By Larkin Barnett • Edited by Amanda Altman
When I was 14, I lost my parents and my house, and had to move away from my hometown. My parents died independently, each at the age of 40, due to stress-related circumstances. As you can imagine, their deaths were extremely traumatic events in my life. The wind was literally and figuratively knocked out of me.
It wasn’t until later, as I pursued a dance major in college, that it became clear I had developed an unhealthy, unconscious habit of shallow chest breathing. Unlike the other dancers, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I didn’t have the same muscular endurance. That’s when I said to myself, This isn’t going to take me down. I was going to figure out a way to take care of my true home—my body.
After graduation, long before core training became popular, I started working in the fitness industry. I discovered that my students were moving primarily from their limbs, not from their center, like I learned to do during my dance training. How could I help them move from their center in class and in life?
My late father, a physician, left behind anatomy transparencies of the layers of the human body, which allowed me to begin researching the contractile ability of the abdominal muscle group. And when I went back to school for my master’s degree, my professors insisted upon anatomy-based visual imagery, which reinforced my knowledge. Soon, the Barnett Formula™ —a five-step internal core practice—was born.
After 34 years of research, development and teaching my Formula, I’ve observed transformation at every level, from the hospital bed to the Olympic athlete. I often say that my clients move through, instead of get through, challenges, therapy, performance and life by choosing to mentally activate their deepest core potential. They inspire me.
So, how does it work? The Formula teaches you to see, feel and believe that your abdominals can secure themselves to your spine to provide protection for your whole body. While the abdominal muscle group contracts as a unit to produce movement, you’ll learn to “isolate” each of the four layers. The contractions build layer-upon-layer because you’re also tightening the muscles between the steps.
Visualizing the distinct layers having a unique directional course is where your complete concentration must go and stay. To really move the deep abdominals takes a “constant” razor-like, inward focus; cultivating the ability to “look deep within” the body is the key to experiencing your full core potential.
In Pilates, we learn that the “scoop” of the abs goes into the spine and toward the crown of the head, but the Formula goes deeper. Yes, the abs go in and up, and there is a squeezing sensation, but the Formula, which I developed 18 years before discovering Pilates, allows access to the full contractile ability of the abs. My approach cultivates the ultimate “inward-shaping capabilities” of your deep core muscles to elastically “fill up” spaces created inside your body through expansive breathing and trunk elongation. It helps you dynamically interweave the muscle fibers in specific directions—all while moving them into the spine.
When the Formula becomes part of your daily regimen and you’re faced with a sudden crisis, fear or pain, you’ll instinctively shift inward to manage anxiety, especially seemingly uncontrollable anxiety. This active inward centering can help everything from severe pain and fear, to test-taking, speaking engagements and airplane jitters all the way to athletic performance. (For real-life examples, see “A Core Awakening” on page 75.)
I’m often asked if this breathing and ab work eventually becomes second nature. The answer is a resounding no. You don’t want it to be automatic—it’s important to stay aware and clear. We have the power to manipulate breathing and core contractions to our advantage. I’d like to argue that breath is our untapped health resource, as well as the bridge between our involuntary and voluntary systems. Most of us operate primarily from our stressed-out sympathetic fight or flight nervous system, which contributes to many health problems; conscious breathing has been proven to boost our parasympathetic calming response. You can build a sound structure along with a centering strategy, which can fill even the most stressful moment with a sense that “all is well.”
Practice the Formula while stuck in traffic or at your desk, at the gym or during sports, even while doing chores and errands. The more you use it to awaken and cultivate a powerful core, the more you’ll learn to live a life that’s truly centered.
The Barnett Formula
Purpose: isolates each abdominal layer to help access the predominantly dormant deep structural core muscles; helps to manage stress, anxiety and pain; improves stability and mobility of the spine; enhances conscious efficient breathing; reduces inflammation while improving circulation; sculpts the trunk, waistline and hips; increases endurance and strength to move heavy objects; serves as a habitual tool to promote calmness and mental clarity; enhances practical centering to help you be more fully present anytime, anywhere
• Breathe in and out through both your mouth and nose.
