Core or Powerhouse
Core or Powerhouse
All Pilates movements initiate from an engaged core or powerhouse. This refers to a gentle contraction of three sets of muscles in your torso which help stabilise your spine and keep you upright:
  • Transversus Abdominis (TA band)
  • Pelvic Floor muscles
  • Multifidus
These deeper core muscles are designed for endurance - a gentle contraction for a long time - since they are meant to keep you upright all day long without getting tired. When the core is not strong, other muscles have to help keep us upright, leading to imbalances such as tight hamstrings (back of the thigh) or hip flexors (groin) and lower back pain.

During a Pilates session we work with these muscles contracted to about 30% of their maximum possible contraction. Why? Because a gentle contraction permits us to isolate the correct muscles, whereas a stronger contraction calls on the more superficial muscles (e.g. the obliques and six-pack) to come help and take over.

Let's take a look at each set of muscles individually and learn to isolate each one at a time.

The TA band is a deep internal muscle all the way around your waist. It attaches at the back to your spine and pelvis and goes round your waist to the front of your belly. Try the following exercise and visualisations to isolate the TA band, you can try this in a standing or semi-supine position.
  • Think of a corset or boxer's belt round your waist, imagine it has 10 notches. As you breathe out tighten the corset or belt all the way to the 10th notch, breathe in to release. Exhale again to contract to the 5th notch, breathe in to release. Last time, breathe out to find the 3rd notch: this is where you want to keep the TA band engagement.
  • Visualise pulling your navel to your spine
  • Imagine someone comes with very cold hands to grab your waist, draw your navel in
  • Remember how you need to pull your belly in to put on a pair of freshly washed jeans
The Pelvic Floor muscles are like a sling attaching from your public bone to your tail bone. They are the muscles you contract to control the flow of body fluids when you're in that too-long meeting at the office! To isolate this group of muscles try the following standing exercise and visualisations:
  • Visualise a handkerchief on the floor between your legs, to pick it up you need to pinch it and lift. As you breathe out, squeeze with your pelvic floor to pinch the handkerchief and lift it all the way as high as it will go. Release on the in-breath. Try it again going to 50% and then to 30%, one breath in and out at a time.
  • Suck your thumb (this produces an instinctive, reflexive tightening of pelvic floor, but, alas, it doesn’t work for everybody)
  • Visualise zipping up a pair of tight jeans
  • Imagine you’re entering cold water and you want to keep your bikini or trunks from getting wet
Multifidus is the hardest one to isolate. It has multiple attachments, linking each vertebra in your spine to the one above it. The exercise below may help you feel this muscle, but don't worry if you don't, it's a tricky one to work all by itself.
  • Lie down in semi-supine position. Breathe out to engage the Pelvic Floor first and keep the contraction as you breathe in. On the next out-breath pull your tail bone towards your spine, but prevent your back from arching. You may feel the sensation of contraction in your lower back, this is Multifidus working.
Practise these isolation exercises in your daily life, or as part of your Pilates workout, to help improve your core awareness and control and send you on your way towards a healthy back and a strong, flat tummy.