Engaging the Deep Abdominals – how and why?


We always aim to work in Pilates with our core abdominal muscles engaged because this helps the body and spine to stabilise before movement is undertaken thereby reducing the risk of injury. Stability is important, because if we perform a movement and cannot maintain stability in the joints that are supposed to stay still whilst doing that movement, then we can cause injury. In Pilates we need to strengthen those muscles that provide stability at the centre line of our body – namely the pelvis, spine, torso, shoulders & head – so that we have a strong stable body from which to perform movements. This way we are going back to basics and restoring good body use and natural movement.

Furthermore, Pilates is about ensuring that we are recruiting muscles in the right order, beginning with the core, so that any muscles used are being used correctly. Sometimes, for example, if there is an imbalance in your body, muscles are working outside of their usual function in order to stabilise, or even compensate for other muscles that aren’t working properly.  By re-aligning the body and engaging the core abdominals first, we know that our deep stabilising muscles are supporting the spine and the joints correctly, freeing up the muscles we are using so they can perform their natural range of movement.

Which are the core abdominal muscles?



Transversus Abdominus (TrA) – this is a corset like muscles that wraps around the lower abdomen deep beneath the Rectus  Abdominis (the muscle that can become the infamous 6 pack) and also the Obliques (which help the body to twist). You cannot see the TrA working, unlike you can some of the other abdominal muscles, however you can feel it working.  (Feel inside the hip bones just above the pubic bone when you are exhaling and you can feel it working.)


Multifidus – these muscles which run down the gutter of the spine will naturally work when you use the TA. This one is quite tricky to engage and will take some practice.

Pelvic Floor (perineum) – this muscles supports the containment of all your lower organs and is most obviously engaged when you are trying to stop a flow of urine, holding in wind, or perhaps entering a cold pool (if you are a man!). Research suggest this muscle engages when the TrA engages too, but you can reinforce the use of this muscle by imagining that you are taking your organs slightly further up inside and then sliding the doors of that life shut (from each side to meet in the middle).

Rectus Abdominis, External Obliques, Internal Obliques – these are abdominal muscles used for bending and twisting the torso, but can also be engaged to help with core stability.

How to engage the Core Abdominal Muscles?

There are lots of ways to describe how to actively engage the core muscles. Here are a few you can try out:

  • Use the breath to engage – Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, neutral pelvis and spine, take a deep breath in and exhale. At the end of your exhale you will feel some abdominal muscles become tighter. This is your TrA. We use the exhale in Pilates, and the subsequent contraction of the diaphragm,  to help engage the core in many of the exercises and the lateral breathing we adopt in Pilates allows the core muscles to be engaged without compromising breathing.
  • Heavy pelvis, light feet – In the same position, imagine your pelvis getting heavier and your feet getting lighter on the mat, until it feels that they are going to lift off. You will feel your core muscles engage because they are sensing that they are going to have to stabilise the body should the feet be lifted. Your muscles will co-contract
  • “Scooping navel to spine” – ensure  you remain in neutral as you can imagine pulling your belly button towards your spine without  losing the natural small arch in your back. It may be equally helpful to think about pulling your skin away from your t-shirt as well.
  • “Zip & Hollow” – Breath in to prepare.  Breathe out and zip from the back passage (anus) as though you are trying to prevent passing wind, right up to the public bone as though you are trying to prevent passing urine.  You should then feel your abdominals hollow. Breathe in and out maintaining that zip and hollow sensation. Do not zip and hollow too hard to the point where you may be bracing the body (as though someone might do if they were anticipating a blow to the stomach).
  • Maintain connection between the ribcage and pelvis – here we are imagining that there is a tightness or connection between the bottom of the ribs and the top of the pelvic bone. Whilst maintaining neutral, on an exhale think about closing the ribs down so they pull in towards each other, and then think about that sensation flowing down to the top of the pelvis. The idea here is that when doing an exercise we don’t lose that connection and allow the ribs to flare up and therefore possibly arch the back.    Pilates conceived the idea that the core, or powerhouse was the beginning and end of each exercise in Pilates, and that energy flowed out from the core during exercises, so this last way of thinking about core engagement can be really helpful.
  • Bring the sternum backwards into the chest – In a standing position think of pulling the sternum backwards. This imagery also helps to keep those ribs from flaring out.
  • The Cough/Laughing Muscle – When you cough or laugh you will naturally engage the core, so try this and then encourage those muscles to engage without the cough or laugh
  • Sucking your thumb – this produces an instinctive, reflexive tightening of the pelvic floor, but, it doesn’t work for everybody. By engaging the pelvic floor you may also trigger the TrA.
  • Happy dog – it is suggested that by imagining you have a tail and then trying to lift it,  is a good way to trigger the multifidus and the TrA. By creating a sensation of a gentle arch in the back (without actually moving the back) and then thinking about drawing in the navel and engaging the TrA, one can be sure not only that you are in neutral, but also that the multifidus has been recruited

Of course, we are using core muscles all the time when we are in correct alignment i.e. neutral pelvis and neutral spine, so remember to maintain proper alignment and inner core control at all times whenever an exercise demands it.  Centre – one of the Pilates principles – relates to this core and it is therefore an essential part of the Pilates discipline.

How much should we engage our core abdominal muscles?

Core muscles are stabilising and endurance muscles and therefore need to be engaged to about 30%-40% of effort during Pilates exercises (think of a belt being tightened around your waist but only to the third hole, rather than belted right up!) After all the muscles are designed for endurance.

What is clear is that you should be engaging your core throughout an exercise on both the in and out breaths.  And if you see your tummy bulging or doming during an exercise, then you have lost control of your core muscles and need to stop and try again!

Please note : TrA may not be able to engage properly on a full stomach, with a full bladder and sometimes a heavy period. Clients with gastric problems may also need to resist from working the TrA until fully recovered. 

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Image taken from http://bamboocorefitness.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/abs1.jpg

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