No Crunches Needed: 3 Fresh Core-Strengthening Poses

When one envisions “core work,” it’s safe to say that the first image to pop into his or her mind are “crunches.” This is the classic core-conditioning exercise done lying on the back, knees bent, hands behind the head, and (ideally) the chin rising, and the elbows held wide. Even the US military, widely known for rigorous, top-notch physical conditioning of its service members, is

Woman practicing Yoga Core Strength Navasana Boat Pose

now recognizing that crunches aren’t the safest, most effective way to strengthen the core.         

The latest anatomical and exercise science understanding is that holding positions (read: poses) is better for long-term spinal health and more effective at building strength through the whole core, rather than just the transverse abdominus, the muscles that create what we know of as “washboard abs.” An important initial understanding here is, well, what are the “core” muscles?

This area of the body includes the musculature from the pelvis to the chest, the internal and external obliques (wrapping around the sides of the body), the erector spinae (running along the spine), the transverse abdominus (as mentioned), rectus abdominus, and more.

As a whole, this musculature allows the spine to twist, flex (fold forward), extend (bend backward), laterally flex (bend to the side), and rotate (twist). It powers us through our yoga practice and enables our everyday functioning.

A strong core is important for far more than just aesthetics—for looking good in a bathing suit. It’s key for optimum health, from smooth digestion to walking through the world with self-confidence. Let’s look at three variations on common yoga poses that will strengthen the core as a unit of individual muscles that work in concert, without contributing to back pain.

Spinal Balance in Parsva Balasana (Bird Dog Pose)      

1.Set up Bharmanasana (Tabletop Pose), coming to hands and knees with your shoulders over your wrists and hips over your knees. Make sure that your biceps are spinning forward and your hands are grounding evenly from inside to outside, heel to fingertips. If it’s difficult to have those things happening 

Man Practicing yoga hunting dog pose

simultaneously, rotate your hands a couple of inches outward toward the edges of your mat (as if you’re trying to open a stubborn jar with each hand).

2. Fix your gaze both forward and down, so that the back of your neck and your throat are as long as possible.

3. Raise your right arm up and forward, directly out of the right shoulder (no higher or lower). Spin the pinky edge down, so that your right palm faces inward (toward your head).

4. Raise your left leg straight back, toes flexing down as much as you can and the inner thigh spiraling upward.

5. Feel your belly scooping in and up toward your spine, so that your core keeps your back safe and your trunk stable.

6. Hold here for 5 to 10 breaths.

7. If you feel steady enough to move into a more challenging variation, move your right arm toward the right and the left leg to the left. Go to each side to the distance that’s accessible for you today. Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re going far, you’re still doing a lot for your core, your balance, and your body’s sense of its integration.

8. Bring your arm and leg back toward the midline of your body (so that they’re pointing forward and backward, respectively). Then drop them back down so that you can come back to Tabletop Pose.

9. Take circles through your torso, 5 to 10 in both directions.

10. Repeat the whole process on the other side (left arm going forward and right leg going backward).

3-Legged Phalakasana (Plank Pose) Variations        Woman practicing plank pose with one leg off the ground

1. Keeping everything the same in your hands and arms (shoulders over wrists, and biceps spinning forward and hands evenly grounded), as well as with the gaze (downward toward the floor), step your feet back to Phalankasana (Plank Pose).

2. To further stabilize your pose, feel your toes, and the heels of your hands draw together. Also, feel your tailbone draw toward your heels. Pull your belly in and up toward your spine. Stay here for three breaths.

3. Raise your right leg just an inch (not as high as you may think). Keep everything else the same. Breathe here for three breaths.

4. Then on an inhalation, draw your right knee into your chest, slightly rounding your spine as you do so. Hold this for three breaths. And, honestly, make sure that you continue to breathe!

5. Extend your right leg back and drop it back down, so that you’re again in Plank Pose.

6. All of that was a lot for your body to do! Take a rest if you need one, in Balasana (Child’s Pose) or some other restful pose.

7. When you’re ready, return to Phalankasana and take steps 3 and 4 with the left leg. Rest again, if your body tells you it needs it.

Vashisthasana (Side Plank Pose) Variations    Woman practicing yoga pose - side plank variation.    

1. From Plank Pose (from the guidelines above), roll onto the outside edge of your right foot. Stack your left hip on top of your right hip and raise your left arm to the sky so that your body faces the left.

2. If this feels like too much for you today, drop your right knee down and stack the right hip over that knee. If necessary, draw your right hand slightly backward so that your right shoulder remains over your right wrist.

3. Feel your tailbone draw toward your heels, just as in Plank Pose. Feel the top hip draw slightly forward, as it tends to draw slightly backward in this pose. Draw your belly in toward your spine.

4. All of this established, breathe here for two full breaths.

5. Take two full circles in each direction with your right arm, lubricating through your shoulder joint. This is a way to challenge yourself to hold the pose for a sustained amount of time, which is an effective and safe way to increase core strength. Keep breathing!

6. Shift back to Plank Pose, your torso facing your mat again.

7. Repeat all of the above on the outside edge of your left foot, so that your body faces the right.          

Woman practicing relaxing yoga pose - Supta Baddha Konasana

8. When all three poses are done, take a restful pose (such as Child’s Pose or Supta Baddha Konasana (Supine Bound Angle Pose) (photo right). Sense the strength you possess in your core center, and throughout you.

9. Continue with practice or move onward to the rest of your day, when you feel ready.

More yoga practice tips from YogaUOnline and Kathryn Boland: 4 Ways to Fit Yoga Into Your Day – No Leggings Required.

Yoga For Every Body: How to Adapt Poses for Different Situations and Conditions and Purposes a course from YogaUOnline and Olga Kabel.

Kathryn BolandKathryn Boland is an RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans – all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

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