Core Activation & The Pelvic Floor


In Pilates, teaching clients how to visualize, feel, fire, and stabilize their core musculature is of top priority. Because of the subtleties of the core and how it fires, communicating how to manipulate it can be very challenging. It might feel like we are giving an anatomy lesson to our clients. This can be frustrating to most clients who are more interested in movement. Clients might also feel overwhelmed by the amount of information. With most of your clients you will give them spoonfuls of information each time they come and try to focus on just one or two concepts each session. But for you, the instructor, it is important to take time to understand the anatomy and how all of these incredible structures work in a constant synchronized dance.

Core/local muscles are the muscles that are closest (proximal) to the skeleton. Our bodies have them from the crown of our head to the tips of our toes. As movement instructors we are most concerned with the core musculature around our lumbo/pelvic hip area because we find our center of gravity and initiate movement from this area. There are five main core muscles that make up our core cylinder: the Diaphragm, the transverse abdominis, the multifidus, the pelvic floor and the psoas major. When contacting or firing core structures, remember three rules:

1) The core responds to a neutral, home position.

2) The core loves elongated, tension free breath.

3) The core loves little to no weight. (So next time you start your client with the hundreds on the reformer with all to most of the springs think again!) The core does not bring you into movement. It stabilizes and hugs the skeleton. It protects the skeleton for movement. Core work is brain work and a stability challenge.

This post will concentrate on the pelvic floor specifically, giving detailed anatomy and then an exercise. In the following post, we will detail the other three major players.

The diaphragm, which we talked about extensively in a previous post, makes up the top of our core cylinder. During inhalation, the diaphragm is pulled down and contracts. During exhalation, it rises up and relaxes.

The bottom of our core cylinder is the pelvic floor. It works in synchronicity with the diaphragm even though their muscle fiber contraction opposes one another. On the inhale, the diaphragm and pelvic floor both lower, but the diaphragm is contracting and the pelvic floor is releasing. On the exhale, the diaphragm and the pelvic floor float up, but the diaphragm is releasing and the pelvic floor is contracting.
In our upright posture the pelvic floor has very important, dual functions: support the lower abdomen and serve as a passageway out of the body. When we were on four feet, the pelvic floor muscles had a very different purpose and relationship with gravity. For a four-footed animal, the pelvic floor acts as a closure system for horizontally placed organs that are supported by a strong abdominal wall and pubic bone. For humans with an upright posture, the pelvic floor has much more responsibility and is completely subject to the force of gravity.

In simple terms, the pelvic floor is arranged in two layers: a superficial layer (perineum) and a deep layer (pelvic diaphragm). In the female, there are three orifices that go into and through the pelvic floor: the urethra, vagina, and anus. Please try to imagine the more global picture of the pelvic floor anatomy. It not only consists of support layers but also helps to shape and position the contents of the pelvic bowl. The pelvic floor includes the much-talked-about Levator Ani muscles, as well as parts of the vagina, urethra, rectum, and their sphincters. It also includes endopelvic fascia, ligaments, neural tissue, and blood vessels. This structure functions as a complete unit, so a change in one area is felt and seen throughout the entire structure. This is seen and felt to a great extent through pregnancy and post-pregnancy but is also, unfortunately, made clear when one prolapses an organ in the pelvic bowl or has to have a hysterectomy or any type of pelvic surgery.

The pelvic floor muscles are like every other muscle in the body. They are only strong when balanced. A program where you are working both the contraction and elasticity of the pelvic floor in a synchronized way is essential.

Here is an example of a balanced pelvic floor exercise:

Pelvic Floor Trampoline
Start seated on a blanket, stool, or birth ball (stability ball).
Feel all the bony landmarks of your pelvic floor: the pubic bone, tailbone, and two sitting bones. This is your pelvic diamond.
Inhale and send the breath down into the pelvic diamond. Feel the floor under you spread.
Exhale and without gripping the behind or moving the bones, lift the floor from all the pelvic side walls like a Chinese lantern.
Inhale, float the pelvic floor down, dilating it into the floor under you.
Exhale softly with an open mouth and lift the pelvic floor.
Continue for 8 to 10 breath cycles.

~by Jennifer Gianni

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  1. Helene Reid840

    Any input for working with a male pelvic floor?