Abs vs. Thighs: For Effective Core Conditioning – Strengthen the Hamstrings & Glutes

by | Mar 27, 2012 | Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 1 comment

Lots of people focus time during their workouts on improving core conditioning with abdominal exercises.

But when the initiation to do the work for a sit-up exercise starts with the hip flexors and Quads, it limits the ability to move freely for functional movement and full range of motion.  Plus, while the abs might fatigue in the process – they are not being effectively utilized to do the work for optimal benefits from your Ab work.

Here are some Pilates tips to help increase the effectiveness of your Abdominal strengthening exercises, and improve free range of motion at the hip for effective core conditioning.

***This article is the 3rd in a series of Abs vs. Thighs to improve core strengthening.  Click on the links below if you’ve missed the first two articles and want to catch up!

1st Article: “Abs vs. Thighs: Which Muscles Are Really Working To Strengthen Your Core”

2nd Article: “Abs vs. Thighs: Preparatory Exercises to Help Find the Abs & Relax the Hip Flexors for Effective Core Strengthening”


Pilates KG Curl – Knees Over The Rolldown Bar Exercise

I love this exercise for a lot of reasons!  This is one great modified Pilates Cadillac exercise that I utilize with many clients with the head down to help train stability of the pelvis and spine, and mobility of the leg from the hip.  When you add a KG curl up to the 100’s position – this exercise is a great way to get instant feedback to feel Abs vs Hip Flexors/Quads.

During the preparatory Tabletop Prop exercise that was discussed in Article #2,  the goal was to keep the thighs completely relaxed.  Now the goal is to keep the backs of the legs active and really reach the legs away from the Abs while you are working this short-lever exercise. 

With the knees over the Rolldown bar on the Pilates Cadillac the Hamstrings have to stay active to hug the backs of the knees around the bar.  The Glutes do the work to lower the legs to the mat, and the Psoas does the work to hinge the legs back up, along with support from the front of the Pelvic Floor, and the Transverse Abs to keep the pelvis still while the legs are moving.  WHEW!!!  There is lots to think about!

PREP for KG Curl with Knees Over the Rolldown Bar:

  • Lay on your back on the Pilates Cadillac, head on the Rolldown bar end about an arms length from the poles.
  • Pull the Rolldown bar to you and place the bar behind the knees, keeping the knees bent to hold onto the bar.
  • To start, arms can hold onto the poles overhead, remain by your sides, or be used to help feel the pelvis held still by placing the hands on the hips, or Pubic bone.
  • Start with the knees bent into the chest.
  • Inhale and hold the knees to chest position.
  • Exhale, pull the Abs up & in, then squeeze the Hamstrings and Glutes to hinge the legs away from the body to stand on the feet with the knees bent & back flat on the mat.  (hook-lying position)
  • Inhale hold the legs firmly pressing the feet to the mat.
  • Exhale keep the legs pressing down, pull the Abs in first, then hinge at the hip to fold the legs back into the chest.

Things to Pay Attention To During the PREP
for KG Curl with Knees Over The Rolldown Bar:

The “hinge” of the legs should be done with the quads relaxed-Rectus Femoris, one of the four Quadriceps muscle doesn’t do the work.  Instead the goal is to utilize the Illio-Psoas muscle to help lengthen the lower back and fold the legs into the chest from underneath using the back of the legs more than the front.

If you think about bringing the Knees to the chest, and the LEGS (knees) initiate to bend in first, the Rec. Fem. and Quads will grab more than the Abs.  Chances are it will also be almost impossible to keep the pelvis from “tucking” as the knees come in.

If you get the sequence right…Exhale, Belly, Legs – and strive to keep the fronts of the thighs more relaxed, the Abs and Psoas will work much more effectively.  And as the thigh bone folds in, the ball in the socket can totter down while the knee end is teetering up.  The result, improved lumbar-pelvic stabilization, more effective Ab work, better hip mechanics, and the ability to move the legs into a deeper range of motion for a bigger stretch to release tight low back muscles.  LOTS of great benefits here for better health!

Core Conditioning-Challenge Exercise:
How To Do the KG Curl with Knees Over the Rolldown Bar

Now that you’ve got the prep work for using the Hamstrings and Glutes to hold the legs still, stabilizing the pelvis, AND pulling the low Abs in with the head down, it’s time to challenge yourself for more Ab work and progress to curling the head and shoulders up off the mat.

  • Start lying on your back with the knees over the bar, knees to chest, head on the mat, hands behind the head to support the neck.
  • Inhale and exhale to pull the Abs up & in while lowering the legs to press the feet to the mat (just like the prep exercise).
  • Squeeze the Glutes to keep the legs down and feet firmly against the floor.
  • Inhale & Exhale to pull the Abs in even more and curl the head & shoulders up to the KG Curl position (Hands supporting behind the head, bending over the bottom of the breastbone, tips of the shoulder blades down, head vertical, eyes looking at the belly.)
  • Hold the KG Curl and take 3-5 breaths. Maintain the feet on the floor, hip flexors relaxed, Abs in, lower back anchored to the mat.  Strive to deepen the curl on each exhale.
  • Inhale and Exhale to Relax the head down
  • Inhale and exhale to pull the Abs in and hinge the legs into the chest.
  • Repeat 3 times.

Now It’s Time To Play!

Once you’ve got the concept down, and can make the necessary adjustments when you realize that you’re grabbing with the quads, or tucking the pelvis to pull the abs in when the knees pull into the chest, or worse, notice that you’re tucking the pelvis every time you curl the head and shoulders up, you can play with these variations to continue challenging the exercise for more effective core conditioning.

  1. KG Curl UP with the knees to the chest – then lower & lift the legs 5-10 times before setting the head back on the mat.
  2. KG Curl UP while simultaneously lowering the legs.  Maintain the curl to fold the legs back into the chest, then set the head down. (or stay up and move the legs up & down a few reps before lowering the head)
  3. Press the legs down to the mat first – then KG Curl UP.  Hold the curl and lift & lower the legs 5-10 times.
  4. Start with the head and legs pressing down, curl both ends up (head and legs) lower both ends down.  (I envision a lotus flower – opening and closing.  The spine and legs are moving towards and away from a stable pelvis.  Abs & Psoas working, Quads relaxed.  Beautiful effortless – spine articulation and hip mechanics.)
  5. Hold the legs down to the mat-Knees over the Rolldown Bar, and do the 100 exercise in this position. (Curled up, arms pumping, legs firmly to the mat, abs in, quads off.)

Hope you’re inspired to play with the Knees over the Rolldown Bar and focus on the resistance and assistance it provides to help you change some habits for more effective ab support for your core strengthening work!  Once you’ve got it – transfer this feeling to ALL the abdominal training exercises you do.


Keep on the LOOKOUT…  There are 3 more installments planned for this series of articles on Abs vs. Thighs.  Stay tuned for the next progression!

If you like what you’re reading here, stop by my Facebook page and show me the love (or give me  a “Like”) at http://www.Facebook.com/centerworks/    And don’t forget to pass this info along to your friends!  I’d love to hear from you and what you’re discovering by playing with these Abs vs. Thighs concepts and core conditioning exercises.

Have a Fit & Fabulous Day!

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.

1 Comment

  1. SusanReneePollack

    Ok, I love this series! I teach a group pilates class with Stroops tubing attached to ballet barres with carabiners and home made (yet wonderful ) roll down bars. I have been doing a neutral pelvis thigh arc version of this but WOW! Can’t wait to try this!


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