Think you’re too tough for Pilates? Picking things up and putting them down may be your preferred gym grind but adding these core stabilizing moves can change your life. Listen, bro, if you want to lift heavier, run faster and stand taller, it’s time to work on your form. We spoke to Guy Macchia, NASM Certified Personal Trainer, Corrective Exercise Specialist and Equinox Pilates Instructor about these metamorphizing moves. Get them right, get it tight.
Pilates is a form of exercise that focuses on the individual’s ability to use stability and control of his/her own body weight to build strength and improve flexibility, starting from the center of the body or core, outward. It originated in the early 20th century when Joseph Pilates, yes, a man, created a series of bodyweight movements to help soldiers wounded in WWI rehab from their hospital beds. This series of approximately 25 exercises has become what is now known as classical Pilates and is practiced on a mat using just body weight and sometimes supplemented with Pilates rings, ropes, and other apparatus. Much later, an additional and in my opinion more challenging form of Pilates known as reformer Pilates came into existence. A reformer is a large machine with handles and pulleys that can take the human body into further ranges of motion than it can move without aid, thus making it more challenging and more popular among society’s elite.
Is there a difference between working out your abs and working out your core?
This is a great question and there absolutely is a difference. The “6 pack” that everyone is so covetously chasing is really just one muscle that comprises the whole core. That muscle is the rectus abdominus, located at the outer most layer of the core, directly under the skin, making it the most visible. In the fitness world, this muscle is known as the “superficial abs” and for good reason. The core is comprised of many, far more important muscles such as the transverse abdominus, the internal and external obliques, and the illiopsoas. You can have a phenomenally well-defined rectus abdominus while actually having an extremely weak core… I am speaking from experience, unfortunately. Thus, when you lay on your back and isolate the rectus abdominus doing “crunches” or “sit-ups,” you are doing yourself a disservice as you are failing to strengthen other vital muscles in your midsection. Contrarily, when you begin doing isometric work such as core holds in conjunction with the body weight motion Pilates introduces, you start to strengthen the whole system starting from the center of the body, outward. With the mindset of getting stronger, you disregard the desire to focus strictly on the superficial abs, although they too will be improved! When you do this, you build foundational strength. You learn how to stabilize your body and give yourself the tools to use the certain muscles and joints of the body the way they were intended. Being able to move better, you will be handsomely rewarded with improved quality of life in almost every aspect.
Core strength is essential for you to lead a happy and youthful feeling in life. A lot of people go through life with some aspect of pain, thinking that it is normal… It’s not! Whether your lower back suffers from having bad posture, your hips from sitting all day at a desk job, your shoulder from when you fell when you were 12, settling for an imperfect, painful existence is a choice. With a strong core, the individual can translate that stability to the two prime movers, the hips and shoulder, then to the more distal joints of the elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles. If anyone, specifically an athlete, is unfamiliar with how to use their core to generate movement even as basic as walking, they run a higher risk of injury at aforementioned joints because they are not moving in the manner with which the body was designed. Most critically, having the stability and ability to feel movement generated from your core will ensure that the force is not being placed on your lower back, which will almost all but guarantee that you will injure yourself in some capacity. The best example for those familiar with weightlifting is the deadlift. Picking something up from the ground is a task we have been completing since we were 3, and at that age, with perfect form. With a slight bend in the knees and a flat back, we hinge our hips and explode upward to move the object at our feet vertically. If the weight is too heavy or the form is poor, the back will round, the core will be disengaged, the object won’t move, and the individual will suffer the consequences. Core stabilization is THE FOUNDATION for movement whether you are 75 and getting out of your chair to go walk, or you’re an Olympic powerlifter competing for a gold medal. You cannot complete either of these challenges efficiently without learning how to use your core muscles. Pilates provides a baseline of how to do that.
