For my third blog this summer I promised to tackle core strength. Abdominal strengthening is a necessary part of any back care programme, but incorporating it into a yoga regime can offer a different and effective approach. Strengthening abdominal muscles in isolation is not necessarily the best way to create core strength. Likewise, it is not healthy (or possible?) to hold your abdomen in all the time. Both lead to holding patterns that do not facilitate free breathing, easy movement or relaxation. This blog looks at true core strength from a whole-body perspective: demonstrating movements that engage core muscles in coordination with other muscles, the aim is to show you how to lay the foundation for a healthy back.
Why it is not good to create a flat and hard abdomen
When muscles are contracted all the time they become exhausted and weak. Even if we were able to create a hard and flat abdomen, this would not serve us with movement or with breathing. Chronically held muscles that are unable to contract or relax when needed, get exhausted and weaken easily. They cannot even remain supportive for the trunk and the back.
In the same way, strengthening the abdominal muscles in isolation does not promote free movement. The abdominal muscles have to work in harmony with other muscles to create adaptability, effortlessness and stability.
What is true core strength?
Core muscles include the abdominal muscles, some back muscles and muscles around the pelvis. Also the deep iliopsoas muscle and diaphragm are included. For a healthy spine and core stability all these muscles have to work together.
The function of the abdominal muscles is to contain the abdominal organs, to contract strongly for a forced exhalation, and most importantly to stabilise the trunk and the spine during movement. It is this function, keeping the trunk stable in movements, standing and sitting, that supports the back and the spine. True core strength is the stabilising support that the core muscles naturally provide for the trunk. The abdominal muscles must therefore be able to contract and release, and allow the free movement of the diaphragm and the psoas muscle. True core strength and vitality imply that various parts of your core work in coordination and are strong, flexible and adaptable.
The following exercises will engage core muscles in coordination with breathing and simple movements.
Start by becoming aware of the abdominal movement when you breathe naturally. It is best to practise lying down with the feet on the floor and the legs bent (or with your legs on a support as on the picture): observe when the abdomen relaxes naturally when you exhale and rises gently when you inhale.
Engaging the abdomen and pelvic floor
Lying down on the back with the legs bent, contract the abdomen strongly when you exhale.
Relax the muscular activity when you inhale.
Repeat a comfortable number of times.
As you exhale and contract muscles in this exercise, focus on the area between your navel and pubic bone. This will automatically contract the pelvic floor as well. If it does not happen naturally, pay special attention to contracting these muscles for a while: they are important to support the pelvic organs from below.
Whenever you do a movement that requires stability for the back, such as walking up the stairs or even rolling over to your side, engage the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in the same way, training them to support the lower back in these movements.
Pelvic tilt and circle
Still lying on the back with the legs bent, exhale and lower the back of the waist on the floor. Inhale and release. Repeat 8-10x times.
Now change the tilting movement of the hips to a circular one. Imagine a clock on the lowest part of your back. Shift the weight of the pelvis around the numbers of the clock, first clockwise and then anti-clockwise 4-6x.
It is only a small movement so you don’t lift the hips off the floor.
Leg movement with core stability
Bend the right leg and place the right foot quite close to the body while straightening the left leg, leaving it a few inches off the floor. Push on the right foot to keep the hips stable. Move the leg a few inches up and down in a vertical way, then in a horizontal way and along both diagonals (about 5 in each direction).
These are very small movements in which the abdominal muscles have to work to keep the pelvis and lower back still.
Repeat with the other leg.
Core strength with arm and leg movement
A. Lie on your back with the legs bent and feet on the floor. With each exhalation, use the abdominal muscles to press the lower back on the floor, as in the earlier pelvic tilting exercise. Every time you inhale you return to the starting position and relax the abdomen.
B. Now keep doing this pelvic tilt movement but add the legs:
Bring the right leg, still bent, towards the chest while the left foot stays on the mat. Alternatively, the left leg can be straight, which makes it a little harder.
Exhale, tilt the hips and slowly swap the position of the legs, so that the left leg is near the chest and the right foot on the mat.
Inhale and allow the back to return neutral — don’t move the legs.
Repeat several times, slowly, and concentrate on contracting the abs every time you exhale and releasing them completely when you inhale.
C. Finally, also add the arms:
Bring one arm straight to the ceiling while the other is next to your ear. You are working with opposite leg to arm: while the right knee is near the chest, the left arm points at the ceiling and vice versa.
Exhale and press the lower back on the floor while swapping the position of arms and legs.
Inhale and relax the abdomen as before.
Move the arms and legs slowly as if you have to move them through treacle.
Repeat for as many times as appropriate for you today.
For more abdominal exercises, check out my video here: the first episode engages the abdominal muscle in a gentle way. It aims to release as well as tone your core muscles, teaches easy abdominal breathing and much more. The next 4 episodes provide more than 1 hour of progressive core strengthening.
My next blog will demonstrate how to engage your core in yoga postures.