Abs on the Ball
Our Center, Our Powerhouse
When I first told people I was writing a new book called Abs on the Ball, numerous responses and reactions found me. I was reminded that for many our abdomens are an emotionally charged part of the body, a barometer of strength and vulnerability. One man, hiding behind a deep laugh that made his own belly quiver, joked about being 'ruled by his stomach.' A woman spoke about her pitch-perfect intuition, inherited from her grandmother, allowing her to discern a situation 'from her guts.' Even pronouncing the word 'abs' caused people to physically adjust their bodies, shift forward in their chairs, or stand taller. Others grabbed their bellies, folding the flesh this way and that; or hid their midsection behind grim, folded arms. One woman wryly expressed interest in if I would be baring my own belly for the book's cover.
Joseph Pilates, the founder of the famous Pilates Method of body conditioning, saw the abdominal area as the center, or powerhouse, of the body. He perceived the powerhouse or 'girdle of strength' as the area between the bottom rib and the pelvis, the region that connects the abdomen with the lower back and buttocks. This circular belt of supporting abdominal and spinal muscles was for Pilates, who studied yoga and zen meditation, a mental and spiritual center as well as a physical, gravitational one. This is why there is talk in a Pilates class, as well as in other mind-body disciplines, of the importance of being emotionally, not just physically supported. To lose one's center is to become unhinged and unfocused, susceptible to the chaos of the world around you. 'Strengthening the powerhouse' is not simply about toning the waist or sculpting the perfect six-pack. It is about finding balance and serenity to live in the world as it is.
Why have I chosen a Pilates approach to Abs on the Ball even though some of the exercises presented here are not Pilates in origin? Notwithstanding the power of having a strong emotional center, the answer is a physical one. One of the key principles of the Pilates Method is that movement should be initiated from the Powerhouse. So before each Pilates exercise one braces the core by pulling in the navel and engaging the deep centering muscles. The goal is to keep the mid-section still while precise movements of the arms and legs are added. Each and every time! No wonder that participants new to Pilates first notice changes in their waistbands or that many in the fitness and rehabilitation world believe that the Pilates approach is the most effective and safe way to strong abdominals. Tummies flatten, pants hang loose, and low backs resist pain. But there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Magic, As Long as the Correct Muscles are Targeted
The Pilates approach will work its magic on your abdominal center as long as the proper muscles are taught to work. If the correct muscles are not targeted, and the exercises are not performed properly, the benefits of a secure back and optimal posture will not be guaranteed. Later, we will see how traditional sit-ups and ab machines actually limit the degree to which abdominal muscles can be trained. We will also understand how important it is that the body, specifically the pelvis, is in the correct position and the role that quality of movement plays in abdominal training.
Experts in the field of rehabilitation have known for a while that a strong abdominal core protects the spine but they were never completely sure how. In Rick Jernmett's excellent book Spinal Stabilization: The New Science of Back Pain, the role of the abdominals, especially the role that the deepest abdominal muscles have on the stabilization of the spine, is spelt out. He explains that the deep transversus abdominis attaches directly onto the spinal column and is thus able to 'stabilize individual vertebrae of the lower back, preventing excess sliding, bending, and rotation motions.' Jemmett, a physical therapist, lecturer, as well as golfer, runner and skier, reviews the latest research from Canada, the United States, Japan, and Australia on the role of the spinal column and its muscles. He concludes that various muscles of the spine have different functions. The deepest muscles and ligaments steady the spine and act as 'position sensors' supplying the brain with critical information on the position of the joints of the vertebrae. The next layer is the 'stabilizers', the deep muscles of the abdominals and back. These are the key players in the Powerhouse and their function is to stabilize the low back and spine and keep it free from pain. Finally, the outer layer consists of large superficial muscles, sometimes called the Prime Movers. The Prime Movers create powerful, one-off movements like extending the spine or lifting a leg or arm. The superficial muscles should be added into the picture only when the stabilizers provide a strong foundation for them.
As this important new information spreads into the fitness world more trainers and instructors are teaching the technique of 'bracing the abs' or 'moving from the core'. But before students and trainers alike can do this properly they need to make doubly sure they are targeting the correct muscles. How can the average person or athlete distinguish between a deep or superficial muscle? What will they feel if the correct connection is made? And once a deep muscle is located and trained how can it be integrated back into a healthy movement pattern?