9 Principles to Pump Up Your Pilates

Of all the forms of exercise I have taught, Pilates is one of my favorites because it helps condition the body without punishing it. Invented by gymnast Joseph H. Pilates more than 80 years ago, the method involves exercises that place intense concentration on your abdominal muscles, particularly on the deepest layer of muscles there.

Every Pilates movement—when done correctly—starts, stays, and ends in your core (abdomen). A strong core:

  • Allows a gymnast to hold a handstand and a yogi to hold a headstand
  • Allows the martial artist to kick through a board and a dancer to leap into the air
  • Puts more oomph in your tennis swing, more speed to your run, and more control in your ski slalom
  • Creates power in your midsection and shrinks middle-age spread, helping you to accomplish goals you never before dreamed possible.

That's why it's so important that you learn how to move from your core before you attempt any Pilates routine. If you lose the core emphasis, you lose many of the benefits of Pilates.

To understand what I'm talking about, try this simple exercise, which I call "zipping up your abs":

Lie back on the floor, with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor, and your back slightly arched. Focus on your pelvic area and your abdomen below the belly button. Pull those muscles up and inward, as if you were zipping up a corset. This upward and inward motion will bring your belly button toward your spine as well as lengthen your torso, creating more space between your ribs and hips.

Notice how you've slightly lifted your pelvis and flattened your back but still have a slight neutral curve in your lower back. Take note of the length of your core. Memorize this sensation.

Imagine that zipper again. Now try to zip yourself up even tighter, lengthening as the imaginary zipper comes up your midsection, almost squeezing yourself taller. This is how you want to feel during every Pilates session. In addition to "zipping up your abs," follow these posture pointers during every Pilates exercise.

The Principles of Pilates
As you start each Pilates session, it's important to keep these nine principles of Pilates in mind:

Concentration
To do Pilates moves correctly, you'll need to concentrate on your abs—keeping them pulled in and up—at all times. Think "long" and "lean." Keep your body long by extending through your torso.

Breathing
Because Pilates requires you to press your abs toward your spine, you don't want to allow your lower belly to round and press out as air comes into your lungs. You also don't want that abdominal lock to force you to breathe shallowly. To breathe correctly, you must expand your rib cage, primarily through your midback. This breathing technique can feel awkward at first, so try it now.

Sit up nice and tall. As you inhale, keep your lower abs pressed flat but encourage your ribs to expand outward with your breath, as if you had a hula hoop around your rib cage and were trying to expand your ribs to hold the hoop in place. As you breathe, you should feel a stretch through your ribs and midback. It should feel good!

Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you exhale, sigh audibly. It will help you relax. As you move with your breath, you'll automatically breathe more deeply in order to match your inhalations with your body movements. This deep inhaling and exhaling rids your lungs of stale air and fills them with fresh, oxygen-filled air, energizing your entire body. Allow your body to move to its cadence. This will help you stay in the moment, making your Pilates practice meditative.

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