If you have ever done any circus/aerial classes or ever trained with me, I have definitely made you hold a hollow body before. It’s a great whole body exercise that is amazing for your core and also many other muscles, but did you know that?
This month I want to break it down into pieces, as I often do on day 1 of each session of each class I teach, or the first time I ask a personal training client to hold this pose.
Why is this so important?
Well, the hollow body shape is the basis of so many shapes for circus and aerial moves, but can also be used to really lock in planks and even push-ups to ensure we’re not putting our low back into poor position while performing these exercises.
For circus and aerial moves, this shape is where we hang from an apparatus and where we invert from on that apparatus. In hand-balancing, this shape is your handstand, whether you are on the floor, canes or on a person.
When you are contracting the correct muscles to perform the hollow body, these muscles contraction are gently pulling you into a posterior pelvic tilt and this is where you need your pelvis if you are going to invert on an apparatus or go up into a handstand.
You see, when you contract your abs, your rectus abdominis to be exact, and you contract of your thigh/butt connection, or your thutt, (I also just heard recently this area referred to as your thass-thanks for that one Whitney!) this pulls the distance between your ribs and your hips on the front of your body closer and into your hollow shape. The contraction of your thutt holds the legs in their position and deactivates the hip flexors, which is very important, because when the abs and the thutt are contracted this causes the opposite side of the body muscles to be inhibited (see reciprocal inhibition). When the abs and thutt are not contracted then the hip flexors try to do the work and when the core muscles are not contracting, the pelvis gets pulled into what I affectionately call duck butt, or an anterior tilt, which is opposite of what you need to roll up into an inversion. Sure, inverting for aerials can happen without using the proper muscle contractions, but it can set you up for hip and low back pain and a harder time mastering some of the more difficult skills and in handstands, sure you may be able to get into balancing on your hands, but being able to sustain it without injury or really progress to many of the interesting shapes that can be made in hand balancing, one really needs to lock in that hollow body shape.
I hope you are starting to understand the importance of the hollow body shape. Not only is it a basic skill that should be practiced to master it’s correct shape, but because it’s essential for pretty much all skills. It’s also super important for injury prevention.
Now let’s talk the set up
There are, of course, many ways to teach the set up for the hollow body. This is what I like to cue to really help people find all the muscles they need to be contracting and making sure the muscles they don’t need to be contracting are relaxed.
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Take a few deep breaths and notice what part of your body is touching the floor and what part of your body is not. Most likely your neck, low back and legs (because they’re bent) are not touching.
Place your hands on the sides of your rib cage. On your next exhale, contract your upper abdominals which will bring the 2 sides of your rib cage towards one another and flatten them towards the floor a bit. I often give the analogy of when you tie your sneakers and the two sides of the shoe are pulled together and towards the point were you make the knot. You want to try to mimic this drawing together and down.
Once you have this engagement of your abs, hold it, even while you breathe. Yes, this may be difficult; it will get easier with practice. Take a moment to poke yourself in the abs; the top, the side, down near your pubic bone and back up at your ribs and notice how this has all become contracted/engaged.
The next step is the curl up, but don’t just curl up. This, like all the pieces, has to also come from engagement of your muscles and proper alignment of your spine. Take a mental note of when your neck is, we want to keep it in this shape as we curl from our upper back and not from our neck. (See the two photos to the right, the top photo is correct and the bottom photo is incorrect) Imagine you are holding a
grapefruit or small cantaloupe between your chin and your chest to help maintain the shape of your neck at rest. The curl up happens by contracting your abs even more to draw the ribs even closer to your hips and thus curling the thoracic spine/upper back to lift the head and shoulders off the floor. You want to curl up to about the base of your shoulder blades. If you can’t quite get that much curl up yet, that’s ok, know that you want to keep working on it until you can. As you curl up you can lift your arms just off the floor or straight up towards the ceiling.
After the curl up, raise your arms up towards the ceiling-this is a great place to begin. You can also slowly raise the arms towards or past your line of sight or behind you past your head. Make sure as you do this you do not lose the curl up in your thoracic spine; this is why we move our arms slowly to find the right challenge for our bodies without compromising good form.
