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The Critical Clamshell: Feel, Strengthen, Build

On my second visit to Gabby, the physio I had consulted for my shin and hip pain, he tried a new approach. He suggested the Clamshell Exercise to awaken the glutes before we redid the Bridge. I confess to you, but not to Gabby, that twenty-two years ago when I first started teaching Pilates, I simply stopped teaching Clamshells for about six months Why would I make such a mistake?

Clamshells is arguably one of the most important exercises in any workout. The exercise works like this: you lie on your side with hips and knees bent. You raise the top knee, opening your leg like a clamshell, and then lowering it back into the starting position. Why did I purposely drop this classic move? Clamshells, designed to strengthen the gluteal muscles, particularly gluteus medius in the upper buttock, became why don’t you lie on your side and have a sleep. Okay, teaching is not easy but I must take some responsibility for those sloppy scallops. My instructions must have been inadequate, and my enthusiasm low. Reader, I must confess: Clamshells were as boring to me and my students.

Not anymore! Over the years of teaching Pilates, I have come to see that side work—any side work—is one of the very best ways to train the core. And today I use Clamshells in every single class I teach. For the same reason that Gabby recommended it to me: to help us feel what muscles are engaged, and then strengthen this vital muscle group.

As in so many things in life, simpler is better. So is smaller. In Clamshells we open and close the legs in a very limited range of motion, carefully noting where the ‘hinge’ of the movement is coming from: the hips, not the thighs or knees. If the core is not activated properly, the pelvis shifts. And if the pelvis shifts backwards, as is so often the case, compensation happens: other muscles kick in to help. None of this is a huge problem if one is young and pain-free. But for the ageing population whose muscles weaken easily or who may be recovering from low back pain or hip surgery, proper form is essential.

Exactly what muscle we are trying to activate? (Review previous blogs if necessary.) The gluteus medius is located on the side of your hip and attaches from the top of your pelvis to the top of the thigh bone.  As you lie on your side, drape your fingers over the side of your upper hip. Picture a seam along the side of your gym pants. Just behind the seam you should feel a horseshoe shape of muscles with a small indent in the middle. Ideally, we want to work the front and the back of the horseshoe, especially the back. The glute medius muscle is in charge of the action of lifting the leg to the side and stabilizing the pelvis in so many of our daily activities like walking, running or taking a step. If you continue to have pain, or are having trouble locating this smallish buttock muscle, ask a physiotherapist or movement professional to monitor you.

Who should do this exercise? Everyone. Beginners. People experiencing sciatica and lower back pain. Runners. Walkers. Gym enthusiasts. Anyone who wants to continue to get out of a car or a chair; or who wants to stabilize their pelvis while taking a step. This exercise strengthens core, buttock, hips muscles and prevents injuries. Two sets of ten please. Every day or every second day.

When I put Clamshells back into my classes all those years ago, I added in all sorts of bells and whistles. Fancy variations like Side-lying Bicycle were introduced to help my students ‘feel more’—more challenge, less boredom.  Another I particularly remember was to ask my beginners to attempt Side-lying Développé, a balletic move attempted from lying sideways on the mat. Try and imagine it: both legs are turned out; the toe of the working (top) leg is drawn up to the inside knee of the bottom leg, before the top leg is slowly unfurled into the air like a sail. This is a beautiful exercise when performed by ex-dancers, but not a sound choice for the general population. All these twists and turns did not help me or my students achieve the purpose of Clamshells: to activate the glutes by keeping the core tight and moving the legs up and down in a small controlled way. More about the core, and why we need to train it, will follow in the next few weeks when we focus on the abdominals.

For now, let’s keep it simple and practice in good form.

Please note: Warming up is crucial, especially with an ageing body. If your body is cold you can easily pull a muscle. In my online classes the warmup is built right into the class, but not so with these mini-videos.  It is your responsibility to make sure your body is warm by doing gentle movements before attempting any exercise.

Colleen Craig

Colleen Craig

Colleen is the author of Pilates on the Ball, Abs on the Ball, and Strength Training on the Ball, and the producer of the Pilates on the Ball DVD.

Disclaimer: The information and services provided in the blogs, videos, website and classes are provided with the understanding that Colleen Craig is not engaged in rendering legal, medical counselling or other professional services or advice.

We highly recommend that you watch the video first before attempting an exercise. Check with your doctor or health care practitioner to be sure these exercises are suitable for you. Pay attention to modifications and stop if there is any discomfort.

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