A strong core has been “in” for years. But the biomechanic awareness that has trickled into yoga and fitness studios has been affected by loads of misinformation and the “quick-build” mentality. Unfortunately, this can often do the body more harm than good.
A brief unauthorized biography of the core
1) The six-pack: It is commonly known now that doing excessive crunches might build a stronger rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscles), but the action of curling the spine repeatedly can ravage the back muscles and damage precious vertebral discs.
2) Navel to spine: Pilates introduced the transverse abdominal (TA) muscle into our vocabulary. We were told that this would protect our backs, as the TA acts like a cummerbund to pull in sagging guts and make us look like we’re wearing Spanx! The problem with pinning the navel to the spine is that students will often flair their ribs out to make the “appearance” of the navel drawing in the spine. But this actually creates a stretch and weakening of both the TA and the obliques!
3) Side bends: The obliques are often misrepresented as the ubiquitous “side-bending” muscle. They are actually two layers of diagonal abdominal muscles that are like crisscrossing sashes spiraling around our midsections. But biomechanically, the obliques are not all that functional in a side bend. It’s the quadratus lumborum, a deep lower back muscle, that is chiefly responsible.
So when reviewing this partial list of core muscles, it’s clear that they all need a new public relations firm in order to get firm — while keeping you safe! These fabulous muscles have been stripped of their dignity, oversimplified and reduced to dysfunctional, unintegrated tissues. Yes, making your core muscles actually think while they work can be hard work, but the payoff is a sounder structure that will support you for a lifetime!
3 core exercises that help your muscles think
Here are three great Yoga Tune Up® abdominal exercises that wake up all of the major core muscles and more:
1) Corset Contraction: diaphragm, intercostals, TA, obliques, rectus, spinal erectors
- Stand upright with good posture and place hands on either side of the ribcage.
- Inhale fully into the lungs with an expansive thoracic breath. Feel the spreading and flaring of the ribs as the external intercostals contract and the internal intercostals stretch.
Exhale and close down the ribs by tensing and contracting the internal intercostals to reset the ribcage.
- Intensify the end of the exhalation by drawing the bottom of the ribs down toward the navel and creating a binding action all throughout the midsection.
- Continue to exhale until no breath is left, as if the whole torso were being corseted. Feel the blending of the internal intercostals with the obliques, transverse and diaphragm.
- Practice eight to 10 complete rounds.
2) Megaplank with Active Serratus: rectus, obliques, TA, intercostals, serratus anterior (a shoulder-core muscle), pectoralis
The forearms are parallel to each other, shoulder-distance apart. Shoulder sockets are vertically joint-stacked over elbows.
- Body is stiff as a solid board, while belly inflates slightly to ignite the abdominals into full tension.
- To activate the serratus anterior, protract the shoulder blades by pushing the ground away while the upper back hunches, then depress the shoulder blades as if pulling a window shut while the arms remain pinned to the floor.
- Maintain all actions at once. Hold for about 30 seconds.
3) Jithara Parivartonasana (revolved abdominal pose): obliques, TA, iliopsoas, quadratus lumborum, spinal erectors
- Lay supine on a mat. Arms reach out to your sides like a “T,” with palms pressing into the floor. Keeping the thighs pinned together, legs stretch toward the ceiling stick straight (or slightly bent if hamstrings are tight). Inhale and glide the pelvis to the right about 20 to 30 degrees (fig. A).
- Exhale as the waist twists and the legs descend toward the left hand, thighs maintaining a 90-degree or more acute angle with the torso at all times (fig. B). The legs do not touch the ground, and they hover during a new full inhalation.
- Exhale and return the legs to face the ceiling, unwinding the core.
- Inhale and repeat on left side.
Do at least four complete rounds, and add one more round every practice.
Take your time with these exercises and coordinate your breath with your movements. Your abdominals are smart but also need you to think, so show them that you really care!