The formidable NY Times recently ran an article entitled Everything You Know About Good Abs May Be Wrong in which writer Paul Scott reports on new developments in Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation that call into question the validity of many abdominal strengthening methods, including Pilates. The old time Classical Pilates mantra was, in fact, "Navel to Spine, Spine to Mat."
For years many of us in the Pilates teaching and training community have fought against this phrase, arguing constantly that to pull in and flatten the lumbar spine is bad, since it destabilizes that vertebrae and teaches improper use of the abdominal muscles. In recent years the Pilates PhysicalMind Institute has been the prime proponent of new ways of visualizing the core musculature. New ways of cuing the Pilates exercises to get people to understand how to both move and stabilize their spines. Now it appears that we have been vindicated!
Basically, the deepest core muscles (transversus abdominus, pelvic floor, and lumbar multifidus) work together along with the gluteals (butt/hip), leg adductors (inner thighs), back, and more extrinsic abs to stabilize the pelvis & lumbar spine. The deepest muscles certainly cannot do everything on their own, but without them working underneath, the spine does not have the same degree of stability.
We who teach what is called the "Third Level" of Pilates technique, which focuses on neutral spine as the base for movements and exercises, and which asks people to find the neutral through specific exercises and cues, have been under fire within the Pilates world. How refreshing to read Gary Gray, a physical therapist in Michigan, who has been trying to re-educate other therapists to abandon the drawing-in technique, quoted in The Times saying, “I would rather facilitate the motion that turns the muscle on all by itself, …Motion is the thing that turns on muscles, not the mind.”
And Dr. Stuart McGill, Professor of Spine Biomechanics in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, says that there is a better way than drawing in the transversus abdominus to protect the spine and build the core. Dr. McGill recommends bracing all the abdominal muscles — something he said the body does more naturally during exertion. "Bracing is stiffening the abdominal wall. It’s a neutral position. It’s not sucking in and it’s not pushing your belly out."
Why the Pilates purists insist on holding to a way of exercising that is completely antithetical to contemporary knowledge about the body is absolutely beyond me. I still have debates with other teachers about the importance of neutral spine. It reminds me of the South Park episode where everyone chose to bury their heads in the sand!
For more information on newer functional approaches to Pilates, take a look at Joan Breibart's book, Standing Pilates.