What Is the Pilates 'Powerhouse'?

Discover Your Strength

Women in pilates class

If you are new to Pilates, you may hear some weird language from your instructor. It can happen sporadically or routinely, but if you pay attention, there is a pattern.

Right at the moment that a move becomes highly challenging or at the exact time that you decide that another repetition is too much to bear, your teacher may instruct: "Use your powerhouse!"

But what does that even mean?

Actually, it’s a funny word for a pretty simple concept: The powerhouse is a one-word label for a collective of anatomical pieces. We can work down the body, starting from the highest point. 

The Elements of Your Powerhouse

First on the list: your abs. All of them, really.

We can get specific and tell you we want you to recruit your rectus abdominis or six pack. We can ask you to activate your obliques. Yes, both obliques, internal and external. We can guide you through the tedious practice of identifying and engaging your transversus, or TVA.

Or, we can just group them all into one and say that the abs as a collective whole are part and parcel of the powerhouse. But that's not the whole picture. 

Second on the list is the back muscles. Here, though, we are targeting the lower back muscles. Some of those ab muscles mentioned earlier actually wrap around the back side of the body, so some of this is repetitive.

Basically, anything that starts below your ribcage and ends below your rear-end is what we're after. Turn on your QL (quadratus lumborum) as well as your gluteals (maximus, medius, and minimus), and you're good to go.

Finally, we're going to get personal. In order to cross regions from the upper body to the lower body, we need to turn on some deeper, more internal muscles.

Think groin and pelvic floor, and if you want to throw in a little inner thigh, no Pilates teacher is going to challenge you. These very central muscles are key to the total powerhouse package.

The Powerhouse Is Your Center

You've now learned the specific muscles that are referenced when Pilates teachers say the word "powerhouse." In a more general sense, though, the powerhouse stands for your center or the center: the center of your body.

Pilates was described by some first generation teachers as "movement flowing out from a strong center." For most of us, the simple image of charging up your center to control and empower the rest of your body makes total sense.

If your core is rock solid, the limbs can move freely without risk of injury. The seat of power for your whole body is contained in that one crazy word—the powerhouse.

Put the Powerhouse Into Practice

What does this all look like? Let’s try it. What better place to start than with the favorite warm up move on the mat, the 100. 

For a reminder on how to perform the 100, click here for a quick review.

  1. Lie flat on the mat and hug your knees in.
  2. Curl up the head, neck, and shoulders and stretch the arms forward and straighten the legs to 45 degrees.
  3. Begin to pump the arms vigorously, inhaling for five pumps and exhaling for five pumps. All the while pulling your abs in strongly.

Now that you know where your powerhouse should be, you can call it into action.

At the 50-pump mark, bark it out: "powerhouse." It doesn't need to be out loud. You can say it in your own mind. And then keep going until you get to 100.

The Effect of the 'Powerhouse'

If you're like most exercisers, that word gave you some gusto. And all those muscles that got called to action were incredibly helpful at pushing you forward to the finish line. You have just experienced the magic of the powerhouse cue—efficiency.

It’s this efficiency that compels instructors to sometimes overuse the word. By allowing us to save time and words and initiate multiple reactions all at once, Pilates teachers are able to intensify your workload, correct your form, and motivate you to complete the requisite number of repetitions.

One word to do all of that? No wonder Pilates teachers seem to overuse it.

But wait, there’s more.

Anatomy aside, there’s a mental component to the powerhouse. Simply assigning an abstract term to a concrete action requires mental fortitude. For many students, certain muscle groups are simply not available or not yet well trained. But the mind is typically available, and it is a terrific source of energy to draw from when you need a boost.

If your physical powerhouse can't quite get the job done, your mental powerhouse can hop in and take the reins.

'Powerhouse' in the Pilates Studio

There’s a bit of insider culture around this word, and I daresay its use identifies the instructor or student as a particular kind of Pilates person.

The powerhouse is an old style Pilates term. You won’t find it in any spin-off classes. They won’t say it in the new-fangled sort of Pilates workouts or hybrid variations of the original method.

The powerhouse label is reserved for a certain community. Those who get that Pilates is more than a list of moves and enjoy the culture and language and history around Pilates. When you're in their midst, you'll know it by the way they speak.

"Use your powerhouse today?" Wink wink.

"Your scoop is badass—been watching you kill it."

Pilates studios worldwide make T-shirts, postcards, and memes celebrating the powerhouse. And they should.

Think about it: Here are three syllables that can unite a group of 40 or more people on mats or 15 students on reformers to push past plateaus and take the next step towards Pilates proficiency. That's worth celebrating!

No one doesn’t have a powerhouse. It’s just about using it.

Now go do Pilates.