Pop Quiz: What do a die-hard “go big or go home” weight-lifter, a couch potato, and a cardio-aholic long-distance runner all have in common?
Answer: Assuming they don’t ever sway from their workouts of choice (or lack thereof, for our Lays-crunching lounger), none of the above regularly trains their whisper muscles.
That’s right, whisper muscles. Each of us has them. We also have talking muscles and shouting muscles, but as a Pilates Instructor I tend to pay extra attention to the quiet ones that are often under-utilized, and therefore wreaking havoc on bodies in the form of muscular compensation, imbalances, and, in many cases, pain.
Pilates draws in lots of interest from newbies because they’ve heard it’s a fantastic way to train their core—and having a strong core is key for eliminating low back pain and flattening your abdominals.
The core muscles most people are often unknowingly referring to are our transverse abdominus (or TvA). This band of muscles that surrounds the torso like a corset are one part of your body’s whisper muscles, otherwise known as the local stabilizers. These are the muscles located deepest in the joint and fire in an anticipatory response to movement (aka, they turn on right before you move). They ensure the joint flows through a neutral range of motion, whichever direction you are moving. To some degree, they are firing all the time. We call them whisper muscles because the sensation is very subtle and quiet.
Your whisper muscles are quite different than other muscles more commonly recognized such as your glutes, lats, biceps and hamstrings. These larger muscles work more to move a joint, rather than stabilize it. They produce a strong sensation that you can obviously feel when they fire, so we call them shouting muscles. They turn on, then they turn off. They turn on, then they turn off. You know that joke about weight lifters picking up weights then putting them down again? Pick up, put down. Turn on, turn off. These movements primarily focus on the mobilizers, the shouters. (Though the cued in weight lifters and trainers are turning on their whisper muscles too, don’t get me wrong!)
Because your whisper muscles work differently than your shouting muscles, training them is different as well. Typically, these muscles are best activated using a closed kinetic chain (meaning your hands or feet are touching something or on the ground) and slow movements with a proprioceptive challenge (think balance, the Bosu ball, core work on a foam roller, etc.) and in low loads. In fact, whisper muscles perform best with low loads of less than 25% of maximum contraction, which means that die-hard go big or go home might be going home without correctly turning on any of their local stabilizers!
Back to the idea that Pilates works your core and your whisper muscles. It’s really easy to do crunches and sit-ups and other “core” exercises that work our global stabilizers (the talking muscles) and global mobilizers (the shouting muscles), but working those deep core whisper muscles (the TvA, specifically) is not always the easiest. And even when we do planks, one of my FAVORITE exercises to strengthen the core, it’s very easy to perform the move without actively engaging all appropriate muscles. Common misconception: the Transverse Abdominus is NOT your six-pack muscle (that’s the Rectus Abdominus, a shouting muscle). The TvA is deeper and flatter. When activated correctly, it draws the waist in slightly, allowing for an abdominal hollowing, as if you were buttoning up the last button on a pair of high-waisted skinny jeans. The TvA has been shown to be the most important local stabilizer in the entire body as it serves as the blank canvas for the rest of your abdominal structure and is an important defense against lower back pain.
You can begin to train your TvA with a simple breathing exercise:
1) Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet hip distance apart.
2) Place your pointer & middle fingers two inches in from your hip bones and press gently into your flesh.
3) Inhale through your nose and exhale through pursed lips like you are trying to blow out ten birthday candles.
4) If done correctly, you should feel a gentle contraction underneath your fingers as you exhale. Boom, meet your Transverse Abdominus.
Proper use of the TvA is super important when performing daily actions. In fact, this little guy should be “whispered on” before you do ANY and EVERY movement.
Hauling your grocery bags out of the car? TvA needs to turn on first.
Shoveling out of the next snowstorm? TvA first.
Cannonballing into a pool during a winter getaway? Lucky you. But turn on your TvA first.
Getting out of the work chair you’ve been glued to for 6 hours? TvA first.
Running a 5k? TvA first and continuously on.
Lifting up that Lays chip to your mouth? TvA first.
Want to make sure your whisper muscles, including your star Transverse Abdominus, are firing correctly? Look for a Pilates instructor who understands that muscles feel and behave different depending on their role in mobility or stability. At your first session, be sure to check your expectations at the door—your workout will likely be different than your go-to workout. And that’s a good thing.
Jenn Mathien has been professionally teaching Pilates for the past 10 years. Originally earning her full mat- and equipment- certification through Unity Pilates in Sydney, Australia, Jenn then completed the full STOTT Pilates training in Sydney, Los Angeles, and New York, including specialty training for pre- and post-natal women, cross-training athletes, and other special populations. She is also fully certified Barre instructor through Boston Body Barre. While her teaching approach is rooted in classical Pilates, Jenn’s signature style also infuses barre, yoga, and modern kinesiology methods. Jenn loves a good beat and the rhythm that the breath creates. She teaches private reformer pilates out of her home in Hingham and teaches private and small group classes at other’s homes by request. Jenn is super psyched to be launching her first Pilates retreat May 3-5 in Newport, RI and plans to offer additional workshops in the South Shore throughout the year.
To follow Jenn on Instagram: www.instagram.com/jmathien
To learn more about her upcoming retreat: https://munsunretreats.com/long-weekend-getaways/newport-2/