When we think of the core muscles, we envision hard beach bodies sporting perfect six-pack abs. However, the core encompasses more than just the abdominal muscles. You can have a beautiful, strong core without a six pack. Conversely, you can have a six pack without the core strength needed for good posture, easy breathing and easy movement. The core incorporates muscles in the pelvis, hips and lower back and impacts far more than how we look in a bathing suit.
Core muscles stabilize and prevent overextension or over-flexion of the spine. When our core muscles are strong, we have better posture and balance. This decreases the likelihood of injury or chronic pain caused by poor body mechanics—incorrect posture while performing everyday tasks like sitting, walking or lifting.
Performing endless crunches might seem like the quickest and surest route to strong, toned core muscles. However, crunches—designed to work the abdominal muscles in isolation—often lead to frustration, or worse, injury. This approach to building core strength buys into a common misunderstanding regarding the core muscles.
The Core Muscles—More Than Just Abdominals
The core is comprised of all of the centrally-located muscle groups.
- The rectus abdominis is the front abdominal muscle we picture when we think of the core. More than just a pretty face, this muscle serves a critical role. It protects internal organs, facilitates breathing and digestion and assists in bending forward and the rotation of the pelvis.
- The external and internal obliques are on either side of the ribs. Without them, rotation of the trunk, side bending, forward bending and tilting the pelvis would be nearly impossible.
- The transversus abdominis muscle lies deep within the abdomen, below the obliques. Though it is hidden in the background, it’s essential to posture. The transversus abdominis stabilizes the pelvis and lower lumbar spine so we can move our limbs. However, its location, deep inside the abdominal cavity, makes it difficult to engage this muscle in isolation.
- The erector spinae is composed of the spinalis, longissimus and iliocostalis muscles. These muscles lie on either side of the spinal column. Originating at the sacrum, the erector spinae extends up the length of the back. Working collectively, the spinalis, longissimus and iliocostalis muscles support twisting, bending and extension of the vertebrae.
- The diaphragm is a large muscle located at the bottom of the ribcage. As it contracts and relaxes, we’re able to inhale and exhale air into and from the lungs. Strong diaphragm muscles enable us to take full, deep, cleansing breaths that flood the muscles and organs with oxygen and increase our energy and stamina.
- Pelvic floor muscles connect the tail bone and pubic bone. They serve as a hammock that supports the bladder
and reproductive organs.
- The psoas, one of the largest, deepest muscles in the body, is attached to the spine and lumbar vertebrae. This muscle facilitates forward bends and creates the hip flexion required for walking.
- The gluteus muscles consist of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Central to the body, these posterior muscles control abduction, rotation and extension of the thighs. The gluteus muscles enable us to walk, run, climb stairs and extend the thigh. Without them, we’d be unstable whenever we lifted one foot while walking or running.
An effective core workout targets the core in its entirety. It doesn’t overdevelop one set of muscles in isolation. The holistic, therapeutic nature of yoga makes it an ideal vehicle for strengthening weakened core muscles.
A Consistent Yoga Practice Develops Strong Core Muscles
Yoga postures don’t target isolated muscles. Each asana creates a balance of strength and elasticity in a variety of muscles and fascia. During each yoga practice we engage several key muscles of the core, not just the abdominal muscles. Let’s examine seven yoga postures that strengthen the core.
- Half Moon – This standing pose strengthens the internal and external obliques, and stretches the spine, increasing its flexibility.
- Backward Bending – The spine and hips are stretched while the rectus abdominis, obliques and gluteus muscles are strengthened.
- Triangle Pose and Reverse Warrior – These standing poses strengthen all of the major muscles, including the back and abdominal muscles. They are great hip openers that give the side body a delicious, intense stretch.
- Balancing Stick – This powerful, one-legged standing pose improves balance and builds endurance. The spine receives a full stretch, easing tension there. Abdominal muscles are firmed.
- Cobra Pose – During this prone asana, the erector spinae, gluteus muscles and abs are strengthened. The pose increases the strength and flexibility of the spine and stretches the hip joints.
- Spine Twisting Pose – This seated twist gives the vertebrae and hips a good stretch while strengthening the abs and gluteus muscles.
- Boat Pose – Highly-effective for building core strength, this pose works deep into the abdominal muscles. The bend of the hips and flexing of the trunk strengthen the psoas. This challenging pose not only improves balance, it strengthens powers of concentration and boosts confidence.
- Plank – Whether as part of a vinyasa sequence or a sun salutation, plank builds heat and stamina and strengthens the gluteus muscles. Focus on correct alignment to get maximum core-building benefits.
Strong core muscles are essential to good musculoskeletal health. When the core is strong we have better body mechanics and are less likely to be injured. Hot yoga and vinyasa yoga target all of the centrally-located muscles groups with asanas that create a balance of strength and flexibility.
Want strong core muscles without the back pain and tedious repetition of endless crunches? Adopt a holistic yoga practice—a superlative tool for strengthening weak core muscles while creating your best overall body and mind.