“I must strengthen my core”, “my physio told me I have a weak core”, “my back hurts so I need to do sit-ups to strengthen my core” - these must be some of the sentences I hear the most as my role as an Instructor at Soul Pilates. And the outcome that most clients end up with is to think (or actually start acting on) that they must do a million sit ups EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. to fix their back.
So what is this infamous ‘core’, why does it need strengthening and how the hell do you strengthen it? Your 'Core' is your tummy right? Well… actually the abdominal area is only part of the core story…
There are lots of thoughts out there on “Core”, “Core Strength” etc etc. The word "core" and the idea that it should be strengthened to help back pain, actually came out of a now defunct study. My personal belief is, yes often lower back pain is often caused by a weak 'core' - but when I reference the “core” I refer to the very centre of you - everything that surrounds the spine which yes, is actually most of you and certainly not just your ‘six-pack’ area.
We're living sedentary lifestyles
Most of us sit down for most of our working day, then sit down to drive or get the bus or train home, sit down to eat, sit down to watch TV - you get the picture. We now live very sedentary lifestyles, something humans never did until very our very recent history. When sitting our glutes are squished and switch off is consistently sat on, our abdominal area, our hips and the tops of our thighs are flexed and shortened, the muscle around this area and into the lower back get weak and unbalanced, and the spine ends up in a compressed state. This compression is what usually causes pain and can lead to disc pathologies. Clients sometimes tell me with such pride that they now have a standing desk, only later to tell me their pain hasn't changed “But I’m not sitting all day” they query. Ah yes that is true, but the strategies you employed to move your body haven’t changed, you’ve just move them to a new place. You need to have the strength and balance to stand all day. It's like training for any activity, you have to train they body appropriately.
Why efficient functional movement matters
When working with clients, I want them to understand how to have strength in functional movement. I am looking at the recruitment of their deep abdominal muscles when they stand up, sit down, get the washing out of the machine - it’s not enough to be able to do abs crunches: we don’t walk around in a crunched position. We need the body to have balance to be pain free. To be able to find space within it when sitting, standing and walking.
So how do I relate this into Pilates? Well firstly I want ensure clients have a pain-free movement experience. The “No Pain, No Gain” mentality really doesn’t resonate with me. Why do I want to promote pain in my body? If something doesn’t feel good, I suggest you just don’t do it - whether that be an exercise or an aspect of your life. From a Pilates point of you I like to ensure that the things in life that should be easy: moving our legs, moving our arms, lifting something which isn't too heavy, moving our spine. should be EASY. Then if I want to add challenge I’ll add more load or less balance, but this needs to be onto a system which is already well organised. I help clients find that organisation.
I also want to ensure I am teaching movements which relate to real life. So ensuring a client finishes in a standing position ensures their nervous system relates what we have taught back into the real world - this is where the power of this work takes place. It is no good to do a Pilates class or private session and leave what you’ve learned at the studio. Can you take what you’ve learned into how you walk, how you sit, how you pick up your children (or a beer…!). Those clients who take part in sports pretty seriously (marathons, weight lifting etc) need to think about how to take what they’ve learned into their sports too. This is the beauty of this practice. My day can start with a client goal being “I want to be able to put on my own socks” to “I want to compete at world level in weight-lifting). The principles are the same. You need strength, to be balanced, to be organised and to be able to more through life with, as Joseph Pilates would say, “vigour and zest”.
Nic is the owner of Soul Pilates and a former Marketing Director who understands both the pressures of a hectic working life and the need to fit exercise in around other priorities. She is a qualified Polestar Comprehensive Studio Instructor with over 12 years Pilates experiences and a background in Personal Training and Reiki.
Nic teaches Mat and Equipment classes as well as focusing on rehab based private sessions, specialising in chronic pain, within the equipment studio. Having recovered from neck and ankle surgery, she understands the frustration of wanting to be pain free and getting back to full fitness, and through Pilates she learned to move her body efficiently again and looks to use this same approach with her clients.