“When you see Cirque du Soleil acrobats tumbling and supporting one another on their pinky fingers, most of that strength comes from the core. Your abdominal muscles are basically ground control for your movement, providing balance and stability for everything you do.” Cameron Diaz, The Body Book
My abs are so sore! I’ve been in Bali for a few weeks, taking daily classes at the world-famous Yoga Barn studio, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that my stomach muscles are screaming at me.
Don’t let anyone tell you that yoga is easy, boring or not real exercise. In fact, if you want strong, supple, beautifully-toned abs, this ancient practice might just be one of the safest and most effective ways to get there.
Why do you need a strong core?
If you’re honest—and it’s entirely plausible that I’m projecting here—you primarily do ab work to look good naked. And even though in my book, that’s as good a motive as any, there are a plethora of other great reasons for strengthening the core that you might find equally as compelling. Here are just a few:
- To prevent lower back pain.
- To improve athletic performance—run faster, throw further, ride faster, hit harder.
- To increase endurance.
- To improve your balance.
- To reduce your risk of injury.
- To improve posture.
- To enhance your breathing.
- To boost your confidence.
What is the core?
Although the core doesn’t have a specific, anatomical definition, you can think of it as the link between your upper and lower body.
Most physical activities involve the transference of power from your feet and legs (lower limbs), through your core, to your arms and hands (upper limbs). Picture hitting a tennis ball, throwing a frisbee, sweeping the floor or picking up the groceries.
If you lack strength in your core, other muscles have to step in and compensate, and this is when you get aches, pains, injuries and reduced performance.
What are the muscles involved?
Here we can be more precise. The major muscles of the core are the:
- Rectus abdominis—six-pack muscles.
- Internal and external obliques—the muscles at the sides of the waist that rotate the spine.
- Transverse abdominis—the deep muscles that stabilise and support the lumbar spine.
- Multifidus and erector spinae—the lower back muscles.
- Pelvic floor muscles—involved in sexual function and sensation.
The problem with traditional ab work
I’m guessing that’s what you think of when I say six-pack abs. Interminable sessions of a varying assortment of curls, crunches and sit-ups.
The problem with doing sit-ups, is that they only really make you good at doing sit-ups. They are not a functional exercise and are designed primarily to target the rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles), which probably explains why they are so popular. They don’t protect you from chronic lower back pain, help you to run longer distances, give you more energy on the dance floor or boost your stamina in the bedroom. When it comes to strengthening the core, sit-ups miss the point.
We have a tendency in modern society to compartmentalise everything, in order to understand it (and so that companies can more easily sell us products that we don’t actually need). For example, experts tell us that we’re not getting enough Omega 3s in our diet, so instead of doubling down on whole food sources like wild-caught Alaskan salmon, walnuts and chia seeds, we extract the required nutrient, pop it in a pill and rapidly start mega-dosing.
We focus on the part at the expense of the whole, which in philosophy is called reductionism—a trend which is rife in the worlds of fitness and nutrition.
Crunches are reductionistic. They are ineffective, not functional and can actually aggravate lower back pain.
Why yoga has a better solution?
Yoga is the opposite of reductionism. It is a mind-body practice that unites—it brings everything together.
- Yoga integrates strength, flexibility, balance, mobility and mental focus.
- Yoga integrates the upper abs, lower abs, obliques and lower back, allowing your core to move smoothly as one unit.
- Yoga integrates the deep abdominal muscles that support the spine, especially at the lower back.
- Yoga integrates the breath which helps to strengthen the pelvic floor.
- Yoga integrates mindfulness so that you don’t hurt yourself.
- Yoga integrates movement and stillness, energy and rest.
Your 15-minute killer core workout
To get the most out of the routine, try to focus on engaging your abs throughout. Visualise shrink wrapping the base of your spine and maintaining that activation as much as you can.
If you’re doing it right, your abs are going to hurt just as much as mine.
You can sign up for your free 30-day trial to hundreds of 15-minute videos at www.yoga15.com.
Photo credit: @aframe_images