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Pilates and Other Foreign Languages: How to Engage Your Abs

Learning how to engage your abs can seem tricky at first.  If you’re new to Pilates, when someone mentions to ‘engage your abs’ you might think to tense your belly area.  That’s only a small part of the full abdominal muscles we focus on in a Pilates class.  Engaging your abs is more than just the belly, it encompasses your whole core, including your pelvic floor.


But first, let’s talk a minute about why it’s important to brace the core while doing almost every exercise:

  1. Proximal stability leads to distal mobility. This one’s most important, as it not only leads to more efficient movement, but it also prevents injury. If your core (abs, low back, and lumbo-pelvic area) is stable, other joints, like your hips, shoulders, knees, etc. will be able to move better.
  2. Enhances alignment. This one kind of stems off of number 1, but if your core is truly braced, while doing, say, a squat, then your hips are much more likely to stay aligned throughout the movement.
  3. Prevents low back pain. One of the core’s main functions is anti-extension. If our core’s not engaged while doing big, multi-joint exercises (or even just a plank)


Cue eye roll here – How many times have you heard during class “brace your core” or “engage the abs?”  I say it over and over and over, and I’m sure you tire of hearing it repeatedly. Well, I’m here to tell you once more………

BUT – I’m going to bet you haven’t heard it explained like (love, love, love) this………


1. Crouch forward contracting your abs. Now extend backward, like you’re stretching your abs. Now try and do both at the same time. Don’t move much, right? Your body’s fighting to flex and extend at the same time, and the result is anti-extension and anti-flextion (psst…that means a stable core!)

2. Bend over laterally to one side. Now bend laterally over to the other side. Now try and do both at the same time. Again, you’ll look like you’re just standing straight, but everything will be completely engaged and totally braced.

3. Rotate/twist and look over one shoulder. Now rotate/twist and look over the other shoulder. Now try and do both at the same time. This is an example of the anti-rotation function of core stability

4. Act as if someone is going to punch you in the stomach. This NOT the same as drawing the belly button in toward the spine or “sucking in” the stomach.

5. Finally, squeeze your glutes like you’ve got the winning lotto ticket between your (butt) cheeks and someone’s trying to take it! (weird, I know!)

HOMEWORK……………….Now, do all of these 5 steps at the same time while performing your plank.

Still not tough enough for you? Now pretend there’s magnets on your elbows and feet, and they’re drawing toward each other. If you’re doing ALL these things, you should be shaking like a leaf by 15 seconds.