Pilates teacher? Please don’t say “core”. Ever again.

June 1, 2016 — 15 Comments
stock-photo-8692744-apple-coreUnless you’re referring to apples, or microchips.

I was listening to Eyal Lederman discussing his article “The Myth of Core Stability” yesterday. I have taken issue with his article before now, for various reasons, not least because the article is essentially rubbishing something which Dr Lederman fails to define – without a clear definition, rubbishing the concept becomes rather easy. Now, however, it occurs to me that the underlying trouble is that no-one can define ‘core’, as it relates to human anatomy, in a way that will receive broad agreement.

Try an internet search for a definition. The core is the trunk. The core is the transverse abdominis, deep multifidi, pelvic floor and diaphragm. There is an upper core and a lower core. The core is the trans abs, obliques and lower paraspinals. There’s a front core and a back core. The core is from the neck to the knees. (For extra fun, try a search for ‘weak core’ – eye-opening stuff, to be sure).

Core is something that goes to work before we move, right? The nervous system sends a message to the core to tell it to stiffen prior to moving our limbs, and that way we don’t destabilise our lower backs – isn’t that how we work? And this happens in fractions of milliseconds. Maybe we ‘know’ this because EMG studies have been done that show the order of firing of muscles yet, as Dr Lederman points out, to get an accurate picture of what happens you would need to have an EMG for every muscle, for every movement, to really see what happens (and then you’d only be seeing what happens in that single subject). This would also assume that what we learn from anatomy books about the location and role of muscles is not only universal but also exactly accurate, and not simply a means of dis-integrating an integrated system.

Pilates, as I understand it, is about whole body movement. And with good reason – there are very few movements that are not whole body. You can lift you arm without moving anything else, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of your body doesn’t respond. Pilates is a holistic practice because movement is a holistic practice, even when you attempt to isolate joints or muscles. To paraphrase Ido Portal, when you tug on a shirt, you tug on the whole shirt. Our whole body responds to movement, as an integrated organism.

The idea of core relies on the belief that muscles are laid down in layers, from the skeleton outward to the skin. ‘Like the layers of an onion’, as one explanation of ‘core’ offered. This sounds like a mechanism, not the model of an integrated biological system. We are animals (however much we may desire to elevate ourselves above such lowly status) and we don’t move in the way that a mechanism that we could build would move.

What if (and I strongly believe this to be the case) your brain knows how to move your body far better than any externally derived input, and your belief in core activation actually inhibits your natural functioning? Did you manage without a core before you knew you might have one? If you have been injured, did you know about your core before or after the injury? Did your discovery of a core influence your injury recovery? Has anyone recovered from injury without discovering they may have a core?

To use the word ‘core’ in relation to movement, exercise, or health feeds a picture of a hierarchy and/or layering of muscles which, if out of order, will lead to almost certain dysfunction. We are animals. All things being well we move as animals do, as whole beings. What is the level of movement dysfunction amongst other mammals? Do they show signs of missing core exercises, of having poor core control? (What would you suggest if they did?)

Core is anti-Pilates. It is a term that I hear most from people who are describing their own inadequacies or failings, as told to them by either media or medical professional. The prescription, I would respectfully suggest, is more likely to be ‘more varied movement’, or ‘move with an awareness of the ground and your environment’ than it is ‘practice engaging your core’. Just as walking down the street ‘engaging your core’ will create constipated movement and breathing patterns, so will practicing Pilates as if it requires ‘core activation’.

What to say if you’re banned from saying ‘core’? Could this be a good moment to focus on the outcome (the movement, that is) that we want for our students/clients? Instead of an internal cue, what would be an externally oriented cue?

Thank you, as ever, for reading.

15 responses to Pilates teacher? Please don’t say “core”. Ever again.


    Fascinating comment on something (core) I’ve used without much thought, more as shorthand for a host of muscles in the center of my body which when strong really make a remarkable difference in the way I walk, stand, bend over and climb stairs. I regularly ‘activate my core’ by ‘squeezing my buttocks to protect my lower back when lifting heavy objects. It definitely protects me from strain.

    While I love posts like this that question things we take for granted, contrary to your belief that the body naturally knows what’s best, a stronger ‘core’ has make a positive difference in my everyday movement as well as athletic performance.

    Very provocative article – great stuff! Really made me take a second look at this issue. Keep it coming.


      Thanks Bob
      And I don’t think that your experience of a ‘strong core’ having a positive influence on your body is at all at odds with the idea that your body knows best.


        I applaud you, Mike, for writing such a thought-provoking article! Best thing I’ve read in the Pilates sphere in a long time! Though I commented on this before, I keep thinking about it, probably because you raise a number of issues briefly that seem to demand a lot more.