• On the inhalation, direct the air into your lungs to feel the expansion along your shoulder blades/middle/lower back and chest. (No air enters your belly because your abdominal muscles are inwardly shaping and tightening.)
• Don’t simply hold the abdominals tight. Instead, keep wringing them out on the inhale and on the exhale.
This first step addresses all four layers of the abdominals and the hip flexors.
What to do: Inhale, then exhale, picturing and feeling your four abdominal muscle layers, and the stabilizers behind them, inwardly spiral onto your spine. Don’t relax your abs. (Optional: Allow your arms to mimic this corkscrewing of your abs onto your spine.)
What to imagine:
• Your deepest abs “tornado” your outer abs onto your spine.
• The dynamic action of a wave pulling back out to sea, as the muscles close and compress your ribs and hip bones to your spine.
Explore layer four, the deepest transverse abdominals.
What to do: Inhale, then exhale, picturing and feeling your abdominals wringing out and braiding together horizontally to encase your trunk. Don’t relax your abs. (Optional: Allow your arms to mimic hugging toward the midline of your body.)
What to imagine:
• A rope inside your body intertwining your abdominal fibers together and into your spine, as you bring your rib and hip bones closer together and then back to your sacrum and spine.
Layer three delves into the internal oblique abdominals.
What to do: Inhale, then exhale, picturing and feeling your abdominals diagonally interlinking from the base of your hips—and then in, back and up along your ribs—into a V shape. Don’t relax your abs. (Optional: Allow your arms to mimic your abs moving upward into a V shape.)
What to imagine:
• Hiking on a tight pair of jeans and then fastening the zipper inside your body; your pubic bone lifts into your hip bones, and your rib cage closes and then compresses backward toward your shoulder blades.
Now, on to layer two, the external obliques.
What to do: Inhale, then exhale, picturing and feeling your abdominal contraction diagonally wrapping around your ribs and downward into your hips in a V shape. Don’t relax your abs. (Optional: Allow your arms to mimic your abs by bending your elbows into your waist in a V shape.)
What to imagine:
• A lifejacket cinching inside your body (not worn outside your body); it wrings out snuggly around your rib cage and then your hip bones.
Finally, hone in on the superficial outermost rectus abdominals.
What to do: Inhale, then exhale, picturing and feeling your abdominals vertically interlocking your ribs and hips together into your waistline. Don’t relax your abs. (Optional: Allow your arms to mimic a padlock closing.)
What to imagine:
• An interlocking padlock inside your body.
Tips: Repeat this series often throughout your daily life to memorize and cultivate the inward carving feeling of each abdominal contraction. Here’s a shortcut to memorizing the contractions:
Step 1: tornado rotates inward;
Step 2: rope intertwines horizontally;
Step 3: tight jeans pull on and draw zipper upward; Step 4: Lifejacket cinches downward; and Step 5: padlock interlocks vertically.
The innermost layer of the abdominals are linked to the deepest postural stabilizers: the hip flexors, pelvic floor and diaphragm. Consecutively draw your outer abs in from Step 1 to nourish your fascia and enhance the malleability of your supportive breathing muscles. As you integrate the Formula into your Pilates practice, focus on maintaining efficient core contractions, a neutral pelvis, etc.
Variation: Reverse the Foundation Formula.
Now that you’ve learned the Formula, let’s add some movement and apply it to your Pilates work.
Barnett Formula with Arms
Purpose: builds awareness of center-driven movements; helps with memorization of the abdominal layers; allows you to feel the unique physical sensation of each abdominal directional line of force; serves as an outward representation of the internal pathway of the abdominal contraction; focuses the mind/body to stabilize, “center” and move efficiently; strengthens the deep core, hips and waistline
For Step 1
Setup: Stand with your left leg back and right leg forward. Stretch your arms forward, with your hands clasped at shoulder height.
1. Transfer your body weight forward, lifting your left leg off the floor and reaching your arms forward.
2. Step back with your left leg, “spiraling” your arms—allowing your hands to trace a coiling pathway—and bringing your clasped hands toward your navel.
3. Clasp your hands behind your body, and then open your arms, stretching them behind you as you simultaneously “spiral” (or “tornado”) your abdominals toward your spine.