By Aliesa George and Centerworks.com
It’s interesting the difference in perspective between traditional “Aerobic” class ab work and Pilates ab exercises. You know how everybody always complains that their neck hurts? Or they feel more work in their neck, chest, and shoulders than they do in their middle, which means it takes tons of reps of a variety of targeted exercises before you “feel” like you’ve really worked your abs?
While with Pilates Matwork, once you figure it out… you only do 3-5 of most exercises, and with good body mechanics your abs are well worked with this very low number of reps, and the variety of Pilates exercises you do are not only working your abdominals, but the rest of your body as well!
One of the differences between general fitness programs and Pilates training is in the focused concentration on working the body through a full range of motion, and developing good spine articulation from the head to the tailbone. Our back should easily and naturally bend forward, backwards, sideways, and twist at every single segment. The Pilates system puts the body through all of these different ranges of motion with every workout which is why it’s such a beneficial training method for whole-body health.
Why Does Where You Look During an Exercise Matter?
So why should it matter where our gaze goes during exercise? Our head is basically an 8-10 pound globe on the end of a flexible straw! In order to keep the weight of our head from creating more tension in the body (in unnecessary places like our neck and shoulders) it is important to do the following:
a) Support the head with the muscles of our upper abdominals and middle back during every exercise and daily life activities.
b) Pay attention to where we are looking during every exercise so that the head and neck can be in as “neutral” a position as possible to avoid neck strain, and improve body mechanics.
Examples of Eye Focus During Abdominal Sit-Up Exercises
Here are two photos for to help you “see” the difference in posture and body alignment for the upper body, neck, and head between an abdominal exercise with the eyes looking at the ceiling, and the eyes looking towards the belly.
Both positions are working the abdominals, but in photo #1 the head and neck are not in good alignment which will create increased stress and strain for the neck and back when she curls up off the floor.
Can you see in photo #1 that while her body is striving to bend forward to work her abs, her head and neck are not doing the same bending and flexing action? Instead, her chin is actually jutting forward which is shearing the neck bones farther out of good alignment!
If in photo #1 her eyes were looking towards her stomach, it would bring her head and neck into a more neutral position (similar to the vertical position for standing posture) The abdominals would be working harder, and she would be more freely articulating the full length of the spine to bend into flexion to maximize the benefits from her ab work.
If you asked participant #1 to continue rolling up to a sit, chances are she would get to a sitting position by using her back muscles, and almost hinge up with a flat or arched back, since her “line of lift” is to a high forward diagonal, or she would make it up just a little higher than she is now – and then use her back to get the rest of the way up, or get stuck – unable to go any farther and fall back to the mat.
Participant #2 has an eye focus that places her head and neck in the vertical “neutral” that we have for normal standing and seated posture. Notice how the curl of her body shape continues from her low back on the mat, all the way up the back and over the top of her head and around to her stomach. She has a more circular shape to her forward bend. If you asked her to continue bending forward to roll up to a sit, her upper body is moving in the right direction to make that happen, and she’ll be using her abs to get there!
Although the photos I’ve used as an example for body position and eye focus, the hand and arm positions are different, it really doesn’t matter where the arms are. Whether they are reaching up, out, or forward to either assist or challenge the exercise, or the hands are placed behind the head for support, it’s the focus of the eyes that will best help improving the technique of the exercise and train the whole spine to improve mobility and articulation. (As well as provide an excellent and effective abdominal training workout!)
Practice and Apply the Principle of Eye Focus to Movement in Any Direction
In forward bending, or abs work, the eyes should be the initiators to begin the curl. To move in other directions, the eyes may not “look” first, but as the rest of the body moves, and the head is going along with the movement– pay attention to your eye focus to assist and you’ll find less stress in your neck and shoulders, and perhaps freer movement through your entire spine from the tip of your tailbone all the way up to the top of your head.
Additional Benefits of the Eyes Looking Towards the Stomach on Abdominal Work
There are three natural curves of the spine in standing posture.
1 An arch in the lower back (lumbar curve)
2. A forward bend through the middle back (thoracic curve)
3. An arch in the neck (cervical curve)
These three curves help to provide shock absorption and balance the weight distribution of our body for improved posture, support, and movement.
The lumbar and cervical curves also act as a team. If one is in an arch, the other strives for balance and moves towards the same arched position. When you apply that thought to bending forward, it makes sense that to help the lower back release, lengthen, and stretch the body has to bend out of the arch and into more of a scoop or c-curve. And to do this well, both the lower back and the neck need to move into flexion/forward bending.
The change in focus to look forward towards the stomach begins to move the head and neck in the right direction and cues the lower back to do the same. When the eyes look towards the ceiling, since the neck is being held in an arch, the lower back will tense up to hold its arch too and the body really can’t do any effective forward bending exercise. Paying attention to where you are looking can make an advantageous and positive difference in your ability to execute your Pilates and general fitness exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and mobility of the abs and back.
Use Your Eyes While You Exercise!
Enjoy efficient and sequential articulation of the spine. Focus your gaze in the right direction to maximize your results. Not only will it help your head, neck and lower back become stronger and more flexible, but while you’re looking at your abs for the Hundred, Roll Up, Series of 5, and other Pilates or fitness exercises, you’ll be able to see if your abs are pulling in for support, and can watch them pull in farther with every repetition!