Teachers Notebook: Increasing Core Strength
Master Trainer Renee Harrington demystifies what “the core” is, why it’s important, and how we can create a yoga sequence that engages it most efficiently. Hint: We’re not talking “crunches.”
How often do you tell your students to “engage the core” only to see them suck in their belly buttons and hold their breath? Unfortunately, as you know, they’re not engaging the core at all; they’re actually destabilizing it. Core stability means developing a protective “cylinder”—as solid a ring of muscles around your mid-section as possible—and does not mean ripped “six-pack abs.” So what is the core then and why is a strong, engaged one so important? I’ll explain core physiology in a minute, but here are six reasons why you should pay attention to yours:
• It improves posture
• It improves performance in sports and exercise
• It can risk of injury
• It will stabilize the body and protect the spine
• It allows greater ease with movement
• It helps daily activities to become easier
Muscles of the Core and Bandhas
Core strength, core power are buzz words in the fitness industry these days, and crunches are often the first exercise that most people associate with the word. However, the key to core strength is to remember that your core encompasses so much more than just your rectus abdominis (your six-pack muscles). Let’s break them down into the superficial core complex and the deeper core complex. Your superficial core complex includes your internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, and latissimus dorsi. Your deeper core complex, which is where many people lose strength and engagement, includes your transversus abdominis, pelvic floor, diaphragm, and deep spinal stabilizers (lumbar multifidus and erector spinae).
Yoga can strengthen and activate the deeper core muscles by using the primary bandhas (mula bandha and uddiyana bandha). Bandhas are energetic locks located at different areas of the body. Mula bandha (root lock) stabilizes the pelvis through contraction of the pelvic floor muscles. For detailed instructions on activating mula bandha, check out “Engaging the Locks,” by Skila Ramirez. https://www.yogafit.com/news/blog/teachers-notebook-engaging-the-locks-bandhas/ ] Uddiyana bandha (belly lock) is core engagement that is created by lifting the lower belly toward the spine. To activate uddiyana bandha, find the space in your body between your navel and your pubic bone and draw that deeply into the pelvis. Do not lift the belly up towards the rib cage, but instead draw it back and slightly down to hollow out the pelvis.
How to Teach Core Engagement
As instructors we must be aware of and understand the muscles that move the body and stabilize it, so that we can teach people where to work, how, and why. The muscles that provide core stability start as low the hips and legs, then the pelvic floor, and through the abdominal and back muscles. If as a teacher we’re looking to have our participants hold their spines in good alignment in postures, we need to teach them the efforts of the core stabilizers. We also need to become more detailed with our language so that our students can get the physical benefits of the yoga asana. Here are some tips for effectively teaching core engagement:
• Teach mula bandha and uddiyana bandha in Easy Seated Pose, so that students can get comfortable with it before incorporating it in the practice.
• Build poses from the foundation up, then cue bringing muscular energy into the core. Use cues such as “tightening the muscles around the waist like a corset.”
• Slow down the class and invite students to experiment with activating the core when moving between poses. Can they feel it? Can they isolate and then engage the core muscles without rounding forward or holding their breath?
• Devote a section of the practice to abdominal-intensive poses but then balance that with quieter poses that also bring awareness to the core.
• Before you introduce new core awareness to your students, play with core sequences in your personal practice and notice how it affects you in order to more effective teach the concepts.
Considerations for Incorporating Core Exercises into a Yoga Practice
Incorporate both isometric and concentric/eccentric movements. During isometric movements muscles are actively held at a fixed length (e.g., holding a posture for 5-10 breaths). Holding the posture builds greater muscular endurance. During the concentric phase of a movement muscles are actively shortening, while during the eccentric phase of a movement muscles are actively lengthening. Incorporating the flowing concentric/eccentric movement increases range of motion and build muscular strength.
Introduce core-focused exercises or sequences. Mountains 2 and 3 will be the portions of class where the most core focused exercises or sequences will be added. Core focused exercises can be done alone or incorporated in sequences. Below are a number of postures that can be used for core strength.
