Many people are now familiar with the word, “core,” and the concept of “core stability,” but, they only apply these to the lumbar spine and abdomen. In this concept, muscles that are deep to the abdomen, like the transverse abdominus, and the muscles deep to the low back, like the multifidus, are targeted to balance the strength and stability of the spine. Research has demonstrated that with these areas in check, the average exerciser is less likely to experience pain or injury of the spine during activity.
More recent research demonstrates that this concept of stability can be applied not only in the spine, but to all joints and girdles in the body. In the spine, the deep muscles, like the transverse abdominus, have been named, “local muscles,” and they include all of the small, deep muscles that generally only cross one joint, and, by nature, control and stabilize that joint. (Think of them as the glue that holds us together.) The larger more superficial muscles, like the rectus abdominus, have been named, “global muscles,” and they often cross more than one joint, and produce movement through long-lever arms and good moment arms. (Think of them as the big, dumb muscles that pull us around.)
When this concept is applied to the other joints of the body, the muscles are classified as either “stabilizers” or “mobilizers.” Normally, stabilizer muscles contract first to provide a stable base from which the mobilizer muscles can produce motion. There needs to be a significant contraction of the stabilizer muscle to balance the mobilizer strength. Basically, the relationship is a force couple that needs to stay in check.
The typical fitness workout does a great job of strengthening the mobilizer muscles on the outside of the body, but does not guarantee the same benefits to the stabilizer muscles on the inside of the body. The mobilizer muscles are the superficial muscles that we see and feel most; so we are motivated to change them. Exercises like lat pull downs, hamstring curls, leg extensions, and lateral raises focus on these mobilizer muscles. Often, it is when the stabilizer muscles and mobilizer muscles get out of balance that a participant will experience pain and injury. For example, an athlete will often experience rotator cuff tendonitis when the mobilizer deltoid becomes more powerful and dominant than the stabilizer rotator cuff muscles. It is important that as participants build strength, and even flexibility, the delicate balance between groups of muscles is maintained.
So, how do you ensure that the local and stabilizer muscles are gaining strength at the same rate as the mobilizer and global muscles? Performing whole-body exercises in perfect alignment is one sure way to prevent an imbalance from occurring. When movement is controlled and alignment is maintained, balance comes naturally. For example, when you perform hip extension with good alignment of the pelvis, you gain strength of the gluteus maximus, but you also gain strength of the local abdominal muscles that keep the lumbar spine from going into extension from the stretch on the hip flexors. You gain length of the hip flexors, too. This builds not only strength and flexibility, but a good relationship between the muscles around the low back and the hip.
Pilates exercise is based on this concept of balance – each exercise performed in good alignment will build healthy relationships between muscles. Think of it as “family counseling.” There is not a focus on just one muscle, but more of a focus on the alignment of the body during the exercise. This principle of balance practiced in Pilates can be carried over into any fitness exercise or activity, like weightlifting, cycling, or running. Taking the time to practice and learn these concepts in a Pilates class can be invaluable to anyone involved in exercise or sport because they can apply the same concept to any activity in which they choose to engage and reap similar benefits.
Let’s take the example of an exercise performed in Pilates called, “Seated Twist.” In this exercise, the client sits up on their ischial tuberosities (sitting bones) with their legs out straight in front of them. (Those with short hamstrings would not be able to get their pelvis into a neutral position, and would need to bend their knees.) In Pilates, rather than bending the knees, the client would be positioned on a small box so that he could keep his knees extended. Just maintaining this seated posture would begin to not only lengthen the hamstrings and strengthen the hip flexors, but it would build a healthy relationship in the entire family of muscles surrounding the lumbo-pelvic complex in just one exercise. This is what I mean by “family counseling.” If we flex the knees in this seated posture, we basically “divorce” the hamstrings and give up on the relationship.
Christine Romani-Ruby is a licensed Physical Therapist and gold standard PMA Pilates Instructor. She is the founder and president of Phi Pilates. For expert courses in Pilates, or even a full certification for your staff, please visit www.phipilates.com, or call 877.716.4879. We provide trainings throughout the United States and abroad or can create an in-house training to suit your specific needs.