What are your favorite cues for helping students correctly engage their pelvic floor? Also, are there any exercises you recommend for strengthening this area?
The pelvic floor, sometimes referred to as the pelvic diaphragm, belongs to a unique and very special group of muscles. I call them mind muscles, as it demands focus and deep concentration to engage them. Another unique quality of the pelvic floor, like the diaphragm, is that it sits within the bony structure, as opposed to most skeletal muscles that lie outside of the bony structure and facilitate movement.
I refer to the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the transverse abdominus (the deepest abdominal muscle) and the multifidus (a thin, deep lying spinal muscle, extending from sacrum to axis, spanning three joint segments, and working to stabilize the joints at each level) as the Internal Support System (ISS) and describe this mechanism extensively in my book, Pilates (Human Kinetics). There is an enormous amount of debate and significant research around this area, commonly referred to as the core, or what Joseph Pilates called, the powerhouse. Entering into the debate surrounding the importance of the pelvic floor in the context of the core and stabilization of the spine would exceed the parameters of this forum. Most people would agree that the pelvic floor should be strong, flexible and adaptable like all the muscles of our body; able to contract when needed and able to relax when not needed.
Unfortunately, people in the wellness industry seldom take a balanced approach. The pendulum swings radically as new information becomes available. This has sometimes resulted in the pelvic floor being worked excessively or in ways that are counter-productive, even contraindicated.
Probably the most popular cue for activating the pelvic floor, and one that I like a lot, is visualizing the drawing of the sits bones together, or bridging the sits bones. This will typically activate the pelvic floor. Another cue that can help discover the pelvic floor is to imagine stopping the flow of urine. This tends to work well with men.
In my opinion, the pelvic floor should be worked together with the other muscles of the ISS to create a strong and stable central pillar to support the body’s movement. When healthy muscle recruitment patterns are present, the pelvic floor will automatically contract in concert with the transverse abdominus, the multifidus and the diaphragm. We do not need to work these muscles in isolation (other than is special circumstances), but rather as part of all the movements and exercises we do. I adopt this approach because it is functional. Pilates is about preparing us for life, which is unpredictable and multi-dimensional. We rely on a healthy ISS to engage and support us without thinking about it. The pelvic floor is the strong and elastic foundation that helps keep us youthful…maintain it in good shape!
If you only had 15 minutes to spare, what exercises would you do on the mat? What about on the apparatus?
I am so happy for this question. I always encourage people to work out, even if it is a short session. Allotting 15 minutes a day as a maintenance program and then doing 2-3 longer sessions a week with a teacher in a studio, is a sure path to well-being. It is also an excellent way of staying connected to the work and in shape when traveling.
People often set unrealistic goals for themselves, like doing at least an hour of Pilates each day. Then, if they do not find an hour, or are not motivated to do a full hour, they do nothing. A time slot of 15 minutes is perfect for doing a brief, full-body session, touching on all primary ranges of motion and working the key muscle groups.
Here is a sample Mat workout, as shown in my DVD Rael Pilates System 7:
Pelvic Curl, Spine Twist Supine, Chest Lift, Roll Up, Spine Stretch, Side Leg Lifts, Basic Swan.
Regarding the apparatus, I don’t think 15 minutes is sufficient for a good, comprehensive workout; but, if pushed, I would recommend the following on the Reformer:
Footwork, Hundred Prep (lifting into a Chest Lift position and lowering each repetition, as opposed to staying in forward flexion), Kneeling Lunge (hamstring/hip flexor stretch), Arms Sitting Series, Side Over on Short Box, Breaststroke.
A short, well-structured session can keep you fit, while maintaining consistency. Whatever the duration of the session, it is important to utilize your time effectively and efficiently. I use the BASI® Block System, a unique methodology, developed over the course of my career, for categorizing the myriad excises in Pilates and for providing a structure that addresses each area of the body. It also facilitates positive progression and promotes creativity. The BASI® Bock System provides a foundation for tailoring programs to suite personal needs and goals and ensures a balanced, full-body workout. However, no matter what structure you adhere to, having a structure will keep you on track. Remember, doing something is always better than nothing!
* Please note the names of exercises may differ from one school to another. Please refer to the BASI Pilates® Movement Analysis Workbooks, Pilates (Human Kinetics) or Pilates Interactive online resource for details.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Pilates Style Magazine. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at www.pilatesstyle.com.