• Katie

Five Yoga Poses to Strengthen Your Core (And Why We Do Them)

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

In the world of fitness, the terms “core” and “core strength” seem to pop up at almost every turn. The same goes for the yoga universe. “Engage your core,” “Breathe from your center,” and “Feel the muscles of the abdominal wall fire up” are a few familiar cues I’ve heard - and taught - during classes.

The idea of it sounds great. A flatter midsection; strong, sculpted, sexy abs; a bikini body*?! I’m in!


*Disclaimer: ALL bodies are bikini bodies!


But the truth is, there are numerous other benefits to incorporating some abdominal work into your routine that go beyond “six-pack abs!” - and before I share some of my personal favorite core strengtheners, I’d like to go into the “why.”


If you are just interested in the poses, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs…but I strongly encourage you to check out this section first!


What The Heck Is the Core, Anyway?

First, let’s explore just what the core is made of. It’s more than those washboard abs you see all over social media. The core muscles actually encompass four parts, as explained by Marshfield Clinic Health System:


  • Traverse abdominis (located on each side of the naval)

  • Internal and external obliques (extending diagonally from ribs to pelvis)

  • Rectus abdominis (known as the six-pack)

  • Multifidus and erector spinae (located along the spine from head to pelvis)


With the abdominal muscles being located so close to the spine, they play an important role in posture, alignment, and - a big ticket item - low back pain. Many Americans suffer from low back pain, which could be described as anything from an annoyance to debilitating.


But does a strong core really help with back pain? It’s possible.


Cleveland Clinic physical therapist Patti Mariano, DPT, said in an interview with Cleveland Clinic, “Theoretically, if your muscles around the low back are weak, your body will rely more on passive structures, including ligaments — the tissue that connects bone to bone — as well as the spinal bones or discs, which lie between the spinal bones, for stability, which can cause pain. But some studies have shown that specific core exercises are not any more beneficial than general exercise for low back pain. What we know is that exercise in general can help, and focusing on core muscles may provide some additional benefit.”


So while the evidence may be mixed, some research suggests core strength is indeed associated with low back pain.


But what about the less-than-certain findings? Those still indicate that exercise overall could be beneficial for back pain. And in a healthy exercise regimen, you ideally will be targeting all of the major muscles - abdominals included!


Sounds Good! But What About Yoga?

On the mat, a strong core could be beneficial in helping us hold certain poses longer, like balance poses. This also contributes to achieving improved posture.


For example: If you’re not engaging the muscles in your core when holding Tree Pose, your shoulders will start to droop down, then your upper back will begin to hunch over, leading to your abdomen to fold together; this domino effect will eventually lead you all the way down to your standing leg, which will inevitably begin shaking and trembling, compromising your posture.


The same applies to other asanas. Take Warrior II. If you’re allowing the abdominal muscles to cave, you’re not doing anything to support your upper body or keep it properly aligned - thereby dumping your weight into your lower body. If the pressure works its way down into your front knee you have a greater risk of jutting that knee way out of alignment (remember, in Warrior II, the front knee should stay in line with your front ankle), thereby running the risk of a knee injury.


Even in a pose that seems as simple as Mountain Pose, an engaged core makes this one looks much different. Picture someone you know with less than perfect posture. Now imagine them standing next to someone who stands upright. Similar differences will present themselves in the body during an engaged Mountain Pose versus one where, well, you’re just standing there.


With all of that said … here are five yoga poses that will target and fire up those core muscles. Feel free to throw these into a longer practice, or repeat the below sequence three times to really feel the heat! Stay warm, yogis.


Yogi Bicycles

Lie down with your hands interlaced behind your head and thumbs cradling your neck, elbows tucked in toward the face, legs extended out long. Inhale.

As you exhale, initiate this move from your center: Keeping the hands in place and elbows tucked in tight, lift the upper body and bring the left elbow in toward your bellybutton as you simultaneously bend the right knee and bring it in to meet it. Your left leg should stay long.

Without lowering back down, inhale to alternate so that your right leg lengthens out, your left knee bends in, and your right elbow meets (or comes near) the left knee.

Exhale to switch again.

15 breaths per side


Alternate Leg Lifts

Lie down with the back of your head and the length of your back on the mat and your legs extended up toward the ceiling. Let your arms rest comfortably at your sides.

Inhale and point out through your left toes as you lower your left leg almost all the way down - let it hover an inch or so away from the mat.

Exhale to flex your foot, toes pointing up, and bring your left leg back to meet the right.

Repeat on the opposite side.

Continue breathing and alternating legs.

10 breaths per side


Halfway Leg Lifts

Lie down with the back of your head and the length of your back on the mat and your legs extended up toward the ceiling. Let your arms rest comfortably at your sides.

Inhale and lower both of your legs about halfway, at a 45-degree angle, with the toes pointing out and away from the body.

Exhale and return the legs to the starting position.

15 breaths


Russian Twists with Block

Begin seated with both sitting bones rooting evenly down on the mat, knees bent, feet flat to the mat about hip-width apart. Hold a block (any small, light-weight object will do here - or simply bring your hands together without a prop!) in your hands at center.

Lift both feet from the mat, knees remain bent, and let them hover.

Inhale and bring the block over to your left side with both hands, simultaneously extending the right leg.

Exhale and bring the block over to your right side with both hands, simultaneously extending the left leg.

10 breaths per side


Variations:

To make this pose more challenging, you could use a dumbbell (5 pounds is a great place to start) in place of a block.


To make this pose more passive, there are two options. The most easeful way to do this would be to switch the block from side to side while keeping your feet on the mat. Maintain a long, neutral spine.


To kick it up a notch from there, you could lift one leg at a time rather than letting both legs hover. In the starting position, keep both feet on the mat. As you inhale and move the block to the left, extend the right leg out long, but keep the left foot flat to the mat. Exhale to move the block to the right, return the right leg to the mat, and extend the left leg out long.


Hovering Table

Begin in a tabletop position - on all fours, pressing your palms into the mat with your index fingers parallel to one another, wrists in line with your shoulders. Line your knees directly underneath your hip points. Check that your calves and feet are in a straight line - not splaying inward or outward. The tops of your feet should be on the mat. Inhale here. Exhale to push into the feet and let the knees hover no more than an inch from the mat. Keep the spine long, neck long, and core muscles engaged.

Hold for 10 breaths

Variation:

If pressing into the tops of the feet is not comfortable, curl the toes under and lift from there.

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