Pulling in the Abdominals

Women doing Pilates exercises. The focus is on the woman in the middle.

Kristian Sekulic / E+ / Getty Images

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Pulling in the abdominals is fundamental to the Pilates method of exercise. It is a technique that is promoted in physical therapy settings, in strength training, and—to some degree—throughout the fitness world as a means of stabilizing the spine.

Done properly, training the abdominals will create an integrated, strong core. This helps to support the spine. It also facilitates stability and freedom of motion throughout the body.

Why Pulling in the Abs Is Important

In Pilates, we are looking to create a strong, stable foundation for movement. We develop this powerhouse for movement by employing the muscles of the pelvic floor and all of the abdominal muscles, teaching them to work efficiently and in harmony with the muscles of the back.

Pilates puts a special emphasis on training the deeper abdominal muscles, such as the transversus abdominis. These muscles are often underdeveloped and not working equally with the often overworked surface muscles, such as the famous rectus abdominus (the six pack abs muscle).

How to Pull in the Abdominals

Suggestions to "pull your belly button to your spine" or worse, "pretend you got punched in the stomach," are often used to encourage a deep pull-in of the abs. These images, while they do convey the look of pulled in abs, can be misleading.

This is because they put the emphasis of the pull-in at the waist and may encourage a destabilizing forward slump of the upper torso along with a tuck of the pelvis. The inner mechanics of creating a stable core begin not at the belly button, but with engaging the muscles of the pelvic floor.

Engage the Pelvic Floor

Working the pelvic floor muscles is not just for women or for bouncing back from pregnancy. The engagement of these muscles is critical to providing a stable base of movement for anyone.

When done correctly, you feel like you are pulling the pelvic floor up and in, toward the centerline. One might also imagine pulling the sit bones together.

This is similar to Kegel exercises. The only real difference is in intensity. In Kegels, one is entirely focused on the pelvic floor and the pull up may be more aggressive and sustained than what you would use for general exercise.

Pull in and Scoop

Abdominal scoop
Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

After the pelvic floor is engaged, the actual pull in begins just above the pubic bone and becomes a deep pull in of the lower abdominals. From there, the pull in action progresses upward, pulling the belly button to the spine and then the upper abdominal area.

The pull-in is not just from front to back, but also from the sides of the trunk.

Some people find that they can get an extra upward lift of the abdominals in this position. This is a true scoop of the abs. These moves are not as obviously sequential as they may sound, but a bottom to top awareness is the best way to practice engaging the abdominal muscles properly.

Keep a Neutral Spine

Pulling the abs in is usually done with a neutral spine. This means that the natural curves of the spine are present and there is no forward flexion of the upper spine or a tuck of the pelvis. It is essential to maintain both length and breadth in the back as the muscles are challenged to counter the pull of abdominals.

Pilates does use both forward flexion and a flat or curved lower back for many exercises, but those are choices that are made for specific exercise intentions beyond the initial pulling in of the abs. In general, a neutral spine is the strongest position and what we want for effective everyday movement.

Use Lateral Breathing

A question that comes up a lot for people who are learning to pull their abdominals in is, "If I have everything so pulled in, how do I breathe?" The answer is that you usually use a very small amount of your breathing capacity and tend to focus on the front body.

In Pilates, however, lateral breathing allows the breath to fully expand into the sides and down the back of the body. Doing this provides a lot of breathing room and helps open and lengthen the back of the body as well.

When to Pull in the Abdominals

In Pilates and many other exercise systems, the abdominal pull in can be used quite intensely as a training tool. The idea is that the muscles will become stronger and their interactivity better organized so that everyday movement, or even athletic movement, is easily supported.

The intention is not to imply that the intense pull in is an ideal that would be in action all the time. As one develops a stronger core, the muscles become more toned and ready for action. But there is no need to try to pull your abs in all day.

Integrating the Pull in

Pulling in the abdominals is just part of the setup for developing strength and efficient motion in Pilates. The alignment of all body parts, the full utilization of the breath, and the application of focused awareness are all integral to achieving the full benefits of each exercise.

So, while mastering the pull in is important, these other aspects are just as critical for a safe and effective Pilates workout.

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