Add breathing techniques such as Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati Breath). Breath of Fire is an intermediate to advanced pranayama that consists of short, powerful exhales and passive inhales. It directly activates and strengthens the abdominal muscles.
Engage your bandhas. The bandhas help to engage the deeper core complex.
Postures for Core Strength
The following poses/flows are great for balance, focus, and for reinforcing posture and will help develop the strength and stamina needed to truly build core strength in your yoga practice.
Placing your forearms on the mat with elbows underneath shoulders, press your forearms and elbows down while keeping your shoulder blades firm on your back and your neck long. Lift knees off the floor by engaging quadriceps (option to lower your knees for less intensity). Keep bandhas engaged as you lengthen your tailbone down and reach through the crown of your head. A variation that further challenges hip stability is to add one leg lifting up away from the ground.
Dolphin Plank to High Plank
Starting in dolphin plank pose, either with your knees on the floor or lifted, inhale and place one hand onto the mat underneath your shoulder following with the other. Exhale and lower your forearms back down onto the earth one at a time. Repeat and alternate the lead hand. The flowing aspect challenges stability of the core and strength of the upper body.
My favorite flowing plank variations are to flow the knee to same side elbow, flow the knee to opposite side elbow, and flowing alternate shoulder touches. The goal is to move slowly and keep the hips squared to the mat. Flowing a total of 6-8 reps. Movements can be from a full plank or kneeling plank.
Side Plank Variations
Choose a side plank variation to challenge the core. My favorites are to add a flowing rotation or hip lifts. For the flowing rotation, split the feet so that the top leg is forward and bottom leg is back, rotate the torso and bring the lifted arm underneath the body while you slightly lift the hips up and return back to side plank. For hip lifts, start in side plank and add small hip lifts to further target the obliques.
Warrior 2/Reverse Warrior Flow
Starting in Warrior 2, alternate flowing between reverse warrior and side angle using the obliques to accomplish the movement. Cue slow movement to focus on activation of muscles that engage the core. A common misalignment is to initiate the movement with the arms, therefore, it is helpful to cue moving from the torso.
Spinal balance builds abdominal and lower back strength. It also brings flexibility to the spine, shoulders, and hips, while gently stretching the torso. Because of the balance challenge, this pose also helps to improve focus, coordination, and overall physical equilibrium.
Prayer Twist Lunge
Any twisting posture will help to build abdominal and oblique strength. For prayer twist lunge, first cue to engage mula bandha and uddiyana bandha. Then focus on moving with the abdominals and obliques into the twist. While holding the twist focus on strengthening through the back to open through the chest.
This pose strengthens the muscles that surround the back of the spine. It also provides a gentle opening for the spine. This is a great counter pose to all of the others that target the abdominals.
Boat Pose with options
There are a number of movement options that can be added to boat pose to challenge the core. Two of my favorites are to add slow side to side rotational movements (similar to Russian Twist) and while holding boat and adding leg lower/lifts.
Start with a standard crunch and then cue that they can add in any other group fitness ab options that they like such as double crunch, bicycle crunch, leg lifts, etc. Flowing at their own pace for about 30-60 seconds.
Sample Yoga Core Practice
Below is a sample yoga core class that utilizes many of the above poses.
Following a standard Mountain 1 warm-up and sun salutations:
• Plank w/ knee to same side elbow flow - child’s pose
• Warrior 1 – prayer twist lunge – half moon
• Plank w/ knee to alternate side elbow - child’s pose
• Warrior 2 – reverse warrior/side angle flow – twisting lunge
• Knees lift/warrior 3 flow with forward fold in between
• Walk/jump to plank - shoulder touches in plank pose
• Warrior 2 – triangle – pyramid
• Upright balance posture of choice
• Side plank rotation on each side
• Locust - boat pose with options – seated twist - seated straddle – incline plank
• Bridge – ab work with group fitness options – shoulder stand – fish - supine spinal twist