Throughout time, many people have been doing the same kind of exercising to work their abs: lying on their backs, doing crunches, sit-ups, and other similar movements. However, while abs are a part of your core, the core is not only formed of abs. The core is that part of your body that keeps you strong and moving – so, you need to turn your focus on how to exercise core muscles according to how they are designed to work.
Think about the core as that fire within you that keeps burning, lighting up your entire abdominal area. That fire doesn’t only stay in your abs – but spreads out to the rest of your body as well. The more you fuel that fire, the more it keeps you going – and the only way you can do that is by exercising those muscles.
Understanding the Core
The only way to exercise your core is to understand precisely what it is. To put it simply, the function of the core is to keep your pelvis and your spine stable – all while giving force to your arms and your legs to move. To properly learn how to exercise core muscles, you need to know exactly what muscles you have there.
As you can see, it’s not all about the abs. Essentially, it involves your torso – but it also includes some muscles attaching to your limbs. There are multiple muscle groups in your core. These muscles categorize as the following:
They may be labeled as “muscles,” but these formations shaped as diamonds are spread into muscles, tissues, and tendons. They have the sole purpose of keeping you contained – i.e. of making sure your organs are kept inside. They are like a natural permanent bandage that keeps everything together.
Believe it or not, but the most superficial muscle group in your torso is likely the rectus abdominis – also known as your six-packs. These muscles have the purpose of further compressing your organs. They are used as you bend forward or get up from a flat position.
Internal and External Oblique
Do you recall how you side-bend twist and twist your torso now and again? You may be exercising, you may be playing Twister, or you may be trying to pick up an object behind you without turning your entire body around. These muscles run diagonally throughout your body and give your waist that nice, hourglass look.
The transverse abdominis are likely the deepest muscles in your core. They go around your body, acting like a corset and drawing everything together towards the middle of your figure. Practically, these muscles aim to compress the organs, putting enough pressure on your torso so that your spine is protected when you are carrying heavier items.
Multifidus and Erector Spinae
These are the core muscles responsible for keeping your back strong. The multifidus muscles go through the vertebrae, whereas the erector spinae makes sure that your back stays strong. Together, these muscles work to keep your spine straight and properly extended.
The hip flexors allow you to bring the legs towards the torso. Incidentally, a particular hip flexor (the psoas) is also one of your body’s largest muscles. Since hip flexors are typically weak because of your excessive sitting, these muscles need a lot of strengthening.
We know, glutes are popular for being the “booty muscles.” However, as we mentioned before, the core is also responsible for the mobility of your limbs. They connect your torso muscles with some leg muscles. The glutes are categorized into three muscle categories.
First, we have the gluteus maximus that helps you extend the legs behind you, rotating the hip laterally. Secondly, we have the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. These muscles are smaller, but they help draw the legs away from your body’s midline.
Yes, the diaphragm is a muscle – and a core muscle, to add to that. This muscle is strengthened just by the fact that you learn to breathe better. This is why inhaling and exhaling is such a crucial part when you are practicing yoga for core strength. When you exhale, you are compressing the organs – and when you inhale, you are extending your spine.
When you bend, a strong core keeps your torso from collapsing, and so protecting your spine.
Specific Exercises for Core Strength
Indeed, yoga movements may not be the best way to get a visible six-pack – but that is not your purpose here. Now, you are simply looking to improve your core strength for the goodness of your health – and yoga is a nice and efficient way to get those abdominals working.
Moreover, strengthening the core may help you relieve your back pain and correct your posture. Have you noticed how big your belly looks when you are slouching? Yoga can help give you the strength to correct this – and this is how to exercise core muscles by using yoga poses.
1. The Cat-Cow Stretch
The cat-cow stretch is a great way to give your core a quick warm-up, as it works for your rectus abdominis as well as your external oblique muscles. Start on all four, arch your back upward as you exhale, and then arch your back downward as you inhale.
