Have you ever wondered why you don’t have a flat belly even though you are always doing crunches? Chances are you aren’t recruiting the right muscles. Instead, you are over relying on dominant muscles; the big, overused muscles like, in this case, the rectus abdominis or often the upper trapezius (upper shoulder muscles) or the quads.
Although abs are “mostly made in the kitchen”, strengthening the muscle required to sculpt the lower belly (called the transversus abdominis) is notoriously overlooked. You can’t strengthen a muscle that the brain can’t connect to. Changing how our brains recruit muscles requires meticulous, conscious attention combined with repetition and intention. This is the importance of Precision in movement practices.
Precision in movement in practice
In my Pilates practice, this is exactly what we do. First I educate my clients on how to use lateral breathing to initiate all movement. This brings awareness of precise movement by activating and utilizing the deep muscles responsible and needed for strengthening the core and stabilizing the body. But more importantly this teaches an important Pilates principle called Centering. This principle states that all movement in Pilates starts from the center of the body.
By using breath and the engagement of the stabilizing muscles of the trunk to support every movement we move with more precision, we move better and prevent pain and injury. This helps “turn on” the muscles that keep our joints stable and inhibits the more dominant muscles from taking over before we are stable enough to use them. Unless we train our brains and bodies to activate or “recruit” the right muscles for any given exercise, overdominant muscles will grow stronger and underutilized muscles will get weaker. This is why precision is crucial in movement and exercise.
Let’s say you are working on an exercise called the lateral pull-down to train your back muscles. When done correctly, the latissimus dorsi, a large muscle of the back, will be the dominant working muscle.
However, if the shoulders are rounded forward as you pull the bar down toward the chest, which I’ve observed more times than I can count, you work your upper shoulders instead of your back. No only will you NOT activate the targeted latissimus dorsi muscle which helps to strengthen the back and improve your upright posture. You will also continue to strengthen muscles that do the opposite of your objective; curve the shoulders forward and create more of a stooped, rounded posture.
And those ab crunches I referenced earlier? We can work on our “6-pack” for hours a day and not get a flat lower belly. One reason is because the “6-pack” muscle does NOT flatten your belly.
You’re mostly working your rectus abdominis muscle. This is a very strong, dense muscle which lifts and lowers the chest when lying in supine position (on the back) and flexes (rounds) the spine forward in upright posture. We use this muscle in Pilates regularly in many exercises. However, without the activation of other important muscles to balance the power of the rectus abdominis, we may gain a six pack, but will be rounded and stooped in our posture as well. Not a desirable outcome.
In addition, all this effort will not strengthen the muscle needed to flatten the belly and support the stability of the spine. This important muscle is called the transversus abdominis (TVA). To activate this muscle you must use meticulous breath and mental focus both in ab exercises and in all other movements. This is a continuous focus in Pilates.
How you move will shape your body and determine the results you get
Have you ever looked around in the gym and seen someone doing a push-up with their head hanging down, shoulders up by ears and low back arched excessively? Well, that is probably also the way that person is going to look when they stand back up and move through the rest of their life – shoulders hunched, head forward and protruding tummy. I’ve seen this many times in my own Pilates teaching practice.
Every movement we make impacts change on the body. If we don’t have proper body mechanics when we are doing cardio it will be reflected in the shape of our body. That is also true for any other type of movement we perform from walking or running to lifting weights to practicing Pilates. The quality and correctness of our movement determines the results we will get.
It’s In Your Head
Our bodies are educated through our brains. New neural pathways, the way the brain tells the body what to do, must be created to enable appropriate movement. This process takes patience, commitment and precise, continuous repetition. These are the tenets of a good Pilates practice. Everyone wants a better body, but only when we take time to learn and practice appropriate technique will we achieve results that will endure even during breaks from exercise.
To re-educate your body and neutralize undesired movement patterns, start with small, controlled movements. Once you learn proper body mechanics, you can apply this awareness to all modalities of movement. You cannot, however, teach your body new movement patterns during an extremely challenging workout. This education must be done at the fundamental level and then applied to more vigorous workouts when you’re ready. Basic or beginning Pilates exercises are ideal in this situation. The movements are specific, simple and include a big focus on breath and detailed movement.
In addition to producing the body type you want, precise movement also prevents injury. Pilates and all mindful movement is a lifelong pursuit. The more precise we are the longer we are able to maintain optimal health and strong movement ability.
Now you should understand why I educate all clients at the Lee Pilates Method about the importance of precision movement. It’s not what you do but how you do it.