Are you curious about Pilates, but have never done it? Everyone is new to Pilates at some point. Pilates needs to be LEARNED and practiced. As skill level improves, there is a multitude of ways to challenge and progress Pilates exercise.
Over the years, I have spoken with many people who have started Pilates. When I work with a Pilates “beginner”, meaning the person has never done Pilates, I like to go over all of the main principles and concepts of Pilates. This ensures that a person will have a strong basis and understanding to build upon with progress over time.
After completing a few sessions or classes, I often hear relief in peoples’ voices and expressions! They thank me for helping them get a solid foundation as they progress through a Pilates program based on THEIR needs and their level of fitness. At that point, people often also understand a lot of our common Pilates terms.
I can totally understand how a person who has never DONE Pilates exercise may feel intimidated. There are so many terms and positions that we use in Pilates. If you have never had Pilates terms defined, it could be difficult to “smoothly” participate in a group class, for instance. But it can be done! I encourage people who are beginning to find a slower-paced beginner class where they can learn key concepts at a comfortable pace. Furthermore, if a person can invest in a few individual, private one-on-one sessions, this is even better so they can optimally learn our amazing Pilates method. Doing this will allow a person to both understand their body’s unique needs, and it will also allow them to learn all of our Pilates jargon that can be confusing to those who are new!
But in the meantime, I would like to educate the public about Pilates! Hopefully this will give people who don’t know Pilates a basic understanding of what to expect, and maybe even the confidence to TRY IT!!! As a licensed physical therapist, I can confidently say that when Pilates is tailored to a person’s needs, it can be so beneficial and life-changing!
Now back to the subject at hand. A term that we use in the Pilates world multiple times a day is called “imprint.” What exactly IS imprint? I will define and explain it below.
What is Pilates Imprint?
Imprint is a term used in Pilates to describe the position of your lower (lumbar) spine and pelvis. This is an important concept to understand and practice. To fully understand, first I need to explain “neutral” spine.
Neutral spine/pelvis is defined as an “optimal” position of your spine/pelvis. The entire spine has multiple normal, natural curvatures, and the pelvis also should sit in its appropriate position in “neutral”. When referring to the lumbar spine and pelvis, a natural lordosis, or inward curvature of the spine is present.
In reality, often people may have a lumbar curvature that may be more, (“increased lordosis”) or less curved (“decreased lordosis”) than the ideal neutral position. Pilates exercises should be tailored to help correct any muscular imbalance that may contribute to these types of abnormal postural positions.
The position of “imprint” is used during Pilates exercise. It is a SLIGHT flattening out of your normal lumbar lordosis and a slight posterior pelvic tilt that we hold when doing some Pilates exercises.
Why do you hold an imprint during Pilates exercise, versus holding neutral spine position?
In STOTT PILATES, the contemporary approach of Pilates that I am certified in, our goal is to improve a person’s core strength to the point that the person may optimally perform their Pilates exercises in the neutral spine position. Neutral spine/pelvis is the ideal position for your spine, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc. Without going into too much detail on the specifics for now, just know that this position is where all of these important body parts are “happiest”! Your body needs to be strong in its IDEAL position to protect itself from injury!
Although we want a person to become strong in neutral spine because it is the optimal, most functional position, we use the exercise position of imprint as a sort of “tool” to help our clients gain enough strength in their bodies to allow them to eventually be strong enough to hold Pilates exercises in neutral. So in the STOTT PILATES method, imprint is often used as a sort of “stepping stone” to build one’s strength.
Why is imprint an easier position to hold?
Ultimately, as stated before, the goal is for a person to be strong in neutral spine. We teach people to activate their deepest core abdominal muscle, the Transverse Abdominis (TA), to help stabilize the spine and pelvis in neutral. This can help protect the body from future stress and/or injuries. However, if a person has never trained this deep stabilizing muscle before, it tends to be weak. Focus, dedication, and patience must be used to appropriately train the Transverse Abdominis muscle to improve its strength over time. It is also interesting to know that many people can be very strong in their main, large, external ”mover”/mobilizer muscles, but still be extremely weak in their deep stabilizers such as the Transverse Abdominis, among others.
There are hundreds of Pilates exercises. These exercises will be selected and progressed for a person’s unique needs using our strategic method. But some exercises are more difficult than others. When a person is first learning the method, or when a person is performing certain exercises that may be more challenging, the position of imprint can allow for a bit of extra stability within the body.
