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Classical Pilates Challenges Deep Abdominals

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Mar 04, 2009

Mind-Body-Spirit News

Researchers have provided more good news for Pilates enthusiasts: three classical Pilates exercises effectively activate the deep transversus abdominis [TA] and internal oblique [IO] muscles, according to a small study conducted at University College London and King’s College London in England.

Investigators set out to test the following: (1) whether Pilates exercises involve activation of the TA and IO; (2) whether or not pulling the navel in toward the spine when performing the exercises affects this deep muscle activation; and (3) whether using the reformer equipment activates the TA or IO muscles more than doing Pilates mat exercises.

Subjects were eight men and 18 women, all healthy, with at least 6 months of supervised Pilates training experience and no recent history of back pain or spinal or abdominal surgery. The three exercises selected for testing were the hundred, the roll-up and the leg circle. Participants performed the moves in two ways: with the navel drawn in toward the spine and without attention to this detail. Muscle activation was measured using ultrasound.

Researchers found that all three of the exercises showed TA and IO activation. Whether or not drawing the navel in toward the spine made a difference proved difficult to test, as participants had been previously trained and found it challenging to do the exercises incorrectly. Measurements showed that both methods activated the deep abdominal muscles. Between reformer and mat, results differed in only one instance: there was greater TA activation during the more difficult version of the hundred.

The study was published in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (2008; 89, 2205–12).

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About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, was the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in Los Angeles, California, and Zurich, Switzerland. Two of her books, The Walking Deck and The Strength and Toning Deck, are now featured as iPhone apps. Contact her at