Deconstructing the Pilates C-Curl for Meatheads

If there’s one thing Pilates is well-known for is for its ability to develop core strength unlike anything else you may do at the gym.

For us meatheads, “core strength” can mean a lot of different things, from six-pack abs to a rock hard stomach able to withstand the hundreds of pounds we put on our backs during a lift. But in Pilates, core strength implies moving from our body’s most critical source of power with control, precision, and ease.

This is why learning all about the C-curl is among the first thing new practitioners learn, and what Pilates enthusiasts spend years trying to master.

The C-Curl: What Is and Why We Need It

The C-curl refers to the shape of the torso when it is in flexion-based Pilates exercises. Unlike a crunch or sit-up, the purpose of the C-curl is to properly flex and simultaneously stretch the thoracic spine while engaging the core muscles.

Strength athletes and generally strong individuals who start Pilates are surprised to find how difficult getting into and maintaining a C-curl really is, especially because the movement is counter-intuitive to everything we’ve learned in the gym about abdominal strength.

Learning how to properly flex the spine and move into flexion while engaging the core to it’s fullest potential does wonders for your abdominal strength and back mobility. In fact, I teach the C-curl to the majority of my personal training clients even if their focus is just on lifting weights.

It serves as a great tool to take general population clients out of their necks and shoulders (where they like to default to) and helps relieve nagging back pain. It’s an even better tool for my super strong weight lifters who generally have an insane amount of strength already but are incredibly stiff and rigid in their thoracic spines.

From an anatomical standpoint, the ribs, spine, and abdominals are in a relationship with each other:

  • The abdominal wall attaches to the lower ribs
  • The thoracic spine attaches to the ribcage and sternum
  • The external obliques attach to the lateral ribs
  • The TA (transverse abdominis) attaches at the bottom of the rib cage and the top of the iliac crest of the pelvis
  • The spine is the lifeline of all movement

Due to all the above, when you flex, extend or side bend with your spine, the ribcage and the core musculature join the party. Unfortunately, prolonged sitting, training predominantly in the saggital plane, breathing through the chest instead of the diaphragm and a number of other factors can block the ribcage, spine, and core from working together like they should.

Allowing all three to move optimally together enables you to realize the C-curl’s full purpose.

To realize the Pilates C-curl's full purpose, you must learn to move the ribcage, spine, and core together, and do it better than a crunch.

Breaking Down the C-Curl 

I shot this video below to teach you the principles of learning or cueing the C-curl. I stole this concept from a fellow instructor that I work with at San Diego’s StudioFlo Pilates. It’s been a game changer with my students and personal training clients.

Coach’s notes:

  • The purpose is to curl the spine, not see how high you can lift off the mat. Don’t mistake this for a sit-up.
  • Avoid tucking your pelvis. We anchor the pelvis to give the ribcage a place to go as you start curing up. There are a lot of exercises in Pilates that demand you curl and support the weight of the legs in the air with your abdominals. You can’t do that when you’re jamming your low back into the floor.
  • The area where you feel the curl will be a like a belt around the front of your torso. Remember that area because that will be your “bend point”.

If you don’t have someone to push your arms up against for feedback, I recommend using a medium to heavy band so you can practice this on your own. It won’t give you as much lift as the video above, but it helps. Here’s one of my client’s practicing the C-curl with a band.

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How I use Pilates + Lifting to get people moving better… • Being fit or strong doesn't necessarily mean you're moving optimally. Take a simple movement like spinal flexion as an example. • We have a bad habit of just pushing our head and chest toward our thighs when we want to engage our abdominals because that's how we learned to do crunches and sit-ups. Unfortunately, that does NOTHING for core development and then we wonder why our necks hurt. • Pilates does away with that crap by focusing on how to curl your spine, which inadvertently teaches you how to engage your core properly simply because you've learned how to move your ribs, pelvis, turn on your lats, etc. • My client here is a gymnast and track athlete, and she can attest to how difficult this pilates c-curl was yesterday. • By tipping the ribcage and learning how to anchor the pelvis, you can get in the most optimal position to stretch your upper back WHILE developing the abdominals the right way. It also improves her overhead positioning by unlocking her spine/shoulders and getting her lats to turn "on" when she's flipping herself over for pole valuting (and Doing back flips between sets) . . . Get my 3-part pilates video course for FREE when you subscribe to my email list (special link in my bio for ya)

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The Dos and Donts of a Proper C-curl

DO: Use props like the magic circle, band, or someone’s hands pushing back on you to understand the fundamentals of the c-curl. The prop gives instant feedback about how your lats connect to the c-curl. This is critical if you want to advance your Pilates practice beyond this point. Eventually, you’ll be able to curl the same amount or close to it without the prop.

DON’T: Use momentum to curl up. It’s not about how high you can lift yourself off the ground, it’s about training the movement until you can do it effortlessly.

DO: Practice it often. The Pilates C-curl is part of the set-up in over 500 Pilates exercises. FIVE HUNDRED.

The more you practice it, the better it gets, and the closer you get to reaching an exercise’s purpose. You also get the added benefit of improving your posture and making your spine more flexible, something that translates well into basically everything else you do in life.

DON’T: Jam your chest forward. Again, this isn’t a sit-up and your goal is to use the abs to pull your torso (and spine) up and off the floor.

DO: Allow your neck to travel with your spine, meaning avoid jamming your chin into your chest during the C-curl. Picture a baby chick resting under your chin and don’t kill it!

Programming and Other Considerations

If you’re new to Pilates or were recently pregnant, be patient with yourself! Engaging your core in the c-curl takes practice and time. I often tell clients that mastering the curl is a life-long pursuit, especially in an exercise method that features a variety of equipment and exercises that continuosly challenges your core.

What makes the C-curl so effective for core engagement and development is that it involves surrounding muscles and joints that are typically ignored in basic weight training or core training exercise. For instance, the pelvis connects to our core muscles and is therefore a part of the core development process in Pilates. It serves to give us stability and balance to surrounding areas. So yes, this type of core training takes your pelvis into consideration without actually forcing you to think of it so hard. Can you think of a time you thought about your pelvic placement during a crunch or a plank?

The Pilates C-curl is so effective for core engagement and development because it involves surrounding muscles and joints that are typically ignored in basic weight training or core training exercises.
Probably not. That’s not to say those exercises aren’t useful, but I’ve seen the Pilates C-curl accomplish a lot more in a single session than hundreds of core exercises in the weight room.

If you’re looking to add this to your strength routine, practice the C-curl regularly as an accessory exercise.

You can also squeeze it into a warm-up, but don’t shove it at the end of a workout as your “core work”. Remember that the C-curl is much more than a core development exercise. It’s a back opening, pelvic neutralizing, dynamic movement that takes concentration and intentional effort.

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