By Katie Rosenbrock
Core strength: Whether you're an elite athlete or an occasional exerciser, itâ€™s an essential part of maintaining your overall fitness (and good posture, too!).
A strong core acts a stabilizer for the rest of your body. "You can look at it as the source of all power in the body,â€ť says Travis Eliot, an expert yoga instructor and creator of The Ultimate Yogi. "One of the main reasons Bruce Lee was able to do his famous '1-inch punch' that could break wood was because that particular movement originated from his core."
OK, so maybe you're not in pursuit of becoming the world's next great martial arts star (if you are, more power to you!), but perhaps you'd like to focus on your abdominal muscles in order to develop your athletic performance or to achieve that all too elusive a "six-pack" ab aesthetic.
Yoga is often overlooked as an effective method for strengthening the core, but according to Beth Shaw, a fitness expert and the president and founder of YogaFit, a regular yoga practice is actually one of the best ways to really challenge your abdominal muscles.
"Yoga helps you naturally tone and condition your core by simply supporting the weight of our body parts,â€ť says Shaw. â€śSome poses work out different parts of your core, but you are always working against your own weight and gravity. Going to lift weights will isolate working out one specific area. Yoga, however, is able to condition an entire region, like the core."
Yoga can be a better alternative or supplement to traditional ab exercises because many poses target some of the deeper abdominal muscles that aren't commonly engaged.
"I think a lot of people think about the abdominals just being the washboard part of the stomach area, which is called the rectus abdominis,â€ť says Eliot. "But underneath that you have the transversus abdominis, and off to the side you have both the internal and external obliques."
Shaw adds that yoga is also beneficial for the fact that it can help to increase your range of motion and reduce your risk for injury when participating in other activities.
Plus, whether it comes from increased strength, an improved body image or a mixture of both, Eliot notes that building a strong core will give you a confidence boost, too. "On a deeper level a strong core also equals strong self-esteem because this is where our confidence resides," he says.
Of course, no mention of improving your overall fitness is complete without taking a look at the bigger picture. True health and wellness is all about balance. For all-around improved fitness (and especially if you're after that six-pack), Eliot recommends the following.
Start in the kitchen cutting out gluten, processed foods, refined sugars, bad fats, and alcohol; pack in cardio at least three times a week, which can come from a strong power yoga class or a favorite cardio activity; and set aside three 15-mininute sessions per week devoted to a core routine."
To find out which yoga poses you should include in that 15-minute session, I asked both Eliot and Shaw to share their favorite core-strengthening poses.
â€śThe core ultimately allows the torso to move in all directions. Without it we would move like a robot,â€ť says Eliot.
Boat pose was the No. 1 core strength pose pick for both Eliot and Shaw. "Boat pose is an amazing core strengthener which activates your power center," says Shaw. â€śBoat pose also helps engage your abs and other core muscles, strengthening the abdominals, hip flexors and quadriceps as well as targeting the back muscles. It can also be used to improve overall balance.â€ť
"Plank pose elongates the body and lengthens the neck, building back strength and counteracting the wear and weakening that the back undergoes on a daily basis," says Shaw. â€śA strong back is very important for developing your core. And when you strengthen your back and abs at the same time, then your spinal support and posture will improve."
This is a variation of the high plank pose and one of Eliot's favorites for increasing core strength. Forearm plank provides all the same core-strengthening benefits of high plank, but places a slightly greater challenge on your abdominal muscles. Be sure to keep your spine aligned with the rest of your body (think straight line from your head to your toes) and focus on your core by drawing your belly button into your spine.
This pose has several variations; a more vigorous version is pictured to the left. However, Shaw recommends crocodile as a more restorative pose. â€śThe crocodile pose is really good for relaxing the muscles around your core and reducing tiredness after a strenuous workout,â€ť she says. "I really like it because it relaxes my body and calms my mind, literally lowering blood pressure. This pose is good for those suffering from respiratory problems as the crocodile pose corrects and relieves breathing problems. This yoga pose is also good for digestion, curing insomnia and relieving stress!" See Shawâ€™s step-by-step guide to crocodile pose on YogaFit.com.
Handstand was another favorite pick for both Eliot and Shaw. â€śHandstands are great because when you bring both legs off the ground, you are working out your deep core abdominal muscles,â€ť says Shaw. â€śMost poses donâ€™t impact your deep core muscles, so this pose is absolutely key in building a great core." Because handstands are difficult, Shaw recommends starting out with an L-Shaped Handstand.