So you’ve been doing pilates tapes and/or classes for awhile and are at a point where all you feel in many of the exercises are the legs and hips. You might get popping or snapping in the hips. Your lower back might be straining too. Why?
One reason might be that in a traditional pilates mat sequence the beginning exercises are mostly lying supine (on your back) with your legs in the air.
Most people start pilates because they have a weak set of core muscles they want to strengthen.
It is imperative to understand the core is NOT the belly. You cannot look down right now and see your core.
Yes. Your abdominals are part of the muscles that make up your body’s core, but so are many muscles of the torso, including overstretched back muscles, the shoulder stabilizing muscles, and even the back of the thighs, just below the buttocks. The core is more like a long corset wrapped around your entire midsection. Some of these muscles are over-developed, some are under-utilized. Pilates helps find core balance.
There is no one perfect exercise that strengthens and stretches all of the core muscles at once. We need to mix it up. The positioning should be moved around also. If you do all of your core exercises lying on the back with the legs extended upward, ultimately, your core will not be getting stronger. Your hip flexors, the muscles that lift the legs, will, however. If you have strained or tensed hip flexors and quads ( the front of the thighs), they will take over the movement and not allow your core to perform correctly. (The same is true for tense shoulders and neck muscles as well.) Tight hip flexors and gripping in the buttocks go hand in hand…as it were…and overtime can actually compress the low back vertebre and cause low back pain.
Here are a few ideas for finding your own core balance and getting out of leg straining:
#1. If you are feeling leg, hip and back tension in the first part of the traditional pilates mat exercises. SKIP THOSE EXERCISES. Not forever. Just for a few weeks. Focus on some of the countless other exercises that work your core more effectively for you.
Some alternative exercises for overall core strength can be done in their place, such as; forearm planks on a fit ball, careful back extensions, and roll downs against the wall.
#2. If you do the exercises that sometimes strain your legs and hips, keep to the modified versions with the knees bent. Focus on release of the buttocks and thigh tension. (tense and release those muscles a couple of times and they will relax much more easily).
#3. As your center becomes stronger, learn to lengthen and stretch the legs away from your core in the movements. This will release tension as well.
#4. When the legs are outstretched, work on turning out the thighs. This will help you engage the back of the thighs, which help you contract the pelvic floor, which helps you get out of the hip flexor tension…see how it’s a chain reaction!
#5. If you feel popping in the hip socket on some of these back lying exercises, you have 2 options for getting it to stop. (1) Make the movements much smaller and focus on length in the leg rather than width of movement. (2) Squeeze the muscles around the hip to help hold things in place. The hip snapping often occurs in active women who have hip flexor imbalances…too much stretch on one end, too much tension in the other. This can get better if you work bit by bit.
Your ultimate goal is to create tension free, balanced movement. There should be no strain. It take a lot of practice, patience and concentration to move with ease in most areas of life. Slow down, relax and practice. Good luck!