Pilates series 1# on core strength

Did you know that Pilates can make you a stronger rower? A chartered physiotherapist and clinical Pilates instructor, Wendy Davies focuses on core strength below


Pilates aims to strengthen the body in an even way, with particular emphasis on core strength, and can be highly beneficial for rowers. Added core strength and better posture could help you refine your stroke, which may even make your boat go faster!

Why do Pilates?

The repetitive forward and backward (and rotational) movement of rowing and sculling puts a lot of pressure on the lumbar spine (lower back).


Sooner or later, it will highlight any muscle imbalances or postural problems you may have so it’s important to correct these. Pelvic stability is important too.

If you don’t have the strength to keep your pelvis stable, you can end up shifting in the seat, which forces your spine out of alignment, potentially causing joint and disc problems. It’s important to control your pelvis in a neutral position while still performing the stroke correctly.

Pilates helps you develop a strong core, plus good flexibility, so will help you maximise the rock-over and add length to your stroke, as well as making you more robust. A stable spine means you will use less energy correcting your posture – leaving more for producing power and moving the boat.

When to do Pilates?

It’s preferable to do the sessions at the end of land training as you are engaging the muscles under fatigue, which is appropriate to the endurance nature of the sport. Daily practice is ideal so that engagement of the postural muscles quickly becomes hardwired into the brain and automatic.

So what do we mean by core strength?

Lots of people equate this with strong abdominals, but there are many more muscles involved: local stabilising muscles, such as the deep abdominals and obliques, the muscles between the vertebrae, and the pelvic floor work together with the longissimus, which extends down the spine. Also involved are the upper abdominals and the gluteals. All these muscles need to fire in combination to create a really stable core.

Ideally, you need to be able to adopt a ‘neutral spine’, sitting up on the sitting bones in your bottom, rather than letting your spine slump into a ‘C’ curve at the finish of the stroke.

A strong core is also important during land training and weights, especially for juniors who are still developing. You need a strong, stable centre and body awareness before loading up on resistance.

Wendy Davies

Wendy Davies has over 20 years working with rowers and elite sportspeople, including at five Olympic Games, three Commonwealth Games and many training camps and World Championships.

Exercise introduction

The first step is to achieve a neutral spine position and learn to engage the deep postural muscles, before progressing to basic Pilates exercises. Once you’ve got to grips with this, you can then move on to exercises more directly focused on rowing.

The exercises should be done at 30 to 40% of maximum muscle contraction, avoiding bracing and bulging of the tummy, flaring of the ribs, arching of the back, or tilting of the pelvis.

Though expensive, a pressure biofeedback cuff placed under the lower spine is a great way to tell if you are maintaining the correct position. Any deviation of the dial on the cuff will mean you have lost your neutral spine.

Introductory exercises

A graphic explaining the neutral spine position. There is a photograph of a lady lying down with her legs bent and feet on the floor. Point one: This is midway between an arched and flattened spine. Imagine a spirit level placed across the pelvis, while in the position shown. Point two: The tail bone remains on the floor, the pelvis is lengthened and a very small arch occurs in the spine. A car always starts in neutral and so should the body. This neutral position must be maintained throughout the exercises. Point three: Perform 3 x 10 reps on each side. The neutral spine is the natural position of the spine when all body parts are in good alignment. When the spine is in neutral, the pelvis is neutral and the natural curves of the back – those of the cervical and lumbar spine – are maintained.

A graphic explaining how to activate the deep postural muscles. A photograph of a lady lying on her back, one knee is bent with her foot on the floor, whilst the other leg lays straight on the floor. Point one: In the rest position, breathe in gently and exhale then draw up inside with the pelvic floor muscles as if you were stopping yourself urinating. Point two: This should be done at 30 to 40% of maximum muscle contraction while maintaining a neutral spine. Point three: It will result in activation of all the other deep postural muscles.

A graphic explaining how to perform two exercises; the rotational control and the single knee lift. Rotational control: A photograph of a lady lying on her back, knees bent and feet on the floor, pushing her knees outwards. Start in the rest position, engage the deep stabiliser muscles and slowly take the knee out to the side as far as you can before there is any shift side-to-side of the pelvis. Slowly return to the start. Please note – if you have an injury, always consult a qualified physiotherapist for an individual and tailored approach to your problems. The single knee lift: A photograph of a lady lying on her back, knees bent with one foot on the floor and the other facing outwards with her knee at a right angle. Start in the same position as before. Maintaining a neutral spine, slowly lift the leg, hinging at the hip and keeping 90° in the knee. Keep an imaginary spirit level straight on the pelvis and slowly lower. Avoid arching of the spine and loss of muscle engagement. Perform 3 x 10 reps on each side. As control develops, you can increase the reps.

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