Ask Rael Q & A : 4th Issue

by Rael Isacowitz


Where are the “corset” muscles? Any cues for engaging them most effectively?

You are probably referring to the muscles of the core. Terms such as “corset muscles”, “core”, and “powerhouse” are all synonymous in my mind, though their interpretation will probably vary slightly from teacher to teacher. In my book Pilates (Human Kinetics), I explain the components and function of this region and refer to it as the Internal Support System (ISS).

The “corset muscles,” as you refer to them, provide support for the spine (just like a corset) and are composed of the abdominals, back extensors, pelvic floor and diaphragm. Muscles that are often added to this group are the psoas and gluteals. Within the abdominal group and the back extensor group, two muscles that have been identified as particularly important when it comes to stabilization are the transverse abdominus and the multifidus.

I like the image of a corset, essentially a band of support around the mid girdle. However there is some debate regarding the typical cues of pulling in, hollowing, scooping or zipping up, all of which speak of a narrowing of this area. That is not the same as bracing, which elicits an image of holding firm and supporting, not necessarily of making the area narrower.

To a certain extent, the support is provided by the intra-abdominal pressure created by these muscles and that is the reason the “corset” image works quite well (although personally I prefer ISS). I would like to add that “powerhouse” is the most authentic term when talking about Pilates, and for me personally it adds the dimension of the “mind”, which is so crucial when dealing with this general group of muscles. I call these muscles “mind muscles”, as recruiting them demands focus and concentration. It really is a life-long exploration and lies at the heart of the study of Pilates.


What’s the best and worst Pilates advice you’ve ever received, both as a new student and as a master?

This is a tough question. I have been given thousands of words of advice over the years. Probably the most profound advice I have received was from Kathy Grant and it came over time, rather than at one specific moment or on one memorable occasion. Kathy’s advice to me was to work from within and never stop learning. Kathy will always symbolize for me the perpetual student. She was never too proud to put herself in the role of a student, even at risk of not looking good or not succeeding at something.

As to the worst advice: I am not sure I have ever received bad advice, though a couple of directives of questionable value come to mind. One was “squeeze your butt, squeeze, squeeze – harder, tighter!” and another was “press your ankles together and use your inner thighs”. I followed the latter until I honestly felt as if drops of blood were dripping from my legs! I cannot say it was bad advice, I am sure the teacher’s intentions were good, just possibly a little extreme for my taste. But each to his or her own and, in the final analysis, I have learned a lot from every experience and from every teacher, young, old, seasoned, new – everyone!


This article first appeared in the April/2012 issue of Pilates Style. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at

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