What does Pilates strengthen?

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A typical pilates exercise.

People will go to pilates classes to strengthen their back.  In fact, in the majority of cases, the big back muscles like the erector spinae and the quadratus lumborum are over strong and the small, deep back muscles are weak. The problem with trying to strengthen these small muscles is we can’t feel them working and in an effort to try to make the back stronger, we often make it worse instead.  So next is a brief anatomical tour of these back muscles.

To the right is a picture of the quadratus lumborum.  It can be clearly seen in bright red.  The muscle is viewed from behind and can be seen to run from the top of the hip bone, attaching onto the lumbar spine and to the low ribs.  There is a quadratus lumborum on either side of the spine and its job is to side bend us, to decrease the distance between the ribs and the hips, which increases the curve in the low back, and it also helps stabilise the low back.  However the muscle’s  principal job is to move the body rather than stabilising it.  In the picture, immediately to the right of the quadratus lumborum can be seen the multifidus.  Going further to the right can be seen some of the erector spinae group which over lie the multifidus and the quadratus lumborum.  The erector spinae are also a group of muscles whose principal job is to move the body with some stabilisation ability.  The principal job of multifidus is spinal stabilisation; it is a muscle designed to work for hours whilst we are not sleeping or resting comfortably, unlike the quads, say, that would get pooped out if we remained in a squat position all day – or the quadratus lumborum.  If this muscle works constantly to keep us going it goes into spasm, usually on one side, and is a major cause of back problems. So in order to strengthen the back, what we really need to do is activate and strengthen the multifidus because once this muscle group is fully active, then most sore backs should get better.

Now the multifidus is part of the so called ‘Core’ group of muscles that all work together.  I have written about this in detail in the page on How To Exercise.  This can be found by clicking on the link then click on the section on The Core – ab flattening.  In brief, these muscles comprise the multifidus and other deep back muscles, the deepest ab muscle that works like a corset, wrapping around the abdomen, called the transversus abdominis or TVA, the pelvic floor and the diaphragm.  They are switched on by one nerve, so get one, we get them all.  Yesterday’s blog went into how to breathe and if we breathe like that, we engage the core since as we breathe in,the diaphragm  expands down and out , increasing the pressure on the pelvic floor by pushing the viscera downward.  As we  breathe out, this pressure is released.  If we deliberately lift the pelvic floor whilst navel gazing, we should see the belly button go in.  Pelvic floor lifting has nothing to do with breath holding or bottom squeezing.  So as pilates exercises are done, the belly button draws in effortlessly, the pelvic floor lifts, the tight quadratus lumborum works much less and our  back gets stronger.  Simple.  But is it?  For many years, I had gut problems and ate wheat and dairy as everybody does.  My abs looked fabulous – and I thought them strong. But when I did sit ups, it seemed to be impossible to flatten them, they just domed away, no matter how hard I tried.  This was rather annoying.  Then I gave up the wheat and dairy, started on the long journey to healing my ravaged guts and now can flatten my abs when doing sit ups without any problem.

And here we have the crux of the problem.  As I have written before, particularly wheat but also dairy (and unfermented soy) are very hard foods to digest.  They have big molecules that ravage the gut walls and cause inflammation.  This causes the body to try to calm the inflammation by releasing opioid like substances, which also gives these foods an addictive quality.  When the guts are inflamed, the brain will stop the abs pulling in properly to avoid compression, so this precious inner unit or core is deactivated and the body is forced to use the movement muscles such as the quadratus lumborum to support the spine.

So for pilates to work, it would be wise to look at the diet and be honest with ourselves as to how our abs are really working.  Failure to understand how to lift the pelvic floor is not stupidity, it means we can’t lift it, the brain has turned it and all the core muscles off.  Without skilled prodding, it is very difficult to feel the multifidus working; so instead of thinking about strengthening the back, it would be better to think about strengthening the abs.  Well working abs feel nice – no straining or breath holding.  It is of vital importance that we are completely unaware that we even have a back.  If we feel any sensation of back muscles working during an ab or pilates session this will mean we have that troublesome quadratus lumborum partying away and having to do what it is not designed to do.   Yes, pilates can strengthen the back, but not as most people think.



3 Responses to “What does Pilates strengthen?”

  1. Ro Jameson 2012-02-12

    We certainly don’t want to strengthen erector spinae. This muscle is usually overworked. We try and get this muscle to relax by getting the correct alignment in the spine, making sure that when we do the exercises our spine & pelvis are in the correct alignment, therefore engaging the correct stabilising muscles and trying to really keep length in the spine.It is also very important to relax the neck & shoulders & strengthen lower trapezius. Pilates classes should be very hands on and in small groups ( the maximum in our classes at my Studio are 10 ), or on a 1:1 basis adjusting exercises to the needs of the client. I agree with Clare that diet plays an important part in any exercise including Pilates.

  2. Aurora 2014-08-21

    Thank you for this article very interesting ! I’m currently studying a diploma in pilates and found this very helpful

    • Clare Harding 2014-08-21

      Thank you for your comment, Aurora. I will be thrilled if you become a pilates teacher that understands what we are eating has a major effect on how our abs are working. Nice to hear from you.


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