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 

5 Yoga Poses for Upper Body Strength

I’ve been enjoying some strength-based circuit training recently and started to think how this framework might be incorporated into an upper body strength focused yoga practice. So this week I’ve created another upper-body focused yoga practice – with a bit of a twist – there are only 5 poses and it’s designed to be practiced as a circuit!

The idea is that you do each pose for a fixed amount of time, perhaps 15 seconds, building up to 45-60 seconds as you get stronger, and then take a few breaths relaxation before moving onto the next pose. At the end of the 5 poses (remember to do side-plank on both sides!), you can then repeat the whole circuit another 3-5 times depending on how much time you have to practice.

I do recommend starting and ending each practice on your back and just taking some time to connect to deep breathing. I should stress that this is not a particularly well-rounded yoga practice as we’re focusing on some very specific upper-body strength poses so if you’re doing this as a stand-alone practice it would be good idea to do some preparatory warm-up poses such as cat-cow or even sun salutations beforehand. This practice could also be done at the end of a run or a gym session when the body is already nicely warmed up.

As always please be guided by your body and your breath – remember to aim for smooth, even breathing throughout and if you are new to yoga check consider doing the modified versions of each pose until you feel stronger. These poses are challenging but should never be painful so check out the alignment tips below to help you.

 

  1. Forearm plank pose
  • Start with your forearms parallel to one another on the floor, elbows under the shoulders and palms facing downwards with the fingers spread. If your shoulders feel tight or the elbows tend to splay outwards try interlacing the fingers instead.
  • Step your feet back and on an inhale press down through the forearms and balls of the feet to lift the thighs and hips.
  • Draw the belly strongly back towards the spine. Aim for a long line of energy reaching from the heels to the crown of the head and vice versa. Make sure that the hips aren’t sagging in the middle, nor are the hips lifting higher than the shoulders. Keep your breath smooth and steady.
  • When you feel ready to release bring your knees to the floor and press back to childs pose for a couple of breaths to rest.

 

  1. Locust
  • Lying on your belly, take your arms and hands back alongside your hips, palms facing down. If it feels ok on your shoulders, interlace your fingers and squeeze the shoulder-blades and palms together.
  • Separate your feet hip-width apart and engage the muscles of your legs. Bring your chin or forehead to the floor but lift the front of your shoulders away from the ground to engage the upper back muscles.
  • On an inhale lift your upper back, chest, head, legs and arms up away from the floor. Keep your knees straight, extending the legs straight back.
  • Keep squeezing your shoulderblades together onto your back to encourage the collarbones and chest to expand. Press your pubic bone gently into the floor but lift the skin of the lower belly up and back towards the spine to support the lower back.
  • On an exhale lower back to the floor to rest.

 

  1. Side-plank
  • Bring your right hand on the mat, just slightly in front of your shoulder. Spin the inner eye of your right elbow slightly forwards and unlock the elbow (if you tend to hyper-extend).
  • Stack your left foot on top of your right foot and flex the toes towards the kneecaps. Press down strongly through the right hand and blade of right foot to lift the hips up into the body and away from the floor.
  • You can bring your left hand to your hip or if balanced straight up towards the ceiling. Gaze slightly down towards the floor if you need for balance or for more challenge look towards your top hand.
  • A modified variation is to step the top foot in front like a kickstand to help with balance, or if the wrists are sensitive you can also practice this on your forearm.

 

  1. Dolphin
  • Bring your elbows and forearms to the floor. Check that the forearms are parallel and no wider than shoulder width apart with palms flat. If your shoulders feel tight or the elbows tend to splay outwards try interlacing the fingers instead.
  • On an exhale tuck your toes and pike your hips up and back towards the wall behind you. Press the forearms strongly down and forwards into the floor to lift the hips up and press the thighs back. Feet are hip-width apart, knees can be slightly bent if the hamstrings feel tight or the back is rounding.
  • Feel your shoulder blades move away from your ears and up towards your hips. Press the chest back towards the thighs to create length in your spine. Relax your neck, ears lining up with upper arms.
  • When you’re ready to release, bring the knees to the floor and rest in childs pose.

 

  1. Handstand variation against the wall
  • To measure the correct distance first of all, sit facing the wall with your legs stretched out in front of you, soles of feet pressing into the wall, hands down alongside your hips. Where your hands and hips are is where you need the hands to be for the handstand variation so now swivel around coming into downdog with your heels against the wall and the hands still in the same place.
  • Place one foot up the wall at the height of the hips. Press strongly into that foot straightening into the leg to bring the other foot up alongside it. Press the feet firmly into the wall, lifting the thighs to the ceiling to help prevent the feet sliding down. Press down strongly through your hands and arms, straightening your elbows.
  • Moving your shoulders away from your ears, draw your chest towards your thighs and relax your head and neck so you can look back towards the wall. The shape of your body is a right-angle, hips above shoulders and feet the same height as your hips.
  • This is a strong pose – you may only be able to hold it for a few seconds initially so build up slowly and enjoy the process!

 

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