Core strength refers to the strength, control, and endurance in the muscles that make up the torso. Specifically, the core is made up of the abdominal wall (transverse, rectus, and oblique abdominal muscles) and the erector spinae muscles of the back.
Keeping these muscles strong accounts for that amazing dancer’s torso—ribcage pulled in, abs flat, slight ‘tuck’ under with the pelvis for perfect alignment of the spine. Core strength is the foundation for a healthy posture, flat abs, and a strong back.
Here are some yoga poses and exercises that strengthen your core muscles.
1. Forearm Plank Pose
Forearm Plank strengthens all the muscles of the abdominal wall. Start with 45 seconds of stillness here, focusing on perfect alignment and breath control, advancing to 3 to 5 minutes. Finally, add in some variations as you advance in the pose.
To start, come down to your forearms, aligning your shoulders directly under your elbows. Press the balls of your feet into the mat, feet hip distance apart. Keep your neck long, setting your gaze slightly in front of your fingertips. Press back through your heels as you tuck the hips under.
Visualize driving your navel to your spine to draw your abdominals in and up. This is your basic Plank setup. Breathe in and out through the nose, drawing the navel in each time you forcefully exhale.
To add in variations, start by lifting the right leg up behind you, pointing your toes. Hold it here, or add in tiny pulses or circles to distract your mind. Switch sides.
You can also drop your right hip slightly lower than the left, holding this for 30 seconds before switching sides. Or keep both feet on the floor and press back through your heels. Whatever variation you choose, keep the neck long and the hips tucked under the entire time.
If you need a short break, drop one or both knees to the floor for a modification, finding your deepest contraction before coming back into the full posture.
2. Plank Pose
This is similar to Forearm Plank, but requires more upper body strength. Pressing your hands firmly into the mat, keep your hands, elbows, and shoulders in one line. Lift to the balls of your feet, pressing back through your heels, feet are hip distance apart to start.
Spread your hands wide, pressing all ten fingers into the mat. Pull your shoulders down and back, engaging the muscles of the back and chest. Keep the neck long, gazing directly in front of you, resisting the temptation to drop the head.
Engage the same pelvic ‘tuck’ as for Forearm Plank, driving the navel into the spine. Make sure your hips are in line with the shoulders; your spine should be one straight line without dropping or lifting the hips. Inhale and exhale through the nose, driving the navel deeper on the exhale.
To advance, shift the weight forward into the hands, and release the right leg. You can keep it lifted behind you or draw the knee into the chest. You may also bring the bent knee over to the right or left elbow, slightly rounding the low back but keeping the hips low. This isolates the lower abdominals.
Switch to the left leg, using different variations to challenge yourself. When you feel your abs begin to fatigue, come down to Child’s Pose for a few breaths, then repeat the series.
3. Side Plank Pose (Vasisthasana)
From Plank, shift your weight on the right hand, then turn and lift your left hand to the sky, opening up the chest and stacking the feet left on top of right. “Rainbow” the hips to the sky, engaging the abdominals. One variations is to lift the top leg a few inches to test your balance.
You can also bring the top hand to stretch towards the front of the room or behind the head, keeping the elbow wide. Find your perfect spinal alignment, and breathe into the pose. To modify, come down to one knee, keeping the abs engaged to lift the hips.
Come back to Plank before switching sides, aiming to hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute per side, or 5 to 10 breaths each side.
4. Boat Pose (Navasana)
Come to seated hugging your knees into your chest. Bring your hands behind your thighs, and extend the legs out in front of you, finding the catch in your abs. The legs can be bent at 90 degrees, 45 degrees, or straight, depending on your baseline abdominal strength and hamstring flexibility.
Keep the neck long and the shoulders down and back, opening up the chest. From here, extend one or both arms out straight. If your abs stay flat here, you can extend the arms up, biceps by the ears. Take it to your best position, feeling the heat begin to build at your navel center.
From here, take your boat down halfway by engaging the abdominals, bringing the feet towards the floor, arms by your sides. Take it to your lowest point before coming back up again, attempting to straighten the legs and extend the arms up.
You can flex the feet and spread the toes, point the toes, or cross one ankle over the other as you lift and lower the arms and legs. To modify, simply grab on behind the thighs. Aim for ten repetitions, moving to the measure of your breath, using the exhale to drive the navel toward the spine.
5. Prone Single and Double Leg Lifts
A strong back body is important to maintain a strong front body. Prone Leg Lifts isolate the contraction in the erector spinae muscles—the long, powerful muscles that run along either side of the spinal column.
To start, lie on your abdomen, folding your hands on top of each other, resting your forehead on your hands. Extend the legs long behind you, keeping the feet hip distance apart. Engage the back muscles and tuck the pelvis under as you lift the right leg up behind you on an inhale.
Focus on lifting the leg by using the muscles of the low back, keeping the hips tucked to protect the spine. Hold the leg lifted, then slowly lower on an exhale. Repeat on the left side.
To challenge yourself, lift both legs up behind you, extending the legs towards the opposite end of the room before squeezing the back to lift. Lift the upper body up as well. The hands can stay stacked and glued to the forehead. You can extend the arms in front of you (Superman), or long by your sides.
Isometric hold for a few breaths, or pulse the arms and legs up as you exhale, aiming for 20 lifts. To modify, keep the forehead on the floor and alternate leg lifts until you gain enough lower back strength to take it further.
6. Locust Pose (Salabhanasana)
Locust strengthens and increases flexibility in the entire back body, including the spine, legs, buttocks, ribs, and upper torso. Working the upper back muscles improves your posture and helps relieve stress and fatigue caused by slouching forward.
Lying on your abdomen, work your arms underneath your body, palms facing down or hands in fists, legs together, chin to the mat. Take 3 breaths; on the third inhale lift the legs up away from the mat using the strength of the entire back body. Hold it here as long as possible, lifting higher with each inhalation.
To come out of the posture, exhale the legs slowly down to the mat with control, and turn your head to the side taking a moment to rest.
7. Table Top Arm and Leg Extensions
Here, the shoulders and hips are supported, allowing isolation of the muscles of the back. Keeping the abdominals pulled in and the pelvis tucked under is key to avoid lower back strain. The exercise becomes ineffective once the back arches and the belly drops.
Come into Table Top with the hands directly under the shoulders, knees under the hips. Engage your abdominals as you lift the right arm and left leg in opposing directions on the inhale, keeping the abs pulled in and consciously rounding the lower back.
Crunch the elbow to the knee under your body as the back rounds out. Inhale the limbs out long again, and exhale to place them back on the mat and start again on the opposite side.
Fluidity and flexibility in the practice of yoga asana are enhanced when you strengthen your core as this allows for ease of movement from one posture to another. Practicing some, or all, of the exercises above regularly can help you build strong, solid abs.