The core is made up of 6 abdominal muscles that attach from different places on the rib cage which extend and attach to different places on the pelvis. They provide movement and stability for the core (also called the trunk) and aid in breathing. The abdominals support the posture. The closer to the spine and deeper the muscle is the more significant effect it has over postural support. So for example in Pilates we work to engage the Transverse Abdominal which is close to the spine. Working the deep stabilizer muscles will improve and maintain back health.
The six Muscles
Transverse abdominal (TA)
Being the deepest of the six abdominal muscles, means that the TA has the most influence over postural support. It wraps like a corset round the centre of the trunk from front to back extending between the ribs and hips supporting the organs located there. The fibres run horizontally acting as a back support belt. The TA is a respiratory muscle which aids breathing. It assists in exhalation bringing the ribcage toward the spine. In Pilates we work with the breath to gently contract the navel towards the spine to stabilize the pelvis in neutral during a movement. The TA also works to stabilize the trunk and movements of the trunk and neck which makes the Pilates system a great way to improve and maintain your posture.
How do I engage the TA?
We work with the breath and the natural process of the TA during Pilates. Place one hand round the back of the ribs and the finger tips of the other hand just above your hips. Breathe in and feel your ribs extend to the back and sides. Breathe out and mindfully feel your navel hollow. Breathe in again and on the next breathe out gently contract the navel towards the spine. The place to contract is just below the navel. This is called a scooping, hollowing or zipping up of the navel towards the spine.
TA and Pregnancy
During pregnancy the linea alba is weakened. Because the linea alba is attached to the TA after pregnancy working to strengthen the TA could help to restore integrity to the linea alba. A weak linea alba can also increase lordosis.
The internal oblique’s work in a pair, they play a big part in maintaining posture. They sit either side of the torso second deepest to the spine after the TA. They aid in lateral flexion and rotation of the spine.
The external obliques also work in a pair and are more superficial – which means they are further away from the spine than the Internal oblique’s and the TA. They play less of a role in maintaining posture. They also work in lateral spinal flexion and rotation.
The rectus Abdominal is the most superficial muscle of the group so plays the least role in maintaining posture. Its main function is to flex the spine forwards. It is responsible for the ‘6 pack’ in people that really exercise this muscle!
The Pelvic Floor Muscles
The Pelvic floor muscles support the organs of the lower abdominal cavity including the bladder and uterus. They are the foundation for the core of the body. They are part of the group of muscles we target when strengthening the core of the body along with the deep muscles of the back and abdominals. This is what we do in Pilates!
They form a supportive hammock at the base of the pelvic bowel attaching from the tail bone to the pubic bone. Damaging the Pelvic floor muscles can affect the integrity of the urethra, vagina and anus. Childbirth, Inactivity and aging can all weaken the Pelvic floor. Weak pelvic floor muscles or muscle groups not working together i.e. with the abdominals and back muscles can lead to muscular imbalance and back pain.
How do I engage the Pelvic Floor Muscles?
Try to tighten the muscles around the vagina and back passage and lift up, as if stopping passing water and wind at the same time. The movement is an upward and inward contraction, not a bearing-down effort. Make sure there is no contraction of the abdomen, thighs or buttocks.
• Avoid holding your breath. You should be able to hold a conversation at the same time, or try counting aloud while you’re doing the exercises.
• Don’t tighten the tummy, thigh or buttock muscles – you’ll be exercising the wrong muscle groups.
• Don’t squeeze your legs together.
Fast and slow contractions
You need to train your pelvic floor muscles through repetition, in the same way as you would train a muscle group at the gym.
Slow contractions help to increase the strength of your pelvic floor. They help your muscles to hold back the urine.
• Lift your pelvic floor muscles to a count of ten.
• Work up to holding the muscles tight for 10 seconds.
• Gradually increase the time until you reach 10 seconds.
• Relax your muscles and rest for 10 seconds.
• Repeat the contractions up to 10 times.
Fast contractions help your pelvic floor to cope with pressure, for example when you sneeze, cough or laugh. This works the muscles that quickly shut off the flow of urine.
• Lift your pelvic floor muscles quickly.
• Hold the contraction for one second.
• Relax the muscles and rest for one second.
• Repeat the contractions 10 times.