All of the attention placed on training the "core" has led many people to think training the muscles between the pelvis and the ribs is a panacea. That may be true when you are lying on your back supported by gravity. Problem is, once you stand up against the weight of gravity more forces begin to act on the body and other parts of the body must be addressed.
The inner thigh muscles are a good place to start. The structure of the legs and hips are analogous to a pedestal for the spine to rest upon. If that pedestal were made of clay or quick sand, no matter how strong the muscles of the spine and abdomen are, they are going to buckle when placed on top of a weak support. The hip bones are like the cornice on which a piece of art, or our spine, rest upon. The base or foot of the pedestal functions like our feet and lower legs. It is the middle section, or dado, usually cylindrical in shape, that is the largest potion of the pedestal giving support to the cornice that functions like our inner thighs.
The inner thighs are made up on five muscles. They are mostly responsible for adduction, crossing the leg across the mid-line of the body to the opposite side. They attach to the underside of the bones of the pelvis, some closer to the center than others, and run down in the inside of the femur or leg bone. The muscles are the Pectineus, Adductor Longus, Gracillis, Adductor brevis and Adductor magnus. In addition to adduction, the Add magnus also assists in both flexion and extension of the of hip depending on which fibers are contracted. The gracilis can assist in flexion and medial rotation of the knee. These muscles help the body to navigate a balance between the muscles that help to flex and extend the hip in standing posture, like the dado keeps the cornice parallel to the floor. In appearance they create a cone of muscular support between our pelvis and feet.
Although Pilates has become analogous to "core" strength, it actually creates strength and awareness of these muscles and how they interact with other parts of the body. In Pilates we refer to the muscles of the "Powerhouse" as the muscles that attach to the pelvis. Recently, I am discovering that before I can address the strength I want people to use in their abdominal muscles, I must first address the weakness in the inner thighs.
Below are five mat Pilates exercises that can be done at home to start to build this strength and awareness in the muscles of the inner thighs. These exercises engage the inner thighs as they will be used in standing upright. However, all of the exercises included here are Pilates. The rules of engagement are: 1) always pull your abdomen both back to your spine and up to your rib cage as you perform each exercise below and 2) for exercises on the back, keep your back on the mat without allowing the weight of the legs to arch your back off the mat.
1. Lie down on the floor and take three deep breaths to lengthen your body long on the mat. Squeeze the heels together. For a challenge, place a piece of paper between the heels and hold it for the duration of the exercise.
2. Roll your head to your chest, lift the arms to heart level and legs up to eye level and take another deep breath; maintain connection between the vertebrae and the mat. Start to pump the arms vigorously up and down 100 times with the deep breaths. Inhale for five pumps and exhale for five pumps. Do 10 sets. (Reach the arms and legs long and draw the abdomen in and up in opposition to the stretch of the limbs.)
3. Keep squeezing your piece of paper firmly between your heels to lower the legs, arms and head and rest flat.
1. Keep the paper between the heels. Pull the knees to the chest and place your hands behind your head.
2. Raise the chin to the chest and pull your shoulders down your back.
3. Squeezing the paper, reach the legs out and in five times. Pull the knees back in by pulling your abdomen back to the floor each time. (Think of your kid's "Farmer Says" toy -- the abdomen is the wheel that pulls the string of your legs back in.)
4. Finish with the legs in the air. Rest the head flat. Keep the hands behind the head.
Double Straight Leg Pull
1. Roll your chin up over your chest. Pinch the bottom and squeeze the piece of paper between the heels. Lower both legs down as far as possible keeping the spine weighted to the mat.
2. Stretch the legs out longer, squeeze the heels tighter and lift the legs back to 90 degrees. Repeat eight times.
3. Variations: Lower the legs to 45 degrees and back to 90 degrees, lower the legs from 45 degrees to the floor and back to 45 degrees, start with the legs at 90 degrees, lower them to the floor and lift them back to 90 degrees. Finish with the legs on the mat and lay the head and arms flat.
Double Leg Kick
1. Turn over on your stomach. Keep your paper. Hold the hands behind the waist, placing one palm in the other, and draw them up the back as far as they can go.
2. Keeping the powerhouse engaged and the legs glued together as one, kick the heels to the bottom three times.
3. Keeping the hands clasped, reach them back, keep the feet on the floor and raise the chest off the mat. Try to push the palm of the hands both down the back and up to the sky as feet and legs press firmly to the floor.
4. Lay the head down facing the other direction and begin again. Repeat two to three times on each side.
Side Kick Variation
1. Lying flat on your side, align the ear, shoulder, and hip with the head in the hand as shown (or you can lie on the extended arm). Bending at the hips, angle the feet two feet in front of the ear/shoulder/hip line. Turn out the top leg and bend the knee to place the foot in front of the bottom leg. (Your legs will look like you are making a "4.")
2. Raise the bottom leg up and down five times. Stretch the leg long through the heel or else the hip might bend or flex slightly.
3. Hold the last lift in the air and make five large circles with the bottom leg each way. Sometimes it is also helpful to turn the heel up to the sky.
4. Repeat on the other side.
On standing again feel the feet press firmly into the ground and the inner thighs engaging. Admire your work of art.
For more on fitness and exercise, click here.
For more by Kara Wily, click here.