Pilates ‘Wrap’ and ‘Core’ are they the same thing?

 In Background

I was teaching a group of Pilates teachers on one of our Pilates Therapy Shoulder Courses, and we were looking at stabilisation of the shoulder and the muscles involved. We were discussing serratus anterior (one of my personal favourite muscles (I know, I have favourite muscles – sad) and its role in shoulder stability as well as being part of the anterior Pilates ‘wrap’.  Some of them had never heard of the ‘wrap’, but they had all heard about the ‘core’. Which got us talking about how the two differed and got me thinking how many other Pilates teachers out there had heard of the ‘wrap’? If they had heard of it, how did they describe it?

What’s a ‘wrap’, you can’t eat it can you?

I first came across the ‘wrap’ when I picked up the Anatomy of Pilates put together by Joan Breibart, Marika Molnar (PT) and Shelly Geyer for the Physical Mind Institute in 2001. I hadn’t long been teaching and was fascinated by anything Pilates and anatomy related, so I added this book to my growing library (I’m a compulsive book buyer). One of the challenges of teaching people movement/exercise is using words to describe a kinaesthetic experience and the ‘wrap’ used anatomical words to describe what JP (Joseph Pilates – not sure I needed to clarify that, but just in case…) called the ‘powerhouse’ or ‘girdle of strength’. They listed the muscles of the wrap as serratus anterior, lower trapezius, latissimus dorsi, internal and external obliques and transverse abdominis.

Four score and several years ago…

Four decades ago I started practicing Pilates, and when I think back to that time (which can be a struggle), I can’t recall anyone mentioning our ‘core’. I was taught to wrap, connecting the arms to the legs through a deep connection in my centre. Fast forward 20 years and suddenly Pilates was about stabilising the ‘core’ – I thought Pilates was a whole body system and the powerhouse is the place in our centre where everything connected from the upper and lower body? When did it all become about the ‘core’? I’ve gone through my library of books and sure enough, most of the Pilates books I have from the last twenty years all mention the ‘core’ or ‘core stabilisation’ but the books I have from before this time, don’t. These books talk about ‘centre’, ‘girdle of strength’ and ‘powerhouse’, not the core.

Let’s pretend we can enter a time machine and be a fly on the wall in that now famous studio in NYC.

The time when JP was running the place and taking all those films which we now find so amusing and exciting when they pop up on our social media feeds. In the days before anyone heard of ‘core stability/strength’ he called it ‘Contrology’ – key focus on control. He would have been emphasising uniform development of the body, symmetry, correct posture, vitality, grace, suppleness, muscular power and endurance (Pilates, Pilates Return to Life Through Contrology, 21st ed. edition (21 Jun. 2012)) p9).  He stated in Return to Health that his system was tested over 43 years at that point and ‘scientifically exercised every muscle in the body’ and developed ‘small muscles to help large muscles’ (p14-15)  Since we can’t get time travel, I’ve gone through Return to Health and struggled to find anything that I could interpret as what today is called ‘core strength/stability’ described only descriptions of flexibility and whole body movement. The spine was a key focus but was always part of the whole system, not isolated. He describes moving the spine by ‘rolling like a wheel’ to help the spine flex and to ‘squeeze all the air out of the lungs’ (p22). He emphasised breathing properly, ‘good posture’ along with ‘correct walking’ and ‘standing well’ – no mention in writing of the ‘girdle of strength’ or ‘powerhouse’ – for those words we rely on the elders who have told us that was how he described it to them.

I have always been taught to mind what the ‘elders’ have to say…

I have some fabulous older books written by Ron Fletcher, Philip Friedman and Gail Eisen, which were written before Pilates exploded as an exercise system at the turn of the century (sounds like such a long time ago but was only 19 years). These books describe the importance of ‘Center’ and use the phrases ‘Powerhouse’ and ‘Girdle of Strength’ and state that this is how JP described it to them and it was an essential way to gain control, balance, energy and power, it was switched on by lengthening, growing tall and making space between your ribs and hips – like a girdle (Fletcher, 1978) (p55). This abdominal strength supported your lower back with the goal of control from this centre, finding balance, connection (p62).

 The meeting of Research-based Evidence and Pilates.