        I wish you’d say more about your belief that ‘you body knows best.’ On the one hand I agree that an attitude of ‘no pain no gain’ and other offshoots of a contrary view that we need to impose better judgement on our bodies, is unhealthy. The cardinal rule of Pilates that if it hurts don’t do it, is refreshing and so much healthier. On the other hand, I know from experience that at times your body does not know what’s best as in the pain of arthritis or the lethargy of asthma or the laziness of a couch potato, to name a few body states that would discourage healing exercise.

        But I get most excited by your call to stop using confusing terms like the ‘core!’ I so agree. I’d take it further and say stop using all our hallowed Pilates terms like powerhouse, navel to spine, c-curve, shoulders down, ribs in, and lateral breathing to name a few. They all describe experiences that come naturally if one dedicates themselves to Pilates exercises regularly. And they utterly confuse the beginner, adding needless complexity, time and expense to learning Pilates.

        My 2 cent. What I really wish is to hear more about what you’re thinking here.

        Great article.



      Hi Bob,

      In reply to your second comment – thank you for view, much appreciated.

      I didn’t write ‘your body knows best’ – what I’m thinking is rather that your brain knows best. That is to say, I’m not smarter about someone else’s body than their own nervous system is – what I can hope to do is provide inputs and the best environment for their nervous system to respond.

      That’s to say, our nervous systems are doing the best with the information they receive, trying to preserve energy while doing what our actions and habits require. I realised, taking a class with Benjamin Degenhardt, that simple instructions about how to position my body were incredibly effective, and that he needed far fewer words to teach than I might typically use. I don’t know if it’s Benjamin’s original idea but his remark “Let the exercise teach itself” really resonated with me, and is one part of the basis for my ‘your brain knows best’ idea.

      The other part of this is working with David Fleming, from AMN Academy, who works in a way that was totally new for me, and is based around the idea of ‘fixing’ communication breakdowns between the body’s different systems by drawing the brain’s attention to the area in question, and inviting it to reset. It may sound bizarre and ‘out there’, but the results that I have seen myself are astonishing.

      Overall, my current concept of human anatomy (based on a variety of sources) fits with the idea that I’m not teaching people completely new ideas but rather trying to help them find what is already within them – that their body/mind already knows but has perhaps suppressed. Anything else seems like arrogance, or at least misguided.

      I hope that makes more sense.

      Best wishes,



    I completely agree. If I could mandate my instructors to never use the damn word again or phrases lie “engage your core” I would. perhaps I will.


    Not sure I agree here Mike. The integration of all the muscles as you describe as ” the core” are taught As the powerhouse. From a strong powerhouse ease of movement occurs in the whole body. The complexities of the exercises increase as strength in the powerhouse and extremities builds throughout the system of Contrology.


      I don’t think I described anything as the core – I just offered a few definitions found on the web. When you say “are taught as the powerhouse” it sounds like a universal methodology, but it clearly is not. There seems to be no record of Joseph Pilates referring to the powerhouse.
      Teaching ‘powerhouse’, to me, is another way of making Pilates a system of muscle activation, which is distinct from a system of movement. What does ‘strong powerhouse’ mean? What does it look like?
      Thanks for reading, and engaging.


    It’s funny, while I was reading this I got upset thinking how much I hate it when people say “do this” “don’t do that” etc like it’s dogma. But then I realized, I never actually use the word core (or powerhouse for that matter), whenever I work. Especially in Greek, the translation sounds super pretentious and really vague. Usually I see it on articles or posts about Pilates.
    So my question is, where did the word Powerhouse come from? Siri Galliano says it came from boxing. Alycea Ungaro mentions it in her books without any reference to where it came from. It’s not in Pilates’ writings. I mean I may not use it on a daily basis while working but I have said it in the initial classes to beginners back in the day, and I always thought Joe was the one who started using it.


    I just came across this reading only the title and first sentence of the article and screamed out
    HALLE-F***ING-LUJAH! I finally found someone who agrees with me!! 🙂

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Your words DO matter! « paleolates - August 5, 2016

    […] while ago I posted an article whose title asked Pilates teachers not to use the word “core”. Setting aside the […]

  2. What I write about when I write about Pilates « paleolates - November 7, 2017

    […] Pilates are, in effect, suggesting that some teachers are doing things wrongly – saying the wrong things, for example. Aside from the teachers at our studio, why should I be concerned about Pilates […]

  3. “How might I be wrong about this?” « paleolates - May 30, 2019

    […] my dislike, or rather my unease around the use of the word ‘core’. The title: “Pilates teacher? Please don’t say ‘core’. Ever again.” was intentionally provocative, and probably foolish (though I did ask nicely…) so it […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s