3 Great Exercises for Core Strength

In my last blog post I talked about how to engage two muscle groups that are responsible for stabilising the lower back, pelvis and torso. The Transverse Abdominals (TA) and Multifidi can be tricky muscles to tune into as their engagement creates a more subtle sensation of stabilisation compared to the muscle burn we might be used to feeling in say a bicep curl or a squat!

Nevertheless these stabilising muscles play a very important role in maintaining good hip and lower back alignment and creating a seamless fluid transition between movements making us more efficient and less prone to injury in daily activities and sport. These muscles are also particularly useful to look at when it comes to rehabilitation after a period of lower back pain.

So now that you are a bit more familiar with the actions of these muscles and how to enagage them in simple postures (if you need a recap click here) let’s take a look at three of my favourite core stabilisation exercises that I use regularly with my clients:

 

Supine opposite arm to leg extensions

Start by lying on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor hipwidth apart and parallel in constructive rest pose. Bring your fingertips to the skin just to the inside of your frontal hip points. To engage the deep lower abdominal muscles, imagine you’re trying to narrow the hip-points and at the same time zipper the skin of the lower belly in and up towards the naval. The skin under your fingertips should tighten and draw down slightly as the lower back stays in a neutral position.

You will feel your breathe move more into your chest as the belly remains still.  Breathing naturally and maintaining the awareness of the lower belly bracing on your next inhale extend opposite arm to leg out along the floor. As you exhale return to the starting position, arms by your sides, knees bent. Then inhale to switch sides. Continue to go side to side with the breath for about 1 minute.

As you do this movement avoid letting the hips rock or the lower back overarch or flatten. The arms and legs are moving but the torso, lower back and pelvis remain still throughout.

To make this movement more challenging, you can explore hovering the heel away from the floor.

Supine opposite arm to leg extension pose

 

Toe Taps

For toe taps start by lying on your back, bringing your knees up over your hips, shins parallel to the floor and the feet flexed, as if you were sitting in a chair.

Avoid allowing your lower back to hyper-arch away from the floor but also do not flatten your lower back down – try to find a neutral curve in your lower back. At the same time, bring your hands to the skin to the inside of your hip points. Feel for narrowing the frontal hip points and drawing the lower belly in and up. Both these actions will ensure that the transverse abdominals and the multifidi are switching on.

Inhale, and as you exhale lower your right foot towards the floor, tapping the toes whilst keeping the knee bent and minimising any movment in the lower back or hips. On an inhale return to the starting position. Continue going side-to-side for about 1 minute.

If this proves difficult to control and your lower back is starting to over-arch or your abdominals start to bulge out, explore not lowering the legs as far, maybe hovering the foot a few inches from the floor as you lower.

Alternatively if this becomes easy and you want more challenge try straightening out the leg that you lower, floating the leg 1-2 inches off the floor, all the while keeping your lower back, hips and torso still and steady.

 

Toe Taps

 

 

Bird-dog

Start in an all-fours position. Knees hip-width apart and hands under your shoulders with the fingers spread and knuckles rooting into the mat. Gently draw the shoulder blades down the back away from your ears.

Feel for bringing your spine into a neutral position (use a mirror if needed) with its natural, neutral curves intact. Become aware of a long line of energy from the crown of your head out to your tailbone.

To engage the the lower abdominal muscles imagine you are narrowing your waist as if to tie up a belt a couple of extra notches, and at the same time zipper the lower belly from the pubic bone up to the naval. Maintain this abdominal bracing as you continue to breathe steadily in and out through your nose.

Keeping your lower back long in neutral (don’t allow it to overarch), on an inhale slide your right leg back behind you. Lift the leg only as far as you can whilst maintaining length in your lower back and keeping your hips square to the floor.

For more challenge you can reach the opposite arm forwards, spinning the palm to face inwards (like you’re going to shake someone’s hand) keeping the shoulders away from the ears.

Hold for 5 breaths. As you next exhale lower the right leg (and arm if lifted) back to the starting position. Inhale to switch sides. You can also vary this work by moving more fluidly with the breath, going side-to-side for about 1 minute.

Bird-dog

 

Image credits: Tummee 

A Practice to Strengthen your Upper Back and Shoulders

This week’s Yoga for Strength and Conditioning Sequence is focused on the upper back and shoulders. There are just a few quick pointers I want to make before we dive in with the sequence itself.

 

  1. Strengthening the upper back is key to improving posture.

When it comes to improving our posture, appropriate strength training plays a vital role. I get a lot of clients who come to me with the classic desk-bound posture – for example, rounded upper back, hunched and rolled forward shoulders and a forward head position. If that’s then combined with time in the gym hammering out push-ups and bench presses you have a recipe for imbalance – a tightened, shortened front body and a weakened, over lengthened back body. This can play a huge role in that knotty feeling between the shoulder-blades that is so common and is also a huge contributor to symptoms such as headaches.

I teach my students to find a more upright posture often by using a wall as a guide and by helping them to open up the front of their shoulders by stretching out their pecs and chest. But equally important is to balance out this process of opening and lengthening the front body with strength and conditioning of the upper back and of the muscles that keep the shoulder blades onto the back.

In the following sequence I’ve tried to choose poses that serve to both lengthen and open the chest whilst simultaneously engaging and toning the muscles of the back body.

 

  1. We need to incorporate shoulder-pulling movements into our upper body strength training regime.

I honestly believe that yoga provides for the most part a very balanced, comprehensive training system for the body and mind. However, if we look at the modern asana practice you’ll notice that most of the poses involve ‘pushing’ motions – think plank, crow, downdog – but very little in the way of ‘pulling’ movements where you’re pulling against some sort of resistance such as your body weight.

I have included in the sequence below a few forward bend variations that require you to pull up on your feet to help address this imbalance but this is probably not load bearing enough to balance us out.  Therefore I do recommend people to introduce other pulling movements into their exercise routines to cultivate more balanced and integrated shoulder strength. Think exercises such as rows using a resistance band or variations of pull-up exercises.

 

  1. When you do chaturanga, do not let the front of your shoulder dip lower than your elbow.

When I used to teach Vinyasa 101 workshops, I would often spend well over half of the workshop teaching the importance of proper shoulder alignment when practicing chaturanga. It’s important to note that when done well, chaturanga is a great upper body strengthener – similar to a push-up. However, done with poor awareness chaturanga is responsible for a lot of yoga-related injuries including bicep tendonitis and rotator cuff injuries – I speak from experience.

Chaturanga is undoubtedly best learned in front of the experienced eye of a yoga teacher who can check that your shoulders remain in good alignment as you lower your body down (many people will find their shoulders start to round forwards putting unnecessary stress and strain on the front of the shoulder). However a few tips I can offer here:

  • Bring your knees to the ground when learning this movement – it takes much more load off the upper body so that you can concentrate on maintaining good form.
  • Don’t’ lower too low – your shoulder should be at the same height as your elbow or slightly higher.
  • Keep your chest broad and your collabones wids as you lower down, don’t let the shoulders round forwards.
  • A great practice exercise to help build strength is what I lovingly call (joke) chaturanga push-ups. Essentially you come into a modified plank position with knees on the ground and place a block on the high or medium height under your chest. You work on dipping down just to the point that your chest taps the block before pressing back up. Repeat 5-8 times before taking a break in childs pose and then repeating another set.
  • At no point should you feel strain, discomfort, soreness or achiness in the front of the shoulder either during or after your practice – if you do it’s a sign that your shoulders are rounding forwards and/or you are lowering too low in your chaturangas.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here.