JP was calling out science and medicine to investigate the ‘facts’ of the validity of his method way back in the day (Pilates J. , 1st Edition edition (1 Jan. 1998)) (p143). Fast forward to today, and suddenly we are all talking about the ‘core’. I think it started when the physiotherapists started to pay attention to what we do and they are all about evidence-based practice.  The first place I’m aware of that linked research to Pilates and introduced the phrase ‘Core’ was back in 1993. Body Controls Pilates The Way Forward references Richardson and Jull’s work in Oz that evidenced the importance of stabilising muscles of the core (transverse abdominis, multifidus, pelvic floor muscles) and a neutral pelvis and spine and from then on Pilates, in the mind of the public and with teachers, seems to have become all about ‘core stability/strength’.

So what’s the problem?

Well, there isn’t anything wrong with research into Pilates, but if we are limiting our investigations to the ‘core’, we may be missing the point of the method. It is about way more than the ‘core’.  If you Google ‘Core Stability’ you get nearly 300M hits. The role of research is to challenge, and there are researchers out there trying to disprove the effectiveness of Pilates and its relationship to core strengthening (the purpose of research is often to invalidate theories so good luck to them), but are they missing the point? Eyal Lederman published a paper called The Myth of Core Stability in 2007 which every now and then pops up to the annoyance of Pilates teachers as Pilates seems to have been swept up and intrinsically linked to the idea of Core Stability. The work of Stuart McGill has been the trigger for many a rant as his perspective seems to be that only strong spine is one that doesn’t move. It’s okay to be criticised people so we should take it on the chin and move on. The way I’ve been practicing Pilates all these years has been about controlling my whole body, not just the middle that this research focuses on.

Slings and arrows…well just slings really.

What may be more in line with the Pilates concepts of centering and the powerhouse are slings. We teach pretty detailed anatomy and biomechanics to our Pilates Therapy students and include the research done by Panjabi, Hodges and Cholewicki, Vleeming and Lee. These people talk about models of stability that are adaptable, and involve both active and passive control, including the central nervous system and are generally more in line with the whole body approach that is the essence of Pilates. There are times when a spine needs to be stiff to be stable, i.e. when lifting a heavyweight (there you go, McGill, we agree) but it also needs to be flexible, i.e. when swinging a tennis racket or a golf club. The model of stability put forward by Euler takes into account the segmental control with the muscles working together to prevent buckling under load, and that co-contraction is needed – this sounds more like the wrap to me.

Let’s leave the ‘core’ out and have a poke at defining ‘Stability.’

Pilates is about training our clients to move their spine segmentally as well as to be able to load it as a rigid lever. We are about strength both static and dynamic. Diane Lee references Hodges and Cholewicki in 2007 who defined the stability of a dynamic system as having ‘the ability to maintain the desired trajectory despite kinematic or control disturbances’. Let’s translate this into human speak: we can’t be knocked off balance by what we lift (load demand – Pilates – especially equipment); if we’ve done it before (predictable  – practice Pilates people); how far we have to reach or lift (mobility requirements – oh yeah, Pilates again); and if this hurt before or will it hurt now (perceived risk – we offer the opportunity to move safely and in pain-free range in Pilates). Diane also references Reeves et al. in 2007 also stated that stability varies depending on what we are doing – task specific. There isn’t a single best exercise to stabilise the spine because all muscles matter and our central nervous systems decide which muscles to use for which job (boom over to JP again for being way ahead of the game and including concentration and using our minds to control our bodies). Lee and Vleeming also focus on the transfer of loads through the lumbopelvic-hip complex integrating the form closure provided by the joints, the force supplied by our muscles, motor control (bringing the mind into the equation – JP ahead on this one too) and our emotions. More in line with JP where the mind and body work together to maintain balance and control.

I’m nearly done…

Research needs to break things down to be able to understand them. It’s broken down muscles into inner core (Pelvic floor, transverse, multifidus, diaphragm and psoas) and then slings that form the outer core which fit my concept of what Pilates is more about. The girdle of strength (inner core) providing support for the external muscles to move our limbs about our strong centre of the powerhouse. I’m going to throw caution to the wind and propose that the concept of ‘core stability’ is not enough, is inadequate to describe the Pilates that I have been practicing for four score and something years and teaching for the last twenty plus. JP was ahead of his time and research may not yet have caught up with him. I am about to start Diane Lee’s ISM series here in the UK and in preparing for this course she proposed that evidence does not provide all the answers and that the concept of a ‘core’ may need to be ‘let go’ as there is no part of the body that isn’t influenced by the rest. Kind of what JP said.


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First published on PilatesPal – View the article here

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