How to find your abdominals

Ever been to a Pilates class and wondered what to do when told to 'zip up' or 'engage your core'? Maybe you worry that you aren't feeling enough or that you're not really feeling anything at all?

I remember one of my teachers telling me to stop worrying about it and 'just keep breathing, your body knows what to do'. While I can now appreciate the wisdom of those words, at the time it left me feeling confused because Pilates is all about the core isn't it?

Well, yes and no.

Most often when we talk about engaging your core what we're really talking about is stabilising your spine and torso so that you can move safely. For example in a plank you would use your abdominal muscles to 'brace' your spine and pelvis so that they stay in alignment and you don't hurt yourself.

In other types of movement like walking and running the deeper abdominal muscles work to keep everything in your abdomen where it should be and to maintain the space between your ribs and hips. Meanwhile the outer abdominal muscles (your obliques and six pack muscles) create movements like rotating and bending forward.

The outer abdominals are easier to get a sense of - they're the ones where you're more likely to 'feel the burn' during a movement class.

The deeper supporting muscles are harder for most of us to get a sense of, firstly because they're working away in the background all the time without us having to think about them and secondly because the sensation of 'activating' them is much more subtle.

This exercise is a simple way to get a sense of what it feels like when your torso’s deep stabilising muscles are working. You can try it seated or lying down.

  • Place your fingertips on your lower abdominals just inside your hip bones.
  • Now cough or laugh. Can you feel a slight tightening or tensing underneath your fingers?
  • Remember that feeling and take a deep breath in – let your belly expand underneath your fingers.
  • Now as you breathe out let your belly sink back towards your spine – can you notice that same slight tightening or tensing of your lower abdominals?
  • Once you’ve got that feeling take a few more breaths. Each time you breathe out imagine tightening a string or drawing a smile between your two hip bones.
Hey – you’ve just used your breath to get to know your deep torso stabilising muscles :-) Why does it work? Because those same muscles are involved in coughing, laughing and breathing among other things.

Which brings me back to what my teacher said - you just need to breathe out. The problem is that most of us don't know how to do that, but that's a topic for another blog.


If you're new to Pilates or just getting back into exercise I'm planning a weekend workshop for beginners this summer .  Comment below if you're interested in coming along or get in touch and I'll let you know about dates and venues.