Dan Tian. Cueing this anchor point which I call Abdominal Anchor Point 1 helps keep a neutral spine. In contrast, cueing from the belly button has a tendency to create a rounded back or flexion.
An example of how to cue Abdominal Anchor Point 1
- Inhale, gently expanding laterally through the ribs keeping the shoulders relaxed.
- Keeping the ribs wide, gently pull in the abdominals at anchor point 1.
- Keeping the ribs wide, continue to breath while continuously holding the abs.
- Relax. Repeat. Practice at home.
- Progression: try this exercise in supine, seated and standing.
Apply the principles of correct functional movement with a strong core into your daily life.
Habit 1 – Lifting your baby without thinking in a flexed position.
Solution- Take a minute to breathe in before lifting the baby. Tighten the core and bend over in a hip hinge. Keep your spine neutral while bending the knees. Now lift the baby. You have done a full body squat with weight, your baby!
Habit 2 – Picking up groceries without thinking.
Solution- Inhale, widen ribs laterally and tighten the core. Lift the groceries moving from the hips keeping the core engaged. Maintain your core as you walk to your car. Now you have done core work and worked it with endurance.
Habit 3 – Sitting slouched all day at a seated work station.
Solution – Arrange your work station properly, and become mindful of the way you are seated. Make sure that most of the time you are seated in a neutral position and move from the hip. If your chair doesn’t have a lumbar support get one, or if your lumbar support isn’t supporting you in the right place you can place a lumbar support over it. I have posted the link below to my favorite back supports. I like both the Bodyline original and thin versions. Additionally, have a light abdominal hold every time you move. It will become a very good habit.
Habit 4 – Unsteady balance
Solution – While standing in line at the grocery store, post office or anywhere where you are waiting, balance on one leg at a time. Stand tall, gently pulling in your core. Don’t hold your breath. Breathe while holding the core.
“The best way to form a new habit is to tie it to an existing habit”
The best way to incorporate new functional movements into daily life is by tying it into the activities you are already doing. Using your neutral spine and Pilates core in all activities will become an automatic habit you will hardly think about. Using your everyday movements as your new exercise habits means the body will get stronger and stronger simply by engaging in daily life activities. Picking up that baby will tighten the core, glutes and legs, so will carrying groceries and getting on and off a chair. I encourage my students to look at their life and work as opportunities to strengthen.
Doing daily life movements multiple times a day, mindfully, and in correct position while holding the core builds significant strength over time. These functional movements will be performed throughout one’s life so when they are strong, your body will be strong.
A Successful exercise program is one that students can stick with
Many students have told me that when they attend exercise classes they get stronger, but after they stop, they lose all their strength and are back at square one.
“…half of people who start exercise give up within the first six months, ….80 percent quit within the first 2 years….Those numbers have not budged in the last 3 decades” Washington Post 5-17
Despite all of our good intentions, I think the idea of expecting people to go to the gym and carve out three hours a week to exercise, not including the time it takes to get to a gym, will not happen. A young mother who works and takes care of her kids, attends all their teachers conferences and extracurricular activities, hardly has time for herself. She often looks at exercise as another chore which will be low on her list of priorities. The best solution is to make the movements she’s already doing strong by activating more muscle in those movements. I have seen this technique work over and over and students love it because it is empowering and doable. My students discover they can use their daily life activities to make themselves strong without having to add anything to their lives. I believe this method is the only way to get more people involved in taking care of their bodies on a long-term basis. Instead of mindlessly performing everyday movements, my students make those same movements count by engaging muscles in correct form. This approach will make a body stronger and stronger over time without having to add another activity. It is also easy to stick to since it relates to what students are already doing on a daily basis.
“I’m a busy mother of three, who also goes to school and works. Paula came highly recommended and I soon learned why. An anatomy expert in her own right, she personalizes every session so I can use what she teaches me in everyday life. Through her lessons, I’ve gained confidence both physically and mentally, all the while staying healthy and active. Furthermore, she helped me through my sciatica episodes and my back pain has subsided tremendously through her therapeutic sessions. Her help has made a world of difference in my life; she is truly heaven sent!”
You do not have to add anything to your life, just make what you are already doing your exercise.
Inhale, tighten the core and move. You will be amazed at how strong your daily functional movements will make you!
Paula Morizono, CEAS www.functionalpilatesla.com
Certified Pilates teacher
State of California teacher: older adult fitness; adults with disabilities; adaptive physical; education; and health.
ACE personal trainer
Certified Ergonomics Assessment Specialist (CEAS)