I read a very interesting book recently called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson. Rule number one was, “Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.” Studies show that people who suffer from bad posture, specifically those who are hunched over with rounded shoulders are personally less confident and even perceived to be so by their peers. For as long as I can remember I have always been in “good shape.” By that, I mean that ever since I was diagnosed as obese before my freshman year wrestling season, I vowed to never again feel uncomfortable due to the aesthetic shape of my body. Although my body has gone through changes since then, mainly in the form of me growing and putting on muscle, I have largely succeeded in this endeavor for the greater portion of 12 years now. Both fortunately and unfortunately for me though, I am a curious individual. While I maintained a good aesthetic physique, I constantly suffered lower back and shoulder injuries throughout my early 20’s. I couldn’t figure out why until I started studying the body. I began with a simple question: Despite being in better aesthetic shape than 90% of the population, why am I unable to do a handstand? The answer was not because I wasn’t strong enough, although this turned out to be the case as well. It was because I wasn’t mobile enough at my prime movers, specifically my shoulder joints. I wasn’t able to get my arms properly under my body to stabilize myself at an angle that allowed me to suspend my bodyweight over my head. With this discovery, I also realized that despite having a 6pack, I DID NOT HAVE A STRONG CORE! The muscles in my midsection were actually so weak and misaligned that I realized I wasn’t doing anything in the gym properly (including my deadlift, which is why I kept hurting my lower back). My task was to stretch the front side of my body starting from the core, allowing it to loosen and feed slack to my more distal joints. I did this by STRETCHING IN EXTENSION!!! An individual spends all day sitting is spent in flexion which is when the angle of the hip crease from leg to torso is less than 180 degree. Day after day this puts pressure on the hips and forces them to tighten, pulling the muscle in the abdomen down and in the quadriceps up. This is the catalyst for why people start to hunch over and why the front of the body gets so short. By entering into extension such as laying backward on a swiss ball, your hips will start to open, and you can begin the process of restoring normal range of motion throughout the body. Long story long, by stretching and lengthening my core, I was able to transfer the force I was putting on lower back to my core, which is why I was so weak in the first place. Locking my core in place allowed me to start stabilizing my arms overhead and building towards a handstand, which I can now do. With core control, I have learned to retract my shoulder blades and lead with my chest. Because my posture was so bad, I have actually grown ¼ of an inch in the past year and a half with the aid of some serious myofascial release of my thoracic spine. Just as Dr. Peterson predicted, this has made people view me as bigger and thus more confident, which as you might imagine, has made me more confident.
You can absolutely lose weight from doing Pilates. I like to take and teach Pilates in a heated room as your increased body temperature will allow you to get into further ranges of motion most quickly and will also lead to the most calorie burn due to the elevation in heart rate. Even in a regular room, Pilates exercises can be supplemented or transformed into any number of complex bodyweight circuits that will elevate the heart rate and induce a larger and more efficient calorie burn than even running on a treadmill.
Again, picture a 3-year-old baby. Perfectly aligned from head to toe. Her body mostly comprised of water. She suffers from no joint pain, no lower back pain, no neck pain. This is because her body is a perfectly aligned, well-oiled machine. Over time and from poor diet, prolonged periods in seated flexion, starting in a classroom, her muscles will begin to dehydrate and tighten up. This tightening will pull at the joints, bringing them out of alignment and eventually causing injury. It is your duty if you desire an enjoyable, pain-free life, to counteract the strains that society naturally puts on the body by lengthening the muscles until their normal range of motion is restored.
Best – Cruciferous vegetables obviously. Spinach, Kale, Swiss Chard are all the easiest to digest, have the highest nutrient content, and won’t leave you feeling bloated.
Worst- Come on, do I even need to say it? It’s the White Devil himself: Sugar! Sugar will produce a blood sugar spike, an insulin response in the body that will force fat storage in unwanted areas specifically in the stomach as a result.
It is important to note that THERE IS NO ONE DIET FITS ALL APPROACH! What works for one person may not work for another. The only way to figure out what works for you is through experimentation. The body is a complex machine that likes to be fueled with premium, top quality energy. If you eat something and immediately break out in a fit of horrendous smelling gas, that is your first clue that your body does not like what you have put into it. Through a process of inclusion and exclusion, you can isolate the food that made you uneasy and cut it out of your life. I have found that from a Macronutrient perspective, my body likes to ingest a ratio of 50% Fat 35% protein and 15% carbs. I like my carbs to come mostly from the vegetables and occasional fruit I eat. Once in a while, I will do sweet potatoes, quinoa or rice. But for the most part, I eat a lot of salads with a protein source dressed with olive oil, apple cider vinegar and an egg over easy. I like to eat a lot of nuts as well, specifically ground flax seed meal and walnuts which I put over my salad since they are high in Omega-3s. I love Peanut Butter and Almond butter and will eat them preferably with carrots or celery sticks if I’m looking to keep sugar low. Yet despite how disciplined I am for the most part, I AM HUMAN, and I have a sweet tooth. When my urges kick in, I will not hesitate to be the guy walking out of the ice cream shop with so many scoops the other customers look at me funny. It’s all part of life.
I am going to cheat here and pick a couple that can work together since they serve different purposes. As I said earlier, anything in extension is going to allow them to strengthen the lower back and stretch the front side of their body. They will thus be killing two birds with one stone. Examples of these exercises are:
Double Leg Kicks
Lastly, I would recommend any variation of a plank. Preferably I would like to see men be able to work into a side plank with one hand under the shoulder and both shins and hips elevated off the ground. This will force the man to strengthen his obliques and allow them to work the body asymmetrically to alleviate imbalances on one side of the body.
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