With this movement, you should follow the instinct that you get from your body. When you inhale, you instinctively want to strengthen your spine and arch it downward – so, do just that. Bear in mind that no belly slouching is allowed here; you need to hug your belly in throughout both of these options.
2. Down-Dog Splits
This might look easy, but it can challenge your core quite a lot and it is also very stabilizing. The position starts with the downward facing dog – but instead of having both legs on the floor, you raise one of them until it’s in line with your spine. You can also keep the leg lower, such as parallel to the floor if you can’t get your leg that high up. Keep that position up for about 5 breaths and then do the pose with the other leg.
If you are feeling up to a challenge, instead of keeping the leg straight, do 3-5 clockwise circles, and 3-5 counterclockwise moves. It will work very well to challenge your transverse abdominis – the deepest muscles of your core.
3. Hands and Knees Balance
If you want to do a pose that is not as challenging as the down-dog splits, then you may want to consider doing the hands-and-knees balance. This pose teaches you how to exercise core muscles – the obliques and the transverse abdominals – which may help you further stabilize this pose.
Start on all fours, with the arms and the knees on your yoga mat (thanks to its foldable nature, you may use the MB Zen mat to add extra support on your hands and knees). Lift one arm and straighten it in front of you until it’s parallel to the floor. Lift the opposite leg and straighten it parallel to the floor. Flex your foot during these movements and hold it for about 5 breaths.
Anyone who ever said that yoga was not a workout has never tried the plank before. In just a few breaths, this pose will work your abs, your bum, your arms, your back, your leg – everything. The plank pose has many benefits that you may reap. In addition, if you want to try yoga to tone your arms, then the plank is certainly a good start for you.
The starting position of the plank is nothing new to those who have thought about how to exercise core muscles before. You start on your hands and knees, after which you lift your knees until your toes and your hands are the only things touching the mat. Keep a straight position, and make sure that your spine is in a straight line with your legs. Hold if for 3 to 5 breaths, and build from there. The more you practice it, the more you should be able to hold it.
5. Side Plank
If you thought the plank was challenging for your core, wait until you try the side plank. This one is perfect if you wish to strengthen your obliques and your rectus abdominal.
With this position, instead of lifting backward, you are lifting sideways. Start with a standard plank position, and then shift your entire weight on one arm, lifting the other one backward. Roll onto the side of your foot and keep your position inline. There should be an isosceles triangle beneath you formed by your mat, your arm, and the line of your body.
Again start with 3-5 breaths per side, and build from there.
If you want to challenge yourself even more, you may perform the side plank with fitness movements. For example, while you are planking, mix it with a side hip dip. It will significantly challenge your core.
The plank exercises the core the way it’s designed to work: to keep your body straight
Start with warming up your core doing a sequence of cat-cow stretches. Then do 3-5 sets of:
- 3-5 breaths (aprox. 20 sec) per side of Downdog Splits at a level you can safely hold. This is, that it’s challenging but without risking an injury.
- 3-5 breaths (aprox. 20 sec) per side of Hand-Knee Balance.
- 3-5 breaths (aprox. 20 sec) per side of Plank. You may do full plank or just Elbow Plank. You hold the position over your forearms and elbows instead of your hands.
- 3-5 breaths (aprox. 20 sec) per side of Side Plank.
Repeat this routine 3-5 times per week and you will start to feel a much stronger core quicker than you think.
Be mindful and keep challenging yourself by increasing the time you hold each pose.
Learning how to exercise core muscles is not that difficult – and with these yoga movements, you can get a stronger core without the sweat of a gym (although you will most likely sweat). You will become stronger, and just using your own body weight and the help of gravity.
It may take a while until you master all of those movements – but once you can perform them flawlessly, it will mean that your core muscles are in great shape. So, grab your exercise mat and put your body to work!
Co-founder of MB Zen, digital nomad and yogini. Trying to beat down stress and achieve peace of mind through the daily practice of Yoga. After a while in yoga, I embraced it wholy, and it changed my lifestyle upside down. Now I want to give back , helping others on their journey.