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What is Pilates?

What is Pilates?
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Pilates is a fitness system developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century. It consists of low-impact exercises to improve flexibility, muscular strength and endurance. Proper postural alignment, core strength and muscle balance are key to Pilates.

If you’ve done Pilates before, you’ll know it’s excellent for building core strength. In fact, the core is the foundation of all Pilates movements, getting you to activate the deep muscles of your midsection.

“The basic premise with the core and Pilates is that you need the core to move your body efficiently,” says physiotherapist and certified Pilates teacher, Adefemi A. Betiku. “We’re constantly, with every single movement, cueing clients to activate the deep core muscles.”

Throughout a Pilates session, you focus on working these muscles the entire time, and that has some powerful advantages to your daily life.

What is the core?

What is the core?
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Think of your core as a house, Betiku says. Your transverse abdominis and deep abdominal muscles are like the walls of the house. Your diaphragm, the muscle you activate when breathing is the roof. Your pelvic floor muscles are, you guessed it, the floor. You can consider your glutes the foundation of the house, Betiku says.

Add a muscle called lumbar multifidus (it supports the spine) to the list of deep core muscles; think of it like the back wall of the house. Some say the internal obliques belong to this group of intrinsic muscles. They’re the sides of the house, if you will.

Pilates works all of these muscles.

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The benefits of Pilates core exercises

The benefits of Pilates core exercises
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While you might typically turn to crunches, sit-ups, or bicycles to work the abs, these exercises primarily target the six-pack muscles (also known as the rectus abdominis). Pilates, on the other hand, gets down deeper into your middle to help you strengthen and stabilise your centre.

That’s why the practice stands out from other forms of movement, says physiotherapist and Pilates instructor Melanie Carminati. “Pilates is different than traditional core work because it’s focused on targeting these deep stabilising muscles, which is important for spine and organ health and overall vitality and quality of life,” she says. The practise also features a mindfulness element, bringing awareness to the breath and body during the moves, she adds.

People with weaker transverse abdominis muscles tend to experience low back pain, Betiku says. But because Pilates targets these deep muscles, it can help you stay ache-free.

Learn more about what causes lower back and hip pain.

How to activate your deep core muscles

How to activate your deep core muscles
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As you’re moving through the various Pilates exercises, your instructor will say words or phrases aimed at helping you work the deep muscles of your core. To target the transverse abdominis, Pilates instructors might say to gently pull the belly button down or in towards the spine. Getting the glutes involved in the movement requires simply squeezing your backside.

In order to fire up the pelvic floor, you’ll incorporate kegels into your Pilates practise. To know if you’re doing kegels correctly, think about how you’d stop yourself from peeing. That contraction is a kegel, Betiku explains.

The importance of breathing

The importance of breathing
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Breathing is a big part of Pilates – that’s where the mind-body connection is made. Because it activates the diaphragm, proper breathing makes moves more efficient, optimal and effective, Betiku says. So you’ll hear cues about breathing throughout a Pilates class to help with this activation.

To help you focus on your breath right from the start of a Pilates session, an instructor will likely have you inhale to prepare for an exercise. A Pilates instructor might also have you focus on breathing into your side for side bends or twists.

No matter the movement, you’ll find that paying attention to your breath through each exercise brings mindfulness and core engagement to your entire routine.

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Pilates exercises for your core

Pilates exercises for your core
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As you work through the following Pilates core exercises, curated by Betiku, remember to focus on those deep core muscles. And pay attention to your breath.

Hundreds

If you have persistent back pain, Betiku suggests skipping this one. Otherwise, it’s a great exercise to fire up the deep core muscles. It’s also a signature Pilates move.

Start by lying on your back, arms extended by your sides. Bring your legs to a tabletop position, with your knees bent and aligned over your hips. Pull your belly button down towards the mat.

Lift your chest, neck and shoulders off the floor. Lift your arms from the floor. Pulse your hands up and down while breathing in and out for 30 seconds.

If you’re ready for a challenge, straighten your legs and lift them at a diagonal.

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Bridge

Bridge
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As you work through the following Pilates core exercises, curated by Betiku, remember to focus on those deep core muscles. And pay attention to your breath.

Turn up the burn on your butt with bridges, which target the glutes through hip extension.

Start by lying on your back, arms extended by your sides. Bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Squeeze your butt and lift up your hips. Your torso should form a straight line with your thighs.

Pause at the top of the bridge, then slowly lower back to the floor. Repeat for 10 reps.

If you’re ready to turn this up a notch, lift one foot off the floor and do a single-leg glute bridge, performing 10 reps on each side.

Plank

Plank
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“A plank a day keeps the physiotherapist away,” Betiku says. Do this exercise often to strengthen the transverse abdominis in particular.

Start by placing your forearms or hands on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Your shoulders should align over your wrists and elbows.

Step your feet back so your body forms one straight line. Make sure your back is not arched (think about tucking your tail between your legs) or rounded. Hold for 30 seconds.

If you feel sturdy during this move, upgrade your plank: lift one leg up and hold for 30 seconds. Then switch to the other side. This forces the obliques to work even harder.

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Side plank

Side plank
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This is another exercise that targets the transverse abdominis. Betiku typically teaches side planks in a modified position because it’s a real challenge for the deep core muscles and especially the obliques.

Start lying on your left side, with knees bent and hips and shoulders stacked. Place your left forearm on the floor. Lift your hips so you form a diagonal line from shoulder to hip. Hold for 30 seconds.

If this feels easy, lift the top leg, straightening it out to the side. Hold for 30 seconds, or lift and lower the leg for 10 reps per side.

Reverse plank

Reverse plank
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This exercise works not only your abs but also your glutes and hamstrings, Betiku says.

Start seated, with your knees bent, legs together, and feet planted. Keep your chest lifted tall. Place your hands on the floor behind you, fingertips pointed out to the sides.

Squeeze your glutes and lift your hips. Keep your chest tall and look straight ahead. Hold for 30 seconds.

If this feels doable, straighten your legs in front of you to increase the challenge. Or lift one leg to turn on the obliques.

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