I was with a group of women recently and the word, “core” came up.  I was surprised to hear the conversation centering around crunches and abdominal exercises.  Our core muscles stabilize our trunk in almost any movement.  Actually we never ‘crunch’ in daily activities.  That said, let’s look at ways we can use and strengthen our “core”.  I like teaching standing core exercises as well as lying scoops!

Joseph Pilates described the abdominal muscles as the, “Power House”.  The  three main muscles he referred to are: the Transverse Abdominus, Rectus Abdominus and the Obliques.

If you put your hand over your navel area and cough lightly, you will feel the Transverse Abdominus.  ‘Transverse’ means ‘traveling across” or in this case around.  This muscle, one of the few horizontal muscles in our body, protects our internal organs and our spinal column.  It is the deepest of the abdominal muscles wrapping from front to back and attaching at the ribs and pelvis.  Anytime we move it activates.

The image of someone doing a  “crunch” exercises illustrates the action of the Rectus Abdominus – flexion.  When you bring your head to your thighs or your thighs toward your face you are doing flexion.  I tell my USF students to imagine a  good-looking Roman solider with a “six-pack” marching, i.e. knees to chest, named  “Rectus Abdominus” in order to remember this muscle’s name.

The Obliques, internal and external, work in conjunction for all twisting and rotating of our spinal column.  Spinal twists of any sort use the oblique muscles.  I highly recommend spinal twists which improve digestion, assist in lower back issues and help our system detoxify.  Sitting with legs straight out cross your right leg over your left.  Pull the toes of you left foot toward your face.  Cross your left arm lightly over your right thigh.  Use your right arm as a kick stand, place it as close to middle of your back with palm down on the floor.  This partial spinal twist is easy to do.  Remember to lift your chest and tuck your chin as you twist.  While seated at your desk you can also do a seated spinal twist:  right hand on the chair arm or right side of your seat, left hand on your right thigh, twist.  Twisting should never be painful; inhale to prepare and exhale as you twist.

In my Pilates classes I describe 3 markers when describing a curl or scoop action:

If we curl or scoop back the first marker is about an 1-1.5″ up your tail bone.  In the picture you can see the scoop in action.   Transverse Abdominus and Rectus Abdominus are in action with this simple curl back exercise.  If these students were to stay in this position and twist right and left, they would be adding the action of their Oblique muscles.  Going back even farther to the top of the pelvis, the back of the waist, is the second marker.  I usually have my students use a mini ball or block between their knees to facilitate this action.  Try it.  Knees together curl back 1-1.5″ hold; curl farther back to top of pelvis and hold. Holding these positions can be challenging.  The third marker is when we are lying down and we curl up to the bottom of our shoulder blades.  This is a partial curl up which is a part of many Pilates mat class formats.

Anytime we do standing muscular endurance exercises, especially when we shift planes of movement, we are using our abdominal muscles.  Here are some examples employing hand-held weights 3/5/8 lbs.:

Overhead press with lunge, 4 counts

Stand with your right leg behind you in a lunge position with your arms at shoulder height, elbows bent.  As you lower your body, bending the front and back knees, press your hands/weights together overhead.  4 counts down, 4 counts up; repeat 8 times.  Repeat with left leg behind you.

Overhead press with lunge, 2 counts

Now place the right leg behind you in the starting lunge position.   This time lower your body 2 counts down, 2 counts up.  Repeat 8 times and repeat on the other side.

Arms at shoulder height, press arms down as you lunge, knee up

Start with your right leg behind you, arms at shoulder height in front of you.  As you lunge down press your arms down by your side.  As you lunge up bring your arms to starting position while you lift you right knee up, balancing.  Step the right leg back and repeat 8 times total.  Switch sides and repeat 8 times.

Arms at sides with palms up,  press arms up as you lunge, knee up.

Start with your right leg behind you, arms by your sides, palms up, this time.  As you lunge down press your arms up to shoulder height.  As you lunge up bring your arms to starting position while you lift you right knee up, balancing.  Switch sides and repeat 8 times.

Rotator cuff with plie` series

Stand in a wide base plie`position.  Knees are turned out comfortably over your toes.  Elbows are close by your sides, lower arms are at an angle.  As you plie` down, your lower arms swing open, then up following their angle.  As you rise up to starting position, rotate your arms back to starting position.  Action is:  plie` down, arms out, arms up & down, plie` up and bring the arms in.

Bicep curl with twist and lunge

Stand with feet parallel hip width distance; arms are parallel with elbows bent at shoulder height.  Lunge right leg back and bicep curl the arms in towards your trunk.  Hold lunge as you twist both arms to the right and back to center.  Come out of the lunge as you do a reverse bicep curl.  Lift the back leg up as you perform the reverse bicep curl.  Repeat 8 times on the right and 8 times on the left.

Triceps series

With one weight jump back into a wide base plie`.  Arms are overhead elbows close together one weight in your hands.  As you plie` down, overhead press the single weight.  Extend and lower with each plie` movement up and down.  One the 8th repetition, stay down, and lift your heels off the ground.  Balance in plie` with heels lifted as you pump your triceps overhead press for 8 more repetitions.

‘Pretty Pose’, executed  here using elastic tubing, is a partial curl back employing all three muscles of the Power House.

One of the easiest and most effective abdominal exercises is the plank.  This can be executed on your knees and forearms or in the traditional straight-arm, straight leg variety.  You are working against the force of gravity to strengthen your abdominal muscles.  I recommend doing planks in your hotel room if your workout time is limited on a business trip.  Plank in all directions.  Start with a bent knee/forearm plank for 8 seconds.  Extend you legs and hold this low plank for 8 seconds.  Bend you knees and repeat low position for 8 seconds.  Straighten legs again and hold for 8 seconds.  Next turn on one side with either both legs straight or bottom leg bent.  On forearm or with a straight-arm lift into side plank.  Hold of 8 seconds and repeat 4 times.  Turn over to other side and perform 4 repetitions.  This will do the trick; activate your powerhouse!

Whispers of the Breath Diva:  In this moment I can breathe from my core.  I can take care of my body!