By now we’ve all heard about the importance of “engaging the core”. The ancient practice of yoga and the modern practice of Pilates both incorporate numerous poses and exercises focused specifically on building core strength. Pilates was created in the early 20th century by a man who sought to improve his own health and build strength by targeting the muscles that support the pelvis and spine. It is the form of exercise perhaps best known for its devotion to core strengthening.
The idea is similar to that which underpins the practice of chiropractic: the concept that a strongly supported, well-adjusted, properly aligned spine is the foundation of health. Without this unassailable foundation, illness is all but inevitable, according to this philosophy.
The Foundation of Wellness
Regardless of your beliefs, it’s inarguable that having a strong, well-developed set of “core” muscles, which includes layers of muscles in the abdomen, back, and buttocks, is a prescription for fitness and overall wellness. Back ailments, for instance, are among the most common reasons people seek relief from pain. They’re also among the most common complaints that can be linked to inadequately maintained core strength.
That’s because strong abdominals help support the back and protect the spine from overextension or other forms of damage. If your abs are weak, and you make use of your back muscles (especially while using poor form), back pain is all but inevitable. The cure is often problematic, and may involve narcotic pain drugs—which can usher in a whole new set of problems for many people.
Far better to avoid such problems in the first place by strengthening your core. Core exercises build your foundation, making all other muscle groups work more efficiently and gracefully. Core strength is reflected in posture (straight, tall, well aligned), bearing (calm and confident) and reduced susceptibility to injuries that plague many weekend warriors.
Yoga is a system of mind/body integration that uses poses to achieve its goals. “Cat” and “cow” are fundamental poses that address core fitness. They’re a gentle way to ease into your core workout.
Begin with your hands and knees on the floor, facing forward. Inhale, then on your exhale, arch your back up, pushing the head down, like a “scary” cat arching its back. Come back to neutral position, then inhale, raising your head and allowing your spine to bow down. Move from one pose to the next, using the breath, for up to ten repetitions. Yogis believe these poses help stimulate the proper flow of spinal fluid throughout the brain and spinal cord.
Lie on your back on the floor, arms and hands extended out beside you; feet on the floor, knees bent, legs hip distance apart. Keeping your shoulders relaxed, and your head on the floor, raise your buttocks off the floor and hold. Breathe deeply while holding for 20-30 seconds. Slowly release and allow your spine to sink back to the floor. Repeat. Remember to keep your feet flat on the floor throughout and avoid straining your neck.
Few poses do more to strengthen the core, or to challenge the fittest among us, than plank. While it looks passive, rest assured that its among the most core-strengthening of all exercises.
Begin by lying face down on the floor, arms beside you, hands planted firmly beside your chest. Raise your body weight up on your forearms and elbows, keeping your arms straight. Raise up on your toes. Hold your back straight and rigid for the duration. Look ahead. Start by holding for 10 seconds and gradually increase the time you spend holding this pose. Try engaging the muscles of the buttocks to prevent bowing of the back. The goal is to keep everything straight and aligned, as if you are literally a plank of wood.