Now the legs. Use your abs to bring the legs up into a Table Top position (or knees bent and shins parallel to the floor) or straight up towards the ceiling. Again do this slowly. You want to make sure that as you lift your legs your low back doesn’t arch up off the floor, if it does this means 3 things: 1) you probably lost your abdominal contraction, 2) your hip flexors decided to lift your legs, which could also mean you lost your ab contraction and/or 3) your abs are not ready to lift both legs at the same time either because they haven’t the strength, the neurological connection, hip flexors are just over dominating from improper muscle firing or combination of all of this. But that’s ok. I have a solution that will help build the strength and neurological connection for the proper firing of your muscles: lift one leg at a time.
From your engaged curl up, slide one heal towards your butt and then exhale and bring that knee into your chest. As you lift that leg, make sure that your hips don’t rock to one side. If they do, again, that’s ok, but know you want to work on the core stability with this sequence to lift the legs one at a time without the hips rocking from side to side. Once that first knee is pulled into your chest, slide the second leg towards your butt, exhale and lift the second knee to your chest. Again, check for rocking in the hips.
Now that you have your curl up and your legs are either lifted in table top or straight up towards the ceiling, let’s adjust your legs to your degree of challenge. But, before we do this, we want to make sure that we have our leg muscles contracting. Whether your legs are bent or straight squeeze your inner thighs and pelvic floor muscles. If you are not sure if you know how to engage your pelvic floor muscles place a yoga block, rolled up hand towel or something between your legs just above your knees and squeeze it. By engaging the inner thighs this helps turn on those pelvic floor muscles. However it’s a good idea to spend some time finding those muscles when not performing a hollow body so that you can find them when you want to and not need the aid of squeezing an object. And as a bonus this helps with elimination habits and for many other things, especially as we age.
If you know how to contract your pelvic floor muscles, great!
Next, if you’re in table top, see if you can straighten your legs up towards the ceiling, if your low back lifts off the floor when straightening your legs, go back to table top. If your back stays firmly planted on the floor then you’re ready for the next step. From legs straight up towards the ceiling, contract your quad muscles (the top of your thighs) and point your toes from your quads. Your quads are knee extensors so this will help keep your legs straight and of course means more of your leg muscles are contracting and getting into the exercise, which means you are on the path to making sure all the correct muscles are working. From here squeeze your thutt muscles and have this contraction pull your legs towards the floor. Do this slowly, you want to feel the place where it’s a great challenge, but where your low back hasn’t lifted off the floor. By squeezing the thutt, you are getting your glutes and hamstrings into the mix and pointing your toes helps activate the calf muscles and now all the leg muscles are activated and working for this hollow shape. Also that thutt engagement to lower your legs means it can help turn off your hip flexors because in a true hollow, the hip flexors are not doing any of the work. (Read that again if you need to).
Moving on, by contracting all the muscles in your legs you are also making your legs feel like they weigh less. Have you ever played that team building game where you have to catch a team member as they fall over? Well, if your teammate squeezes all their muscles and falls over they are much easier to catch and they don’t feel like they weigh their 100+ pounds. But if that same teammate just falls over without contracting anything their 100+ pound self feels like a ton of bricks and that is what your legs are gonna feel like as you hold them out at whatever angle you are finding your challenge right now.
As you practice your hollow, work up to holding the shape for 30-45 seconds. Once that shape becomes easy try, lowing your arms, legs or both a little closer to the floor and hold that new shape for 20-40 seconds working up to the 30-45 seconds. Over time and with practice you will be able to get your arms and legs closer to the floor and still be able to maintain your low back touching the floor.
Of course there may be some cases that maybe a person will not be able to get their arms and legs to just above the floor when they have diligently trained and practiced their hollow body shape and this may simply be due to some variations in spinal or pelvic structure. If this is potentially the case for you, work within your body. If you are not sure and have come to place where you are not seeing progress, then you may need to see a medical professional, strength coach or personal trainer. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions.