During a yoga class (or any fitness class in general) I’m sure you’re all familiar with being told to “squeeze your core” or “engage your core”. Unfortunately, an hour-long class doesn’t always provide enough time for a teacher to explain in detail what they are referring to and why it is important. Nevertheless, you try your best to “squeeze your core” but this is often without any real understanding as to what you’re trying to squeeze and why.
The word core has become synonymous with abs but you might be surprised to learn that the core is so much more than just your abdominal muscles. Our core basically refers to anything in the middle section of body, which includes our diaphragm (main breathing muscle), the pelvic floor and your back muscles (multifidus).
During this blog post I will explain why it is important to exercise your abdominals and I’ll outline some different exercises you can do to specifically target and strengthen your abdominals.
HOWEVER, whilst I will be focussing solely on the abdominal muscles (as this is what we are generally trying to work and engage during a yoga class) PLEASE do not overlook the importance of your pelvic floor, diaphragm and back muscles in overall core health and stability! If you would like to learn about these other elements, I will provide some links below.
Please note I am not a medical professional, the information below is intended as a guide only. Please consult your doctor or a health professional if you any concerns about whether it is safe for you to carry out the below exercises.
What are the abdominal muscles?
When we talk about the abdominal muscles, this refers to the Rectus Abdominis, Transverse Abdominis and the Internal Obliques and External Obliques.
Rectus Abdominis (RA)
The RA is responsible for flexing the torso which simply means it brings your torso closer to your legs (like a sit up). The RA runs down the front of the body, and generally tends to be worked out most in fitness classes (think of all the non-stop crunches) as it is the muscle responsible for creating the “six-pack” look. However, as one of the outermost layer of the abs, there is a lot more going on beneath the RA that can be of real benefit to you.
Transversus Abdominis (TVA)
While less visible, the TVA plays a more important function in overall health. The deepest layer of the core, The TVA is a corset like muscle that wraps horizontally all the way around your trunk, running from the rib-cage all the way down to the pelvis. The TVA plays a major part in stabilising the trunk and supporting your lumbar spine by transferring energy to other muscles, rather than into your skeleton.
The TVA is such an important muscle that helps to protect your organs (stronger TVA = tighter compression = more support – yay!), aid digestion (having a strong TVA helps to compress the abdominal region, helping food to pass down) and protect your lower back (weakened TVA means there is less spinal support) .The TVA is certainly a muscle that we shouldn’t be overlooking when it comes to ab workouts.
Internal Obliques (IO) and External Obliques (EO)
Your IOs and EOs are your two side abdominal muscles that are responsible for sideways bending, rotating and twisting the torso and keeping the torso stable. The EOs and IOs work together as synergists, depending on which way you twist. The EOs are responsible for rotating the body to the opposite side, whilst the IOs allow rotation of the body towards the same side. If you twist to the right, the left side EOs contract and the right side IOs. If you twist to the left, the right side Eos contract and the left side IOs.
What do the abdominals do and why are they important?
1) Allow for greater mobility
Aside from the spine, there is a distinct lack of bones in the middle of your body. Given that there are so many important organs to protect here, it may seem like a design flaw. However, this lack of bones is what allows us greater mobility; we can reach forward, lean backwards, reach side to side and also twist – reaching or doing whatever it is we need to. Without this area of flexibility, we would be incredibly rigid and limited in our actions.
2) Containing and protecting organs
As mentioned above, the lack of bones allows greater mobility but could be a worrying thought given the number of organs here. However, the core muscles (in particular the TVA) wrap around the organs like a corset, holding everything tightly in place.
3) Spine stability and posture
A weakened core can lead to poor posture, as our core helps to protect and maintain the natural S curve of the spine. If our core is weak, our posture begins to suffer. When the natural S shape of the spine becomes distorted, the upper back begins to round and the hips begin to sway forward. This can also lead to lower back pain, as the spine is not in its natural or correct position.
What can I do to strengthen my abdominal muscles?
So now you have a basic understanding of what’s what and why it is important to strengthen the abdominal muscles, here are some exercises you can do to do exactly that!
TVA & RA exercises
1. Plank Pose
In your plank pose, make sure that your wrists are directly beneath your shoulders and press down through your hands to ensure your chest doesn’t collapse. To activate your TVA, make sure to draw your abdomen towards your spine. Similarly, squeeze your quads and keep your thighs lifted so that your hips and lower back don’t sink down (otherwise this could create unnecessary strain in your lower back).
2. Boat Pose
For boat pose, first start in a seated position, with your feet planted on the floor in front you. Slowly begin to lean back to balance between your sit bones and tailbone. Keep your torso lengthened (imagine trying to pull your chest forward towards your legs) and extend your legs so they are straight. If it is too much to have straight legs, you can also bend them.
1. Ball Roll Ups
In a ball position, simply roll up and down and see if you can come to balance for a moment on your sit bones when you get back up (almost like boat pose). When you are rolling up and down, avoid rolling onto your head or neck and make sure to keep the whole body rounded, spreading your shoulder blades.
2. Marching in Place
Lying on your back with your feet hip width apart, lift your hips about 3 to 4 inches off the floor (about half way of full bridge pose). Lift and lower one foot up at a time, beginning to march in place. Make sure that as you do this, you try you best to keep your hips level so that the exercise targets the TVA. As you do the exercise, engage between your hip points and keep this engagement all throughout.
IO and EO exercises
1. Side Plank Twists
Come up into your side plank, ensuring that your feet stacked, and that you are pushing down through your bottom hand. With the other hand, begin by reaching this up to the ceiling. From here, start to bring the top down with the aim of curling it underneath the ribcage. You’ll need to twist the torso and engage the oblique’s as you thread the arm underneath.
2. Knee to Opposite Elbow
In a plank pose, bring your right knee across your body with the aim of touching your left elbow. Bring the knee as close as you can get it, before returning to normal plank pose. From here, repeat on the opposite side.
So that't it folks! Thanks for reading and as always, let me know what you thought!