Imprint allows for extra stability versus a neutral position because, even though we are still using our deep Transverse Abdominis with a goal to improve its strength, when a person moves into an imprinted position during an exercise, he/she will gently activate the Internal and External Oblique muscles to pull the body into an imprinted position. The obliques are two layers of abdominals that lay over the deeper Transverse Abdominis. In imprint, the obliques are more activated and allow an additional level of support along with the Transverse Abdominis to perform an exercise with better overall strength and stability. Once a Pilates exercise become easier to control as the Transverse Abdominis strength improves, then the person can be challenged by performing the exercise in neutral, attempting to isolate the Transverse Abdominis itself with less activation of the obliques.
There are other reasons why imprint can be an “easier” position to hold versus a neutral position, but the above explanation gives a major reason why this is true. Conversely, there are scenarios for some individuals where imprint may actually be more challenging than the neutral position, despite having extra activation of the obliques, but this blog could turn into a NOVEL if I tried to explain this!
How to activate the Transverse Abdominis in the neutral position:
- Find your neutral spine and pelvis. Take an inhale breath through your nose to prepare for exercise.
- Gently engage your Transverse Abdominis (TA) while taking an exhalation through pursed lips.
This muscle wraps around your body like a corset and attaches to some strong stabilizing tissue in your lower back region to help stabilize your body, your lower back, and pelvis and protect them from excessive and stressful movement. This contraction is gentle. You will not push out or flex in any way, but gently draw your TA inward like you are cinching a corset.
- Do not hold your breath!
- When first learning this exercise, Contract the TA on an exhalation and relax it during an inhalation. Repeat.
- To work TA endurance, gently continue to breath in and out while holding the contraction. (In the above video, I engaged the TA on an exhalation, held it for an inhalation, and then released it on the second exhalation. I then prepared for the next cycle taking an inhalation breath.)
- If you have not performed this contraction before and this description does not help, you may need to find a licensed or certified professional to give you some tips on how to engage this muscle properly.
How to activate the Transverse Abdominis and the oblique muscles in Pilates imprint:
- When first exploring this position, I encourage people to first engage the TA in the neutral position as described above, and then activate the obliques to move into imprint. To do this, once the TA is engaged, you will gently use the oblique muscles to gently and slightly tip the pelvis into a posterior tilt and slightly flatten out the lumbar spine with an exhalation.
- When this exercise becomes more familiar, one can engage the TA and obliques simultaneously to tip the body into an imprinted position.
- Using the breath in the beginning stages of this exercise, you can inhale to prepare, exhale to contract, and then inhale to release the body back into neutral position. Next, repeat by exhaling to move into imprint to continue the series.
- When this exercise becomes familiar, you can challenge the endurance of the muscles by inhaling to prepare, then exhaling to move into imprint with the contraction. Inhale to STAY in imprint keeping the muscles contracted, and then exhale to release the position back into neutral. (I demonstrate this option in the above video.)
- If you put your hand on your trunk with your thumbs on your lower ribs and your pinkies on your pelvis, you can feel the slight shortening beneath them. A tip is to imagine that your obliques are suspenders underneath your hands between these points and they are slightly shortening to produce this movement.
- Your gluteals (otherwise known as your “butt muscles”) should NOT be helping produce the imprint position, but they should be relaxed.
The movement into imprint is very slight. (You may even have trouble seeing the difference in positions in the videos, but I assure you they are different! Seeing and practicing these positions up close and in person is optimal, but I did want to demo them in a video for some information anyway.) When first practicing imprint, it is common for people to feel unsure of the position. With focus and persistence, it will become more natural to perform this movement and confidence will improve! Feedback from a certified Pilates professional or other licensed healthcare professional can also help improve confidence and technique!
In closing, I hope this blog post has helped some understand what a Pilates imprint position is. Hopefully it will also to help people understand the very basics of why it is important and why we use it in Pilates. There are many other details about these positions/exercises and when and/or why we use them, but this is a solid introduction. As with all activities and studies, the more you practice, the more you will learn and the better you will become!
As always, be good to yourself. Stand tall and stay strong!!!
Would you like to learn more about about Dr. Magda Boulay, DPT, a physical therapist and Pilates instructor and her practice, P.ilaT.es-Physical Therapy & Pilates, and how she can help you? Click on this link to sign up for a free 15-minute discovery phone call to see if P.ilaT.es is the right fit to address your needs!
PLEASE NOTE! This blog post is meant for educational and instructional purposes only. This exercise is a wellness exercise only, and it is not medical advice. This post is not a substitute for professional medical consult, evaluation, & or treatment. If you have a current injury or condition, please consult in person with a licensed medical professional before attempting or starting this, or any other exercise program.