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Pilates - Core Conditioning

Darcey Bussell Pilates

If you want a flat tum, a firm bottom and toned limbs — and to look like ballet star Darcey Bussell — follow these exercises from her new book Pilates for Life.  Below, she demonstrates the core exercises and a selection of stretches to help you stay supple and on your toes.

Core Muscles

Your core is the band of muscles which wrap around your body like a corset, helping to support you and giving you good posture. It is a crucial element of Pilates because every exercise requires you to initiate all movement from your core.

To find your core muscles, lie flat on the floor and try to push your spine on to the ground by pulling your belly button towards it. Be careful not to pull in so far that you can’t breathe and your ribs stick out. The aim is to activate your abdominal muscles so that your stomach goes flat but you can still breathe normally.

Repeat ten times

Pelvic floor muscles

The pelvic floor muscles are essential to core stability as they connect to the abdominal muscles; this means that your pelvic floor muscles should always be engaged when your abdominals are. If your pelvic floor loses tone, your posture will collapse and this can lead to back pain.

  1. Lie down on the floor on your back with your legs straight and hip-width apart. Place your arms by your sides. Now, imagine peeing and then stopping mid-flow — the muscles you are using are your pelvic floor muscles.
  2. Squeeze these-muscles together. You should feel your pelvic floor pull upwards to your stomach. Hold it for four counts, then relax.

Repeat ten times

Shoulder stabilisation

Many people suffer from sore shoulders and neck pain simply because they don’t hold their shoulder blades stable when they raise their arms. This means that for most of the day the shoulders are lifted and held in a position rather than kept In a relaxed state. in Pilates, exercises with the arms always begin with the shoulder blades sliding down the back so that the shoulders are stabilised.

  1. To find this position, stand in front of a mirror with your arms by your sides. Before you start, slide your shoulder blades down your back.
  2. Now, raise one arm up above your head, keeping your shoulders down. There should be no tension in the shoulder and ample space between your ear and shoulder.

Repeat with the other arm

Neutral spine

A neutral spine is the Ideal position for your back during floor exercises as it places the least amount of stress on your spine. Contrary to popular belief, your spine should never be flat on the floor when lying down; there should always be a natural curve to your lower back

  1. To find the correct position, lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, parallel and hip-width apart.
  2. In this position there should be a small curve to your lower back; this means your back shouldn’t be either pressed into the floor, nor arched to leave a large gap between you and the floor.
  3. When your spine is in neutral, your tailbone should be dropped into the floor and there should be a small gap between your waist and the floor (ideally this should be half a flat hand).

Rotation of the leg, or turn-out

When you ask someone to turn out their leg, people often think the movement comes from their feet when, in fact, a leg rotation starts from the hip joint. To find the turn-out, lie on the floor and put your hands on the top of your hips. Turn your legs out, focusing your attention on the tops of your thighs, rotating them outwards, down and around to the floor. In the right position the inner-thigh muscles will also engage.

  1. Lie on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Now, bend one leg and lift your foot off the floor, bringing your knee up towards your chest (keep your other leg straight). Holding this knee with both hands, rotate the knee by circling it in the air.
  2. Only the hip of the leg being exercised should move; the other should remain on the floor — if it moves, hold it down with one hand.

Do ten circles on each hip

The mind-body connection

Like yoga and other holistic forms of exercise, Pilates has a strong mind-body connection, if you focus your mind on individual muscles as you work through the programme you can help to lengthen and strengthen them. It’s important to be aware all the time of how you’re holding and moving your body so you can help your muscles work through their full range of movement

  1. Stand straight with your feet parallel and hip-width apart, your belly button pulled into your spine, your ribs dropped (imagine them sliding down your front), shoulders relaxed and your head in alignment with your spine.
  2. Inhale and drop your head to your chest. Exhaling, allow your arms to fall forwards as you roll down vertebra by vertebra, concentrating on each one as you move. Keep your legs straight and make sure you don’t rock forwards or backwards as you move. Let go of your head and allow your hands to come as close to the floor as possible without straining.
  3. 3. Inhale at the bottom and hold the position for two counts, then exhale and, using your stomach muscles, curl upwards to return) to the starting position.

Repeat three times

The lengthening of the neck

The correct neck position is essential In Pilates to help avoid injury.  Whether you’re lying, standing or sitting, always Imagine your chin moving back closer to your neck and the crown of your head being pulled upwards by a string (if you do this correctly your body will automatically move into a strong postural position).

  1. Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor, parallel and hip-width apart.
  2. Drop your chin to jour chest and inhale. As you exhale, imagine your neck lengthening away from your spine (don’t force the movement).
  3. For an extra neck stretch, stay in this position and do small figures of eight leading with your nose.

Repeat the circles five times in one direction and then five in the other

Neck stretches

A great stretch for anyone who sits at a desk all day or who has a stiff neck or shoulders.

  1. Sitting upright on the floor with your stomach pulled in, inhale and drop your head over to the left, exhale and hold for ten seconds (you should feel the stretch down the right side of your neck and spine).
  2. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Repeat three times on each side, alternating between them




Sphinx into a roll-up

This exercise stretches and lengthens the lower back and spine.

  1. Face the ground on all fours and at the same time as drawing your bottom back (so that you are sitting back on your heels) extend your arms along the floor in front of you as far as they will go. Your forehead should now be on the floor. Keep bottom on your heels.
  2. From this prone position, inhale, draw your stomach up and slowly roll one vertebra at a time to come up to a kneeling position. Keep your bottom on your heels and let your arms drop to your sides.
  3. Exhale and roll back down to the prone position.

Repeat five times.

TIP: For an extra stretch, when lying in the prone position breathe deeply into your upper back to stretch your spine.

Spine stretch

This is a wonderful hamstring stretch and a good progression exercise because eventually your hands will go past your toes.

  1. Sit up straight with your legs extended in front of you, your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and flexed.
  2. Lift your arms straight out in front of you at shoulder height. Inhale and drop your chin to your chest, rounding your back and pulling your belly button towards your spine. Imagine you are in a giant C-shape.
  3. Exhale and stretch your arms forwards towards your feet (keep your hips stable). You may not be able to go that far to begin with, but you will progress.
  4. Inhale and reverse the motion, rolling back up from a C-shape to your original position.

Repeat five times

Cat/Reverse cat

A wonderful spine stretch. -

  1. Get on to all fours (left-hand picture), with knees under hips, arms under shoulders, head aligned with spine in a straight line, pull the stomach in, shoulders down.
  2. Inhale and, pulling your belly button to your spine, push upwards arching your back, with your bottom taut. Relax your head and let it drop.
  3. Exhale, return to a straight back position, imagining your tailbone lengthening at one end, your head at the other.

Reverse cat

  1. Stay on all fours in the same position as for the previous exercise, checking that you are still aligned.
  2. Inhale, and as you exhale imagine that you are pushing your belly button down towards the floor (this should arch your back), and at the same time extend your breast, keeping your shoulders ‘down and your head aligned with your spine. Exhale and move smoothly back into a straight-back position.

Repeat five times.

© The Times Saturday January 2005