This is why yoga works for improving core strength.
For a long time I was very confused about what core strength truly meant. In yoga classes, the cue “engage your core” didn’t mean anything, as I had no idea what to do or not do, which muscles to engage etc. Even more confusing was the idea that I had to keep my belly soft while engaging my core.
So I started looking into it and came across a booklet ‘Functional Pilates‘ and started to have a better understanding.
In summary, it explains two things – what core stability is and what it is not:
Core stability is NOT
- A six-pack (what I call our beach muscles)
- Being able to do several hundred sit ups
- Doing a plank for 5 minutes (although if done properly it does help strengthen your core)
- Being able to brace yourself in any position.
Core stability IS
- The ability to control the spine dynamically, that is during movement
- Fine coordination of all the muscles that control your trunk, not just the abdominal
- Creating a central base off which to work the limbs etc.
To understand better what we are dealing with, here is a bit of anatomy:
We need to differentiate between the outer unit (our movement muscles) and the inner unit or our postural muscles (the deep group of muscles that control the spine and pelvis). The outer unit is composed of the abdominal muscles, back muscles, buttocks and hip muscles (the picture below gives you an idea)
Notice that there are four layers of abdominal muscles, so we are pretty well equipped to be able to stand upright.
The inner unit are the deeper muscles: transversus abdominis, multifidus in the back, and the pelvic floor. They are called the postural muscles, and are trained very differently from the outer unit muscles (slow and many repetitions). Because our life style is essentially sedentary, the postural muscles don’t have to make any effort to hold us up, so they are weak.
In short, as soon as we are seated with our back supported, our postural muscles are turned off. Consequently, when moving or standing, our deep muscles fatigue easily and our larger muscles tend to take over, and obviously don’t do a great job since they are not designed to work for a long time. Lower back pain can be a result of this combined with short hamstrings for most of us, it’s a recipe for disaster in the medium to long term (slipped disks for instance).
As we tend to place so much emphasis on appearance, the outer muscles are often overtrained at the cost of the deeper muscles, and the back muscles forgotten all together. I am not saying we neglect the outer unit, but “a strong outer unit is only effective when it is supported by a strong inner unit”.
It makes sense right?, Everything needs to be balanced to work properly. Effectively, in yoga, balancing poses rely heavily on your deep muscles, so repeating a balancing pose over and over to improve your balancing skills will not be very efficient: rather, training your inner unit is your highway to improving your balance.
So if you have lower back issues, weak pelvic floor, or want to improve your core, I suggest you see a certified yoga instructor/Pilates instructor/physiotherapist of your choice, and make sure you are well educated on the matter to really understand the purpose of the exercises you are doing.
In the mean time, here is one of my videos to get you started. Over the next few weeks I will post other videos on Facebook for core strength that you can get inspired from (https://www.facebook.com/bettermeyoga/ ) and on Instagram.
Enjoy! Questions? email@example.com