8 core strengthening exercises to help with “centering”

What’s at the core of movement? Our core. We need our core muscles in order to improve our physical abilities and reduce pain while exercising. These muscles help us stabilize our pelvis and spine while improving posture and alignment. 

That’s why in Pilates, moving from our core is actually one of the eight Pilates movement principles. It’s called Centering. Below we have some Pilates core exercises that will help you stay strong and centered. 

What is the core?

First and foremost let’s explore exactly what we mean by “core.”  The core muscles include the:

  • transverse abdominis: the deepest muscle of your abdominal group
  • multifidus: a deep muscle on your back that lines the spine on either side
  • spinal extensors: these run up and down the spine more superficially 
  • obliques: the flexors and rotators of your spine 
  • pelvic floor: the muscles located between the tailbone (coccyx) and the pubic bone within the pelvis

 Although extremely important, some of these muscles are not used consistently in daily life.  Why?  Because core muscles are stabilizing muscles. This means that they stabilize an area of the body; not move it.  This is in contrast to primary muscles, which are the muscles that start and drive the action of a movement. 

Why focus on the core?

These deep core muscles do not initiate movement but rather stabilize joints so the desired movement can be performed safely.  They keep us steady so the primary muscles can do their job.  But often they are inhibited by the over-dominate primary muscles. The core often doesn’t have time to activate before a movement begins.  

When we do not activate muscles properly, the nerves that need to be stimulated to move these muscles become weak and dormant.  Consequently, it becomes more and more difficult for our brains to remember how it feels to move certain muscle groups and we lose the ability to do so.  

Let’s use running as an example for why core is so important. If all you do is run, you do not get the integrated strengthening of your core muscles that is needed for both the primary and stabilizing muscles.  Over time, you might notice tightness in the front of your hips or experience back pain.  This is often due to the over-dominance of your quads and hip flexors and inhibition of your glutes and hip extensors (the opposing muscles). Consequently the body is pulled out of alignment, which is what causes pain and discomfort.  This is why balanced, body-integrated movement that engages the core is so crucial.  

Here are 8 Pilates exercises to strengthen your core. Note that 2 of these exercises are neural drills. These will prevent injury, reduce pain and improve the overall quality of your movement.  

8  Pilates Exercises to Strengthen Your Core

Lee Pilates Method

1. Lateral breathing

Lateral breathing, also called intercostal breathing, is a pattern of breath that allows the abdominal muscles to remain engaged while inhaling oxygen into the body. 

Draw your navel in towards your spine and inhale into your side and back ribs. Feel your ribs expand and your belly “hollow” like it’s scooping toward your spine. Exhale scooping your navel more deeply toward your spine. Feel your ribs close together, moving closer toward your spine like when a slinky compresses. (This should be a gentle, fluid motion and you should feel your ribs glide down your trunk a little). Breathe in for about 3-4 counts and out for around 5-6 counts. Keep your out-breath longer than your in-breath.  Read more detail in A Little Help from Lateral Breathing and watch this Instagram video for a demonstration. 

2. Chest Lift

This is an excellent exercise to coordinate lateral breathing with strengthening both the transverse abdominis (TVA) and your rectus abdominus.  This simple exercise requires a lot of focus and patience to do well. 

Lie supine on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor.  Press your knees and feet together. Clasp your hands and rest your head in your hands.  Inhale while lying flat and exhale lifting head and chest.  Inhale pause, exhale lower head and chest.  Keep the belly flat while lifting and lowering the chest.  Keep pelvis neutral.     You will learn to activate and strengthen these muscles by using your breath.

3. Chest Lift Rotation

This exercise is extremely helpful for activating 3 muscles of the core; your transverse abdominis (the muscle that flattens your belly), the rectus abdominis (the muscle that lifts your chest) and in Chest Lift Rotation, your obliques, which rotate your spine.

Start with lying on your back with bent knees and feet on the floor (the same position as above).  Then inhale, lifting your head and chest.  Exhale and rotate one shoulder towards the opposite hip.  Keep elbows wide, reaching one shoulder towards the opposite hip, not elbow.  Inhale return to center keeping chest lifted, exhale rotate to the other side.  Do not let your lower belly bulge out while rotating from side to side.  Keep it flat and breathe into your ribs.

4. Pilates Roll Up

This classic Pilates exercise will help you strengthen your core while articulating your spine creating more suppleness and spinal flexibility.  

Watch this video to understand how to do this exercise correctly.  Also watch to see how I demonstrate it incorrectly.  

5. Spine Stretch

This Pilates exercise focuses on strengthening the important spinal extensor muscles found on the back of the body. Practicing and perfecting this movement will strengthen the entire trunk, help you sit and stand more upright and help you align your shoulders as well.  

Watch this video to see how I demonstrate this exercise incorrectly as well as correctly.  

6. Multifidus exercise

From quadruped, make sure the spine is neutral, the shoulders are in alignment and the  head is in line with the rest of the spine. 

Exhale lifting one hand off floor and opposite knee.  Inhale lower and repeat with the other side.  Barely lift hand and knee off floor.  Lift the lower belly (transverse abdominis) up toward the spine as you exhale lifting your hand and knee.  Notice if you can feel the deep muscles of your back activating.  This is your Multifidus muscle.

7. Hip circles

This neural drill will help you map your brain to the important nerve endings in the hip joint.  By creating more neural connectivity, your hips will be able to activate the large muscles that surround it. This helps create more balanced movement. 

Watch this video for a demonstration.

8. Box Breathing

This drill develops more awareness of how the breath affects and strengthens the core.    When using this technique, breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4  seconds, breathe out for 4  seconds, and hold for 4  seconds. This breath strategy activates all the muscles of the core.  You’ll breathe better, have a stronger core and better movement performance.

Watch this video for a demonstration of this exercise.

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